The US’ successful engagement and subordination of India must rank amongst some of its most sublime diplomatic achievements. It originated in a profound diplomatic manoeuvre, with deep strategic connotations, in President Clinton’s second term when he “dehyphenated” US policy towards India and Pakistan. The US thus started engaging both countries, independent of one another, to pursue US interests in Asia, the Indian and Pacific Ocean Regions (I&POR) and specifically to contain a vibrant and rising China.
From an avowed position of studied non-alignment, India was masterfully and shrewdly transformed into a strategic ally of the US, proclaimed a Major Defence Partner (MDP) and not surprisingly, turned into a huge market for the US’ insatiable military-industry complex and multinationals. This paradigm shift, in India’s geopolitical, geostrategic and geo-economic orientations was stunning in effect and portended far reaching ramifications. It totally rubbished India’s non-alignment pretensions, pushed Pakistan and China into a tighter embrace and polarised the South-Central Asian Region (SCAR) irretrievably. India was made to believe that it could, in reality, be a credible counterweight to an emerging China, a colossus of global dimensions. It could not have felt prouder or more self-important!
The US objective is apparently to contain and circumscribe China’s global ambitions and sphere of influence by stunting its economic and military growth through a belligerent and bellicose India.
India’s key vulnerability lay in its unbridled, megalomaniac, national fixation on being recognised and accepted as a major regional and global power – despite its so obvious lack of credentials thereof. This weakness was sensed and exploited to the hilt by each US President since Bill Clinton. Each Indian PM since too fell for the ruse, line, hook and sinker; none more than the ultra-supremacist, PM Modi. Multiple steps were taken to appease and massage India’s bloated ego. In addition to being elevated as a strategic ally and an MDP, it was celebrated as the world’s largest democracy, promised support in its ambitions to become a Permanent Member of the UNSC, awarded a singular albeit blatantly discriminatory Indo-US Nuclear Deal and granted special waivers from the Nuclear Suppliers Group. It was made a member of many international regimes like the MTCR, the Wassenaar Agreement, the Australia Group etc. Numerous bilateral agreements/MOUs were signed in the defence, security and transfer of defence technology domains. India was made a part of the Quadrilateral Alliance along with Japan and Australia. Numerous military exercises were held with the US and its allies to achieve compatibility and ominously, “interoperability”. The US (and Israel) continue to sell India hi-tech arms, equipment and weapon systems worth billions of dollars.
India was ripe for the taking.
India was thus reared, armed, equipped, and primed to challenge, manage and contain an emerging China. It readily mustered to US ranks. With the stage set, the next US step would ostensibly have been the implementation of the US’ oft repeated strategy of “Offshore Balancing” (OB). (‘Outsourcing conflicts’ by this scribe, The Nation, August 2, 2017). “OB is a strategic concept whereby a great power uses favoured regional power(s) to check the rise of a potential hostile power – at minimum cost to itself” (US in the Iran-Iraq war 1980-88 and the continuing KSA-Iran standoff, for example). Similarly, India was to be pitched against China; in pursuit of ostensible “common” Indo-US strategic interests. Alice Wells, the former Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, endeavoured to create a “common cause” between the US and India vis a vis China, when she attempted to directly link the strategic environments in the South China Sea and on the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
However, events may have pre-empted and badly disrupted the US-India combine’s time and space matrix.
PM Modi clearly blundered into a strategic faux pas when he “annexed and usurped” the internationally recognised disputed territories of IOJ&K and Ladakh. He antagonised China and Pakistan simultaneously and rather prematurely. He had obviously not thought his strategy through to its logical end, misreading the strategic ramifications of his actions. The timing of the effort turned out to be atrocious. The international environment was not conducive to any warmongering, especially in the most sensitive nuclear flashpoint on earth. Furthermore, the Indian military still does not have the requisite capacities and capabilities to achieve a credible strategic balance with China, let alone with China and Pakistan combined!
Moreover, the coronavirus pandemic and Election 2020 have completely preoccupied President Trump. He is unlikely to have time or patience for any distractions anywhere, much less between belligerent nuclear powers like India and China and potentially Pakistan. Much to India’s rank disappointment, President Trump, instead of siding with India in the latest face off on the LAC with China, has offered to mediate between the two – adopting an unambiguous, statesmanlike, neutral stance.
PM Modi presently finds himself clearly stuck between a rock and a very hard place.
However, the OB model raises some very serious issues in this dangerously evolving strategic environment. How well will it work in the Indo-China context, in an essentially unexplored nuclear environment? Will the nuclear thresholds remain intact throughout the confrontation? Will the US ever be able to strengthen the Indian military enough that it could realistically take on China on a multidimensional battlefield and prevail, even if a possible two front scenario is discounted? In a hypothetical Indo-China war, will the US at any stage intervene to tip the balance India’s way, and potentially precipitate WWIII? Whose war is India willing to fight against China, anyway? Is it not already a lost cause? India must seek clarity on this issue. The Indian economy may not be able to sustain a massive war effort any time soon. The gusto, verve and elan that the Indian Army is currently displaying had better be well grounded.
The US has skilfully manoeuvred India into a strategic cul de sac and is now increasingly imposing its will on it. Hopelessly caught in the power dynamics of a super power in decline and one on the rise, India may soon be running out of viable, sensible options.
The writer is a retired Brigadier from the Pakistan Army.