India must embrace defence ties with the US, but also build other relationships

From Russia to Germany, we need an architecture of relationships that stand apart from China.

WrittenBy:David Devadas
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The speeches of the Russian and Iranian foreign ministers were two of the most gripping during this January’s otherwise lacklustre Raisina Dialogue. Both ministers said they preferred the Asia-Pacific to the Indo-Pacific, only Iran’s Javad Zarif said it with more zest, almost mockingly.

That was code for “we’re with China, not the US”, because the Asia-Pacific is what China calls the area it considers its primary sphere of influence. Indo-Pacific, anchored by India and the US at either end, denotes the region to which the US says its primary foreign policy focus had pivoted over the past decade or so, instead of cross-Atlantic Europe.

Both foreign ministers were keen to use India’s annual strategy talk-fest to warn India against committing more completely to the US’s plans for that pulsing heart of the neo-New World: the ancient lands around east Asia.

At the time, the Covid pandemic had already begun its deadly march in China and though the Modi-Trump bromance was about to go through another round of hoopla at Motera, India’s strategists were still engaging big powers with some degree of cautious balance. Then, the pandemic swept the world, and China sent vast numbers of troops and armaments to Aksai Chin, and built new airfields, missile silos, and communication installations all across its boundaries with India.

Now that India and the US have signed the last of four major “foundational agreements” for comprehensive cooperation in defence, India’s diplomats must tell its other friends, including both Russia and Iran, the plain fact that China has forced India into the US’s arms.

They all know that while the US has been increasingly eager for closer military ties with India over the past couple of decades, India was relatively cautious until China forced its hand. This week’s red carpet welcome and all-round enthusiasm for the US delegation are indications of how far west China has pushed India during the past six months.

Geography and the future

Why should India bother to reach out to Russia and Iran, one might ask.

Well, there’s geography to consider. The US is on the other side of the globe from India. It is more concerned about keeping Japan, Australia and Taiwan away from China’s influence, for they check China’s access to the Pacific. The only time the US has been attacked by another country was when Pearl Harbour was bombed from across the Pacific.

Historically, the Indian subcontinent has been attacked across the Hindukush. Iran and the southern steppes of Russia — not to speak of the Central Asian Republics and Afghanistan, for influence over all of which Russia, China, and Iran compete — are much closer to India. Much.

There’s also the future to consider. India must retain self-worth as at least potentially one of the world’s leading powers, not become a US satellite.

Continuing to purchase arms from both the US and Russia would make negotiations with both easier. And especially at a time when China, Pakistan’s “iron brother”, has been so belligerent, India must retain the goodwill of Pakistan’s other major neighbour, Iran — and the possibility of purchasing oil from Iran on good terms.

Web of relationships

So, instead of just slipping into an alliance system designed and managed by the US, India ought to build creatively on something Pompeo told an Indian interviewer: “There are things India can do which we can’t. There are things we can do that — we can achieve a lot together. We should be force multipliers.”

India should build an architecture of relationships that stand apart from China, even if all those relationships are not animated by animus against China. Through such a web of relationships, it could seek to draw countries like Russia and Iran away from China to the extent possible.

India must remember that whichever way the US elections turn out, the US’s current stridently anti-China foreign policy could change. Biden seeks to build bridges. And Trump could easily return to engaging China on a trade deal beneficial to the US.

So, to retain room for manoeuvre, India could seek to be a bridge between the Quad foursome (India, Japan, Australia, and the US) and at least Russia.

There’s Europe too. I am glad foreign secretary Harsh Shringla flew here soon after the American visitors left New Delhi. He is to interact with France, the UK, and Germany. Engaging Germany is particularly important, for German leaders seem as beguiled by trade ties with China as Indian strategists were until Chinese troops massed on the border.

Azerbaijan angle

India must emphasise to all these countries — even Russia and Iran — the immense danger to world peace from China’s aggressive mobilisation along India’s borders. After all, hasn’t it been the biggest war-related story of 2020?

No, wait! The last few weeks have brought even greater aggression by Azerbaijan against Armenia. And Azerbaijan is acting on the strength of Turkish support with Pakistani involvement, even if in Pakistan’s characteristic proxy mode.

Moscow and Tehran surely see that as a much more important war than any other this year, for both have deep and extensive interests in both Azerbaijan and Armenia. Naturally, both have been urging peace. Moscow even went to the extent of publicly urging the US to use its influence to bring about a cessation of hostilities.

The strategic objective of the violence in the south Caucasus is as much about embarrassing both Tehran and Moscow as it is about the future of the disputed Nagorno Karabakh region. India’s diplomats must emphasise to their counterparts around the world, particularly in Moscow and Tehran, that Pakistan is a satellite of Beijing, and Turkey too is a part of that constellation.

Turkey’s ambitions are not limited to that disputed patch of land alone. President Erdogan sees the world around him in terms of historical legacy, and is determined to grab back some of the glory of the Turkish Caliphate — if not outdo it. Historically, Turkey vied with the Austro-Hungarian empire to control the Balkans, and with the Russian empire to control the Caucasus, the scene of the current Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict.

Iran, just south of the Caucasus, has also historically controlled some areas that are now in the Caucasus, in Iraq, and in Turkey. Azerbaijan, with a long history of Persian links, has cocked a snook at Tehran by aligning so sharply with Ankara.

Tehran may be too tied up with fending off the effects of US sanctions to strive hard against Erdogan’s expansionist designs, but President Putin is certainly conscious of Russia’s empire days. That might make him easier to influence.

Limited elbow-room

One must acknowledge, of course, that India has relatively little elbow-room in light of China’s aggression, and the government’s unwise reluctance to spend adequately over the past few years to prepare for the defence of the country. Indeed, for all the opprobrium they heap on Nehru, India’s strategists — if we have any that are fit to be called that — don’t seem to have had any broad vision or architecture in mind for the defence of this vast country.

A large phalanx of them has been obsessed with Pakistan and has soaring ideas of righting a thousand years of perceived, and aggressively narrativised, wrongs. But they have ignored the big challenge, which former defence minister George Fernandes correctly and publicly identified at the beginning of this century as China.

It didn’t even seem to bother those would-be strategists that each of India’s neighbours opted to improve relations with China at the cost of relations with India. In the bargain, the country has lost the respect and good relations it had in its neighbourhood. They don’t even seem embarrassed by the fact that, instead of India leading its south Asian neighbours into a larger global alliance, the US Secretary of State and his deputy have been flying around south Asia to mend fences with India’s neighbours.

There is no time to waste. India must get earnestly down to weaving a complex web of dependable relationships.

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