Indo-Pacific

This is no soap opera that Russia would come and bail out India

(This is a reprint from NewsBred)

It’s not as much a matter of choice for India as it is for Russia. India media might be scripting a Russia factor in fractured Indo-China relations but you ought to know better.

India’s defence minister Rajnath Singh is in Moscow. The foreign ministers of two nations joined their Chinese counterpart for a virtual dialogue on Tuesday. Both are pre-arranged engagements, not an offshoot of Galwan Valley. Yet hopes are injected that Russia would play a peacemaker. I suggest you examine the evidence than suffer a hangover which is a druggie’s profile the morning after.

Sure, Russia is India’s biggest defence exporter. The two leaders Vladimir Putin and Narendra Modi share a rare warmth. They have reset economic ties to the extent that the target of $30 billion is revised to $50 billion by 2025. The two have a strategic partnership. Both need each other for trade corridors. Both have stood by each other on global forums. The two have not stopped liking each other in last seven decades.

But Russia is no big brother to India. India’s economy is more than twice the size of Russia. India’s arm buys are falling vis-à-vis Russia and leapfrogging with Israel, France, the United States etc. Tourism isn’t quite booming between the two nations.

On the contrary, Russia can’t do without China. Its’ trade with China is worth over a hundred billion dollars. It has a $400 billion energy deal with China. Both share a global vision in Indo-Pacific even though Russia, on its own, has little to lose on that sea expanse.  Both see in the United States an implacable rival. Both are looking after each other’s backs. You help us mate if submarines snarl in South China Sea. We look after you if NATO rolls down tanks in Eastern Europe. No formal pact, just a wink in the eye is good enough.

So, Russia could use its good offices to bring the two Asian adversaries on the table. But it can’t prevent a martial discord turning into a divorce. It doesn’t have that bargaining chip. If it was valued this big by China, the latter would’ve taken Russians into confidence before the Galwan Valley misadventure. And if they did take Moscow into confidence, and still went ahead, it’s worse.

It’s for Russia to plot its future in the 21st century. Its present woes began when it took control of Crimea after a referendum in 2014. The US-led sanctions in its wake are crippling.

It could choose to remember that India defended the referendum in Crimea while China didn’t.

It could turn a blind eye, if it wants to, China going big in elbowing it out in Central Asia which is so, so vital to Moscow.

It could choose to be a junior partner to China or retain the instincts which are genetic in a superpower.

It could ignore–if it could afford –the role India could play in linking the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) with Asian mass through Chabahar Port in Iran, now in India’s control.

It could miss, if it wants to, the critical role of India in the International North-South Trade Corridor (INSTC), a 7,200-km network of ship, rail and road which frees up Russian transportation across Europe, Central Asia, Armenia, Iran, Afghanistan up to India.

Nations today are guided by their own interests. Two countries could converge on one issue and diverge significantly on the other.  Russia discounts China’s role in the devastating Covid-19 spread on global forums but it has also shut its borders against China. Russia is indeed India’s friend for all seasons but it doesn’t stop them from selling arms to Pakistan and joining our arch rivals in military exercises since Afghanistan is vital. India too won’t let Russia come in the way of its growing convergence with the United States. But its adamant to buy S400 anti-missile system from Russia next year even though the United States is threatening crippling sanctions. There are camps, sure, but relationships are more fluid, unlike Cold War era. Look at Turkey, a member of NATO, but blackmailing Europe now and then on refugees.

So rejoice Russia is neutral but don’t expect them in your corner against China. Besides India itself is a power of considerable hulk. India’s issue with China won’t have a mediator. New Delhi would have to pack a punch of its own against China. Russia is no parent and India no child even though China decidedly is a bully. Call the bully out on your own. India could do it.

Indian media seeking Russia’s intervention is comical, if not tragic. On one hand you detest the United States offering mediation; on the other you seek one from Russia. It’s tragic for it betrays a sense of inferiority, a colonial hangover, which refuses to acknowledge India could hold its own. It distorts the immediacy India needs in its military preparedness. It injects a false sense of security.  It lets India down in its own eyes.

 

 

In case of war, would US rush to India’s defence?

(This is  reprint from NewsBred).

Behind their pandemic-induced masks, Indians have a floating question on their lips: What if China was to pour into India and spank us like it did in 1962.

Columns on military match-ups are box-office hits.  In today’s Mint, weighing scales have measured India and China on nuclear, submarines, armoured vehicles, boots-on-the- ground, everything. It assures readers we are better in inhospitable terrains, fighter jets and in shape thanks to our periodic pounding of Pakistan. It doesn’t look at the weight Pakistan could bring into equation but that’s okay. Indian soldiers are world’s envy for over a century for a reason.

Indians are also hopeful on the United States. That Trump and Modi would look after each other’s backs. This lack-in-self isn’t mindful that India’s nuclear arsenal is deterrent enough. We won’t be rolled over in a conventional war too.  Besides, still don’t have a formal military pact with the United States.

Sure, in last decade and a half, the US administration across presidents, and Indians between their Manmohan and Modi, have resembled two lost brothers who couldn’t have enough of each other. It began with access to military sheets (GSOMIA) but ramped up startingly under the Modi regime. An important threshold crossed was reciprocal logistical support (LEMOA) in 2016; and greater Indian access to US military technology (COMCASA) in 2018. The next stage is a deal for 2021 when US could share advanced satellite, intelligence and topographical information (BECA) with India. It would be huge, but not now.

The United States, as it is, has more military pacts than one could count. In the Indo-Pacific waters itself, it’s committed to come to aid of Japan, South Korea, Philippines, Australia and, a little beyond, New Zealand. Western Europe of course is a Biblical commitment in the form of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization). It’s extremely possessive about Central and Latin America and if in doubt, ask a Cuban.  In the Middle East, Israel and Saudi Arabia have the blank cheque of security. Since the Second World War, the United States has committed itself to defend a quarter of the world’s population. All are not cut-and-dried military pacts. But de facto, some 69 countries which is worth 75 per cent of world’s economic output, could claim a security umbrella festooned by Washington D.C.

Formal military pacts are dying trends. It forces counter alliances and the world is lit up in smoke as it happened during the First World War. Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire were committed to each other against France and Russia and Great Britain was forging secret alliances of its own in a skullduggery which remarkably has been kept hidden by the historians of Oxford who make up the history narrative of English-speaking schools.

So, sorry folks, a military pact between India and the United States isn’t happening all too soon. If the United States enters the Indian Ocean, be sure that China and Russia would commit themselves in equal measure. The US would have its military cooperation, sea drills and logistical shares with India. It designated India as a major defense partner in 2016 itself. The satellite and intelligence sharing under BECA (Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement) would be big on its own. It would be a game-changer in communications, navigational and threat assessment. India’s defence exports from the United States are second only to Russia. But don’t mistake it for a joint resistancce against an invader.

We’re in a fluid state. We are not at war with China.  Hotheads could spin it out of control for both, and Pakistan. Looking for the United States or Russia isn’t on the charts spread at military commands of the two Asian giants. Treat the two Cold War antagonists as proteins or steroids in a gym. The heavy-lifting is still left to us. Hopefully the worst is behind us. For the time being.

The lessons for India though are unmistakable. China doesn’t have our good in mind. We would know of the United States too if Russia holds firm and delivers us S400 missile system in 2021. Closer home, we need to free up our armed forces from stifling civil bureaucracy. If they want Rafale, that’s what they get. We have a huge lag and delay is not an option.

 

A muscular India gives its army a “free hand” to knock sense in China

(This is a reprint from NewsBred).

It would be a grave misjudgement to believe that China has walked over India in a physical showdown in Galwan Valley in eastern Ladakh on Monday.

If nothing, ask the Chinese who made moves in lockstep over the last few weeks to test India’s nerves and found a nation mature in diplomacy and dare in equal measure.

India has used velvet gloves against a petulant Nepal which thumbed its nose on borders but didn’t elicit a raging anger from New Delhi that would’ve played into the hands of its puppeteer, China. India knows, as does Nepal, that the latter can’t survive without India’s open borders. Simply, the land-locked nation would run out of essential supplies. A manufactured border dispute has no future but for headlines and talk shows.

China meanwhile had crossed the Line of Actual Control (LAC) at four different points in Ladakh, agreed for de-escalation but then stayed put when the two armies were to pull themselves back by a few kilometres. India would have none of an enemy’s forward-post left standing inside the Galwan Valley which belongs to India. It didn’t backdown from a physical combat either since arms and ammunitions are avoided by the two neighbours in sensitive stretches of border running into thousands of kilometres.

Now has come the news that Indian Army has been empowered to act as per the ground situation without looking for directions from New Delhi. In other words, the Indian Army has been freed from political constraints. It’s an unambiguous message to Beijing that they are now in the wilds. That your superior nuclear stockpiles, defence spending or armaments wouldn’t be of much aid if it’s bare knuckle fight. So, if it’s to fists, stones and clubs now, may the best man win. There is no referee.

Indian Express has quoted an army source thus: “Army has been given emergency powers for deployment there as per needs and new situations without looking towards Delhi…We have to demonstrate our strength on the ground…there is no need to show aggression, only our strength.”

This would put China in a spot. Either they shove the conventions and turn it into an armed combat. Or they pull themselves back as they did in Doklam in 2017. Or they escalate which wouldn’t go unnoticed to a concerned world. It’s a massive show of intent from Modi’s India which is largely consistent in its zero-tolerance approach on nation’s sovereignty and integrity.

It’s not like South China Sea where the Middle Kingdom has usurped islands, sea tolls, reefs and banks overriding neighbours protests. China could not only carry through the bluff but were assured of its efficacy by the mumbled response of the affected. India seems determined to call out the bully. It’s not the semi-autonomous Hong Kong, a cowering Taiwan or a Vietnamese fishing boat you could sink to the floor of the South China Sea.

China clearly is upset at India’s assertions in recent months. India has signed a pact with Australia in the middle of the pandemic which would give teeth to QUAD (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) between four democracies of Indo-Pacific: the United States, Japan, Australia and India itself. It has openly given a call to multinationals to shift their operations to India, a blow to China where it hurts the most. It has decided to screen the foreign investments beyond the FDI regulations. It now heads World Health Organization (WHO) which is to take call if China was complicit in hiding the truth on Corona Virus pandemic. It hasn’t helped the matter that Taiwan, which Beijing is paranoid about, could have “observer” status at WHO on pandemic deliberations. Then we have an expanded G-7 group of nations where India is to be included but no invitation has gone out to China

India has an uncontested control of Galwan Valley, between Ladakh and Chinese-occupied Aksai Chin, since 1962. It suffers from poor infrastructure in a hilly terrain unlike China which makes use of the flat Tibetan plateau to carry its road and highway network unhindered. India in contrast has to cross several mountains to access the LAC. It’s only natural that India wants to secure its borders. China would either have to give up the encroachments or face consequences, no less economic. There is a groundswell of consensus to boycott Chinese goods. The little matter of Huawei 5G also hangs in the balance.

There is little doubt China faces uncommon heat across continents. Pushback against its over-arching reach has already begun in Africa and Southeast Asia. Unemployment is unprecedented. Economic woes are spiralling. The world is a hostile theatre after China’s machinations on pandemic which has set the world back by a generation in economic terms. Its present misadventure in Ladakh is an undisguised diversionary tactics.

There is little doubt Indo-China relations would freeze in near future. It would bring Pakistan in closer ambit of China. India, on its part, would have the United States in its drawing room. Distrust between the two main powers of Asia would now run deep. Russia is a common friend which could find its loyalty divided.

India is better served shifting horses midstream in Middle East

(This is a reprint from NewsBred).

India has not quite yet changed the horses midstream but it seems to have asked its’ two important guests to to lend a shoulder for it to shift its’ diplomatic destiny in 2020 and beyond.

Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javid Zarif were in Delhi yesterday and met their Indian equivalent Dr. Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, as well as Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, to help India fit in in the diplomatic attire it now wants in the Middle East.

India has been alarmed with the duplicity of its professed friend United States which hosted a 2+2 meeting (foreign and defence ministers of the two nations) for India in Washington last month but gave no inkling of the assassination it had planned for Iranian General Qassem Soleimani within days which has bloodied and disfigured India’s domestic and foreign interests.

India stunned by US betrayal

India has been snuggling up to Saudi Arabia and Israel, and downgrading its commitment to Iran, for some time now which was viewed as pointers to its closeness to the United States.  But now this presumption has been torn to shreds: Not only United States shrouded a dagger in its sleeve but in the wake of General Soleimani’s assassination, it chose to call up Pakistan’s army chief General Qamar Bajwa while ignoring India’s top brass completely. Even Donald Trump, who never tires of terming Modi as his dear friend, didn’t bother to ring up the Indian prime minister. All that bonhomie of last few years between the two amounted to nothing. To rub further salt into India’s wounds, the State Department has now announced the resumption of US-Pakistan military co-operation.

India’s domestic compulsions are no less compelling. It has mounting energy bill from the Middle East which could hit sky if the region descends into chaos. It would only add to India’s present economic woes. It also has to worry about its 8 million large diaspora in the Middle East—and many more if one counts their families back home–which sends a sizeable remittance of $40 billion every year. India also has the second-largest Shia population in the world, 45 million by the last count, which is furious by Gen. Soleimani’s assassination: Down United States and pro-Iran slogans have been witnessed in Kargil, a part of erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir state.

It’s also pretty apparent that Iran is the umbrella under which anti-US sentiments in the Middle East has now grown to a feverish pitch in the Middle East. Iran’s militia proxies operate from the bases of most nations of the region and its’ missile strike at two airbases in Iraq last week showcased that Iran doesn’t need to be a nuclear power to inflict damage on the United States.

India has begun to warm up to Iran

India has been on a course-correction vis-à-vis Iran for a few weeks now. It refused to be part of a global naval alliance which the United States had called upon to secure the Persian Gulf. India was startled when Iran, in conjunction with Russia and China, launched a joint naval exercise from the Chabahar port in response for four days last month. It was a sure sign that Iran has important friends and the Chabahar port in which India has invested so heavily and yet ignored under the US pressure, could slip out of India’s grasp. Chabahar essentially allows India to maneuver in its extended neighbourhood. A strong Iran is also a good bet against Islamic State (IS)—buoyant now that its sworn enemy General Soleimani is dead—who could unleash terror against India’s interests in the Middle East and closer home.

India would hope its old friend Russia is a good bet to mend its’ fences with Iran as it looks to align its’ interest in the Middle East of now. Russia is now a force and an arbiter in the Middle East, a stabilizing presence against a chaotic and war-mongering United States. It has ears of diverse and even conflicting forces of the region, be it Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria or Saudi Arabia, Israel and Libya.

It’s in this respect that India gave a full-throated welcome to Lavrov. Lavrov, and Zarif, on their part, would be equally keen to return the Indian warmth. Russia is now ambitious to have a presence in Indo-Pacific—as Lavrov’s comments in Sri Lanka on the eve of his India visit testify—and Iran shares too deep historical and cultural ties with India to stay away for too long.

The United States sent its own two important functionaries on the occasion: Deputy national security adviser Matthew Pottinger—a known-China baiter and Alice Wells, assistant secretary for South and Central Asian affairs. But theirs was a sideshow, neither gaining audience from India’s big men nor securing any guarantee that India still has positive lens on the United States.

(A modified version of this piece was published in rt.com).

 

Who’s US to tell India what weapons it must buy for its’ own defence?

(This is a reprint from NewsBred).

I was seven when the United States sent its nuclear-powered Seventh Fleet to Bay of Bengal to scare India during the 1971 Indo-Pak War. Nearly half a century on, it’s making a similar growl, though financial in kind, to freeze India from buying the S-400 missile system from Russia. India, like in 1971, couldn’t care less.

The State Department has warned India of economic sanctions under CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act ) if it went ahead with its buy which India’s military has eyed so longingly for so long. The US appears no wiser to the snub which New Delhi had delivered on secretary of state Mike Pompeo on the same matter six months ago.

The United States might think it’s indispensable enough to wag a finger at India but it’s no better than grand-standing by a fading superpower which thinks the world is still its oyster and its “friends” are no better than courtiers in attendance.

India doesn’t need to flip the history pages to know how the United States has stood down its friends over the centuries. From the day it was born in 1776 when it roped in and then dumped indigenous Delaware Indians in its war against the colonialist British, to the modern times when the likes of Ferdinand Marcos (Philippines), Manual Noriega (Panama), Saddam Hussein (Iraq), Muammar Gadaffi etc come flashing to mind, used and then disposed of, the United States hasn’t been a long-abiding friend with anyone.

Sure, it has strategic Anglo-Saxon brotherhood with UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand and Mexico is always secure but the United States, by temperament, prefers client-states or vassals. Further, there is no Soviet Union for them to over-extend themselves in pursuit of Global Liberal Order. It is now disengaging itself from the world theatre and be it NATO, Turkey, Japan, Israel or Saudi Arabia all feel abandoned by their big brother from time to time. Remember the drone attack on Aramco when Saudis looked for askance from the US and got nothing in return?

Indo-Pacific and the Great Game

Thus India not only has the historical precedent to judge how convenient the United States is as an ally but it also has the chutzpah to know of its own relevance in Indo-Pacific and the abiding interest it holds for the United States. Since 2016, Council on Foreign Relations which reflects the US foreign policy, rates India as one of the most important piece in its’ global jigsaw.

It’s not to say India doesn’t need the United States for its multiple needs, not the least for its secure borders. Its’ overall trade with the United States was worth $84 billion in 2018. It also has a defence logistics sharing pact –the Agreement on Reciprocal Logistics Support (ARLS)– with the United States.

But Russia and S-400 is another thing. India signed a $5 billion deal with Russia in 2018 to buy five systems of this missile whose capability has the NATO in thrall. India signed this deal last year even as the US sanctions against Russia were in place. The S-400 system can shoot four different missile types, forming a near impassable interlocking grid of missiles. These missiles can’t be electronically jammed and its’ range could take care of almost 40,000-feet-high threats in the air. It’s an invaluable buy.

Besides, India has for decades been buying its arsenal from Russia and the fresh buys thus don’t usually have the compatibility issues. Not only the US arms are more expensive, but it’s also not so willing to sell its advanced weapons to India as Russia is. Russia also is an important natural gas provider to India’s monstrous energy needs.

US and its Catch-22 dilemma

 When the first system of S-400 is delivered to India this year—all are slated to be provided by 2024—it could be that the United States might enforce a few economic sanctions. After all, it did end India’s special trade privileges last year in a bid to force New Delhi’s hands in importing more goods. But it would be no better than a slap on the wrist. A hard measure could actually come back to bite the United States for it could halt its own major arms supplies to India, including prime weapons such as F-35 which it has been hard-selling to India for some time now.

Instead of threatening India from an assumed position of an indispensable ally, it would help the United States to work out the tariff dispute—a miffed US president Donald Trump calls India “tariff king”–and keep its Indian friends in good humour. India is too important to be sacrificed in haste, certainly not with the empty rhetoric of a ban in case the S-400 missile is acquired by India. The United States has no option but to keep the pretence of being an “ally” going with India.  

(This first appeared as an OpEd in rt.com)