Indo-Pacific

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)