India’s focus should be peace with China, not US military ties linked to sea row

The military partnership that India has embarked upon with the US has special focus on South China Sea. Their ‘dangerous handshake’ has sent a powerful message to China with which India has a long-standing border dispute. The move not only violates India’s non-aligned policy but also may face stiff resistance from parties. Since coming to power in May 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made many foreign policy blunders. As the leading South Asian nation, India has the responsibility to provide leadership to its immediate neighbors by settling the border dispute quickly and building peace and friendship with China.             

Considerable state-generated euphoria as well as concern prevail in New Delhi over India’s move toward a military partnership with the US focused on South China Sea. The US strategy is premised on ‘rebalancing’ power relations in Asia and shifts the strategic focus to China’s military postures in the South China Sea. US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter’s recent visit to India and Philippines assumes significance in this context.

US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter is greeted by Indian Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar during his recent visit to New Delhi

US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter is greeted by Indian Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar during his recent visit to New Delhi

The US has reason to be happy that India has agreed to militarily cooperate against China in the South China Sea region. However, it is not clear how India stands to benefit from the US’ hostile actions against China in a region which is not of direct strategic interest to India. Moreover, India has an unresolved border dispute with China which cries out for solution and prevents the two countries from mutual cooperation for human development.

India needs to focus primarily on internal socio-economic processes and prevent the emergence of religious and other conflicts in society. China is at least 50 years ahead of India in terms of economic and social development and India has much to learn from China.

Interestingly, in the recently revealed ‘Obama doctrine’, President Barack Obama derisively dismisses Pakistan as a failing state and has nothing to say on India. However, he makes a powerful intervention on the role of China in cooperating with the US in maintaining global order. He even hints at the possibility of a military conflict with China in which India may be involved given its emerging military partnership with the US.

Does India wish to participate in a global conflict? While the US is a global power, India remains at best a regional power with limited reach. There are several asymmetries between a superpower and an aspiring regional power.

Carter’s six- day visit to India and the Philippines indicated that the Pentagon would henceforward rely more heavily on military power to check China’s growing presence in the disputed South China Sea. Joint patrols with India near the region were also hinted at.

These activities would necessarily compel China to speed up its own military preparations to meet emerging contingencies.

Three “foundational” agreements that the US expects India to sign are intended to bind India close to the US militarily and make the weapons and equipment supplied ‘interoperable’.

These foundational documents are: Logistic Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), Communication and Information Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA) and Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA).

India has conveyed its approval in principle of the LEMOA. Discussions on the other two documents are to follow.

The joint statement issued by Carter and India’s Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar spelled out all the important points made in the original 2015 Vision statement issued by Obama and Modi. This included safeguarding maritime security and freedom of navigation and ensuring overflight throughout the region including South China Sea.

Naval cooperation is seen as the key element in the Indo-American embrace, which would send a strong message to China.

The two countries also plan to hold complex military exercises in air and sea with the Indian Air Force (IAF) participating in the Multilateral Red Flag exercise at Alaska in April-May 2016. In addition to the six projects already approved, two more projects under the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) would be added.

Before the Carter visit, two senior deputies from his office coordinated production in India of Lockheed Martin F16 and Boeing F/A-18 with Pentagon support. Transferring of assembly lines to India for producing flight jets indicates unprecedented technology sharing and coincides with ‘Make in India’ initiative of the Modi government.

Further, India’s Act East policy would meet the American Rebalance to Asia slowly but surely.

The US’ National Security Strategy, 2006 proposed a strong relationship between the US and India and said India is “poised to shoulder global obligations in cooperation with the US in a way befitting a major power.”

At the Raisina Dialogue in New Delhi in March 2016, US Admiral Harry B. Harris made a strong plea that India and the US must undertake joint military operations. But military operations against whom? Against China or Pakistan or other countries?

India does not have a declared national security strategy. It is not clear what it seeks to achieve from a military relationship with the US. Is it high technology, trade and good political relations with the US for its economic development? Or does it want to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group and achieve permanent membership of the UN Security Council?

The Carter visit seems to be a follow-up on the path-breaking 2015 Joint Strategic Vision Statement for Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region issued by Obama and Modi. The statement constituted a crucial departure for India toward a more positive relationship with Washington.

However, India and the US do not have a commonly shared world view. The US may be politically inimical to the emerging power of China but it has deeper economic ties with Beijing. The US and India differ on the issue of dealing with Pakistan.

Since assuming power, Modi’s attitude towards Pakistan and China has not been consistent. His flip-flops on the Pakistan policy have affected the prospects of bilateral talks. The visiting Joint Investigation Team (JIT) on the Pathankot terrorist attack (January 2016) has raised interesting queries which need an answer from India although JIT’s conclusions may not be acceptable to it.

Modi raised hopes for a border settlement when he visited China in May 2015. But he contented himself with a mere call to President Xi Jinping to reconsider China’s positions on major issues between the two countries.

Dorothy Woodman, the distinguished geographer, has observed after studying the maps produced by India and China, that there were ‘innumerable discrepancies’ in both. She affirmed that “any settlement would involve compromise”.

India’s unilateralism in dealing with the border dispute was not considered valid in international law.

There is evidence that the late Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who dealt with China on the border dispute in the 1950s and ‘60s, had been misguided by the Indian bureaucracy. Ramsay Muir has said: ‘Bureaucracy is like fire: indispensable as a servant; ruinous when it becomes master’.

The writer was Director of the Research and Policy Division of the Union Home ministry in the government of India and Director General of Police in Northeast India. He is the author of several books on conflict policy issues in government

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