SOONER rather than later, India will have to take a stand against the dictates of the US security and state department. The former is forcing India to sign COMCASA and the latter is asking it to adhere to the 2017 enactment of the US Congress for ‘countering America’s adversaries through the imposition of sanctions for engaging with the Russian Federation’s defence sector’. The two departments are mounting pressure on India to capitulate and tow the US policy designed to counter the Sino-Russian combine. The US establishment is also reminding India that junior partners in the strategic alliance cannot enjoy the luxury of strategic autonomy.
The Trump administration is making it amply clear to Modi government that just as Pakistan a non-NATO ally of the US, a part of CENTO was prohibited from have any truck with Russia, similarly India too would have to break all its linkages with its erstwhile strategic partner. Building strategic networks in India is simple for the Americans because, over the years, the Indian elite (inspired by Hollywood) has craving for the US war machines.
The two-pronged US strategic attack is primarily aimed at making India abandon Russia, its trusted defence partner for years and become completely dependent on American military software and hardware. Both COMCASA and CAATSA aim to ensure that India buys the US military systems or the ones that are approved by the Pentagon. This is essential for the US to track the movement and use of these military platforms both during war and peace. The Russian made S-400 long-range surface-to-air-missiles (SAM) that India intends to purchase cannot be integrated into the US military networks. The Boeing P8I (Poseidon Eight India) Long Range Maritime Patrol aircraft that India procured from the US in 2015 is fully interoperable in the US military eco-system but the remote-control of the S-400 SAMs from the US command and control centres is not feasible. Furthermore, in an Artificial Intelligence (AI) driven warfare, S-400 would be recognised as a foe by the US forces and therefore, liable to be shot down and vice versa. According to experts, if India procures the US-made F-35 fighter jets then it would not be able to operate both the US aircraft and the missile in the same environment.
The S-400 is being projected as the current reason for Indo-US discord. India intends to procure at least five missiles from Russia and the US is dissuading it from investing in the Russian military hardware, in order to avoid US sanctions. India is begging the US for a waiver. The drama is on in the media and is likely to end during the inaugural 'two-plus-two dialogue' between India and the United States, at New Delhi, attended by the US secretary of state Mike Pompeo and defence secretary James Mattis. The US is likely to grant India a one-timer waiver to purchase S-400 from Russia, this would help the Indian negotiators to claim that they have preserved India’s strategic autonomy and its time-tested relationship with Russia. The US has already given the Indian elite a reason to cheer by cancelling the $300 million so-called ‘aid’ package to Pakistan. The 'two-plus-two dialogue' will end with media projecting it as an Indian victory but what will remain obscured and undiscussed will be the price India is paying to be part of the US strategic network.
In the mid 1950s when Pakistan was incorporated into the American military network, the US used to appease Pakistani elite by raking up Kashmir issue in the UN General Assembly or by promising them latest weaponry. The US has been fooling Pakistani elite with crumbs while forcing them to mortgage their military.
For more than six decades Pakistan has lived under the illusion that “America needs Pakistan more than Pakistan needs America.” A misperception that led Jinnah to smugly assert in an interview to Life magazine, “the frontier on which the future position of the world revolves... Pakistan is the pivot of the world.” Using Russian communism and Indian threat as a pretext, Jinnah and successors in Pakistani polity willingly collaborated with imperialism. Now, it is the turn of gullible Indian elite to be deluded into believing that mortgaging national military force to the US would make India powerful. India’s integration into the Indo-Pacific strategic scheme driven by the US is already being seen as a sign of India’s strategic importance and strength.
There are no discussions either in the government or outside it as to what it will entail being a major participant in the Indo-Pacific game. How much will it cost us to build maritime assets and networks across the region? Building the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) community costs a lot of diplomatic efforts and capital – does India possess the capacity to invest in making the Bay states to seriously consider a ‘comprehensive’ security architecture in their shared littoral?
Smaller countries in the region are eager to grab huge Chinese investments to bring in modern infrastructure; they have little time to wait for the Indian connectivity projects that take ages to fructify. India, a $2.5 trillion economy has very little to spare in trying to compete hard with China, a $12 trillion economy that has enough surplus capital and capacity to invest in other countries. The Chinese are expanding and launching connectivity projects to build new markets for its projects. India, on the other hand, is clearly looking for power and not markets in the region. It is talking connectivity without having enough products to move on new routes.
If it is difficult for India to prevent the Bay countries from being lured by the Chinese Yuan, then how does India expect to be a major player among ASEAN and IOR countries? The India strategists are talking about reaching Vietnam when they do not have enough to manage their relationship with Maldives. India is busy sending warships to the Maldives when it is looking for money to improve its infrastructure. The mismatch is getting reflected in the downward trajectory of the ties between the two countries. Recently the Maldives celebrated with great fanfare the inauguration of the “China-Maldives Friendship Bridge” that starts from Malé’s eastern edge to the western corner of the island of Hulhulé, where the airport is located. The Chinese have given a grant of $116 million for the building of the $200 million Bridge that is two kilometres long. Ironically, the Indian embassy in the Maldives did not participate in the event, which the Maldivian government described as “the biggest achievement in our diplomatic history".
The problem is that the Indian foreign policy establishment under Prime Minister Modi is largely security oriented. It is very clear that the US does not want to spend its own money in the Indo-Pacific, it is encouraging the regional actors in the Quadrilateral (QUAD) to bring their assets to the table. The US demands to make Quad more lethal and effective are likely to increase in the coming years; this will put an additional burden on Indian defence expenditure. How will our involvement in QUAD impact our relations in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO)? More important how will our strategic ties with the US impact our civil-military relations when our military assets are remotely controlled from the US Command Headquarters? However, the problem is that neither our government nor our strategic community, bent on acquiring power, is interested in addressing hard questions. Our elites’ propensity to punch above its weight, often makes us end up as a strategic sucker.