January 17, 2021

Foreign Policy in Shambles

THE new year has begun with a sobering reminder that the foreign policy of the Modi government is in shambles and its pro-US approach has landed the country in a strategic cul-de-sac.

The outgoing ambassador of the United States, Kenneth Juster, has in a farewell speech put the Modi government on notice. After binding India in a series of military agreements, the United States will not countenance any strategic autonomy for the country. Juster has put the matter as forthrightly as possible in diplomatic terms: “In this security environment, it is worth considering how effectively one piece of equipment will integrate into a proper system and strategy, and whether the product purchased today will pave the way for – or preclude – future acquisitions of more sophisticated technology.”

After signing BECA, COMCASA and the Industrial Annex, all of which ensure interoperability and use of technology with conditionalities, the United States can now dictate what weapon systems and technology India can avail of. The Modi government has landed India in a trap.

India has signed an agreement to buy S-400 missile systems from Russia and has already paid an advance amount. The United States under the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) can sanction any country which buys military equipment from Russia. It has already sanctioned entities in Turkey, a NATO ally, for buying S-400 missiles.

In the words of Juster “…. as systems get more technologically advanced, country A that does not get along with country B, will be less willing to sell technology that could potentially get compromised to country B.” He further said, “we haven’t hit that point yet but that could come in the future…… there are trade-offs India has to decide (as to) how much it matters to get the most sophisticated technology, to be interoperable as it can be within its technology and potentially with other friendly forces.”

The United States is now working to close off all future weapons purchases from Russia by India. India is learning the price it has to pay for becoming a military ally of the US.

The ambassador also did not mince words in disapproving the Make in India and “atmanirbhar” policies of the government. The admonishment was clear – you must keep the interests of American MNCs and finance capital uppermost, otherwise, there will be no trade agreement.

The tough attitude to purchases from Russia may not change when the Biden administration takes over as it considers Russia a hostile adversary. The Modi government will have to earn a reprieve from CAATSA by probably giving more concessions to the Americans particularly by buying more expensive weaponry from them.

That this alignment is adversely affecting India’s traditional ties and friendships is evident. The Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, last month, termed the India-Pacific strategy and the QUAD as the western countries “aggressive and devious” policy to engage India in anti-China games and to “undermine our close partnership and privileged relations with India.”

By hitching itself to the Trump-Pompeo bandwagon against China, India is finding itself increasingly boxed in as other countries and major centres strengthen economic ties with China. On December 30, the European Union and China signed a Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) after protracted negotiations.

As a strategic commentator put it, “In geo-political terms, the CAI flags that Europe intends to be strategically independent. It shatters India’s foreign policy assumptions that Europe is preparing to join the US-led ‘Indo-Pacific’ strategy to contain China. The heart of the matter is that Europe is backing out of the US project for a binary world.”

With the Regional Comprehensive Economic Program (RCEP) signed earlier by Asia-Pacific countries, China is part of the biggest free-trade bloc in the world. China is the only major country to end 2020 with a positive growth rate and according to the OECD, China will account for around one-third of the world’s economic recovery in 2021.

India with its efforts to cut back on Chinese investments and bilateral trade is left at the margins.

In his last days as US secretary of State, Pompeo has issued a series of orders – amongst them are more sanctions on companies trading with Iran; restoration of the “sponsor of terrorism” status on Cuba; reiteration of support for a parallel President of Venezuela after elections to the National Assembly; condemnation of Vietnam for the sentencing of three journalists and removal of all restrictions on US officials’ contacts with Taiwan.

It is with such an odious figure that foreign minister, S Jaishankar struck a rapport and acted in concert to keep the illusionary Indo-Pacific region “free and open” for the United States to exercise its hegemony.

The uni-dimensional foreign policy has led to straining of relations with Iran, a traditional friend, by accepting US dictates on oil purchases; India has been futilely trying to check China’s growing relations with its South Asian neighbours and irritating them in the process; and its strategic alliance with the United States has reduced India to the status of Saudi Arabia in the non-aligned movement.

The advent of the Biden administration gives the government the opportunity to reset its ties with the United States and take steps to strengthen its strategic autonomy. If it does not, 2021 will continue to unfold the dismal consequences of the blinkered foreign policy and strategic approach of the Modi government.
(January 13, 2021)