Bottomline | Diffident Dialogue

At its own party, India found itself alone and defensive

Pravin SawhneyPravin Sawhney

At the recently concluded Raisina Dialogue few essential messages were received, understood, appreciated and acknowledged. India’s enthusiasm to shape the emerging Asian security architecture — by ignoring Pakistan and positioning itself as China’s rival — was not reciprocated by its foreign partners. China’s message that India join its ambitious Asian and global connectivity project got a lukewarm response from Delhi.

The United States’ message that the Indian Navy move beyond joint exercises to joint operations for freedom of seas in the Indian and Western Pacific Oceans sent Delhi scurrying for cover. And Pakistan was not found fit enough by India to be mentioned in the regional context let alone join its Asian and global connectivity debate.

The first Raisina Dialogue tipped as India’s flagship conference engaging with geopolitics and geo-economics was organised by the Observer Research Foundation in collaboration with the Union ministry of external affairs. Held from March 1 to 3 in New Delhi, it had two themes: To assess prospects and opportunities for Asian integration and Asia’s integration with the world, and to examine India’s vital role in the Indian Ocean Region. To understand why the Dialogue was flaccid, it is necessary to appreciate the perspective of key players who participated in the Raisina conclave.

The United States was represented by the US Pacific Commander, Admiral Harry Harris responsible for security of the Asia-Pacific region. He proposed that the US and Indian navies move from joint exercises to joint patrols (operations). This set the cat amongst the pigeons. India had perhaps not applied itself that joint patrolling was the natural outcome of joint exercises it had been doing on sea, land and air with the US Pacific Command since 1992. Moreover, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had taken the decisive step of signing the ‘Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean Region’ with the US President Barack Obama’s during his India visit in January 2015.

Explaining the rationale of the Joint Strategic Vision, the US ambassador to India, Richard Verma had told the Indian Defence Services Staff College on 24 August 2015, that “both of our countries affirmed that our belief in regional prosperity depends on ensuring freedom of navigation and over flights throughout the region, especially in South China Sea.” Admiral Harris had merely translated the unambiguous political declaration by suggesting joint patrols, a definitive next step towards interoperability. However, for India, which has been unable to develop interoperability within its three defence services — army, navy and air force —, forging interoperability with the US forces was not understood by its political leadership. What was understood was that joint patrols especially in South China Sea, far away from India’s backyard, would annoy China, leading to unpredictable military and economic consequences.

Within days, Admiral Harris’ call for joint patrols was shot down by the defence minister, Manohar Parikkar saying that India was not considering such a move. Leading Indian commentators expressed consternation at US’ penchant for public diplomacy. It was argued that the Modi government, unlike the earlier Manmohan Singh government, had been audacious in reaching out to the US and Japan. However, it would prefer quiet rather than public diplomacy conducted by Admiral Harris.

It was lost on these apologists that joint patrols, one, cannot be done quietly, and two, public display of collective military intent is essential for deterrence. An anxious Admiral Harris, harried by China’s unstoppable military build-up in South China Sea, was merely calling on India to move on an agreement it had signed in January 2015.

In an exclusive one-on-one with me in February 2015 in New Delhi, Admiral Harris had explained the strategic and operational rationale for military exercises leading to joint patrols between the US and India.

“India is the centre of gravity in the Indian Ocean,” the admiral had said in the message which could not get clearer. To make sure that I had not missed his cardinal point, the admiral added, “North Korea keeps me up at night, while I think about their (Chinese) navy all the time.” “China cooperates and provokes at the same time. I welcome and applaud the positive things, for example, their (PLAN) anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden and the Horn of Somalia, their help in the search for MH-60. On the other hand, their land reclamation (in South and East China Seas), and air defence zones are provocative issues,” he explained. “We have to be prepared for the worst case scenario,” he suggested with reference to Chinese provocations.

Admiral Harris

Specific to India, Admiral Harris told me that: “Our security relationship is very valuable for us. I think India’s Act East policy and Indian Navy’s entrance into the Western Pacific are very important developments.” The admiral was referring to the first-time participation of an Indian naval ship in RIMPAC 2014 exercise in Hawaii where a total of 23 nations, 47 ships, six submarines, about 200 aircraft and nearly 25,000 personnel had participated. The aim of this largest maritime exercise in the world was safety of sea lanes and security of world oceans. “Moreover, Malabar exercise (between India and US navies) had Japan this time. It was a complex and intense exercise where interoperability was achieved,” he added.

When I prodded the admiral further, he moved into the operational realm and said, “India played an important role in RIMPAC and we are looking at interoperability as the endgame. This is not necessarily for combat environment, but for the highest level of military warfare, so that we are able to operate together, if required.”

Admiral Harris

Interoperability is the ability of two armed forces to operate together in combat environment with ease as one whole. This helps strengthen deterrence, manage crisis, shape battlefields and win wars. Interoperability starts with commonality of equipment, which India and the US navies are acquiring. For example, the P-8I with the Indian Navy bears a similarity to US’ P-8 which would help in Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) sharing. However, to deepen commonality of equipment, the US had, in 2012, proposed the Defence Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI) and a few fundamental agreements. Two important ones being, the Logistics Operations Agreement (LSA) and the Communication Interoperability and Security Memorandum Agreement (CISMOA).

The DTTI would ease US’ technology transfer to India through co-research and co-production of equipment. However, to ensure that the DTTI does not remain limited to low level technology exchanges with India, the signing of CISMOA, which would help in advanced data exchanges, becomes necessary. Once this is done, the LSA, which would allow both navies to use each other’s facilities for docking, rest and relief and replenishments would help to work together. The two agreements have been hanging fire since a decade, and Obama administration officials are in talks with Modi government for their early resolution. In his address at the Raisina Dialogue, Admiral Harris spoke about early conclusions of DTTI, LSA and CISMOA.

The next step for interoperability is mission compatibility which is intrusive and intensive. In this, the two militaries understand each other’s doctrines, force structuring, operational planning, and art of war through regular visits and joint patrolling. The last step is familiarity with terrain where combat is expected, which, in the case of India and the US would be the entire Asia-Pacific region for the two navies followed by the two air forces. Once achieved, interoperability will bring standardisation, integration, cooperation and synergy.

For instance, Pakistani and Chinese armies and air forces have achieved interoperability, unmatched even by US-NATO alliance at the height of détente in the Seventies when the Soviet Union threat to Western Europe was at its peak. Even the two navies have taken steps in this direction with proposed acquisitions of eight Chinese submarines by Pakistan.

To enlarge the interoperability envelop further into the future, Admiral Harris, at the Raisina Dialogue mentioned the need for regular security dialogue between four democracies — the US, India, Japan and Australia — which believe in the present security architecture in the Asia-Pacific and hence the freedom of navigation.

 Li ZhaoxingThe above is part of US’ rebalancing to Asia. Admiral Harris has earlier told me that: “Rebalancing is real. By the end of 2020, the US will have 300 ships, 60 per cent of which will be in the Pacific (55 per cent are presently in the region), while 60 per cent of US submarines are already here. We will invest in new capabilities and strengthen our alliances and partnerships.” This is not all. “We will have a forward presence when it comes to humanitarian needs and for this we will have bilateral readiness training programmes with various countries (notably India),” he had added.

China’s viewpoint at the Raisina Dialogue was articulated by its former foreign minister, Li Zhaoxing who expostulated on the ambitious Belt and Road (B&R) project unveiled in 2013. He said that B&R is “not a concept but a result-oriented project which seeks to improve existing infrastructure.” In an oblique reference to the ‘China Pakistan Economic Corridor’ which is the flagship of the B&R, Li disclosed that China has given priority to its neighbourhood to improve ‘infrastructure and manufacturing in South Asia.’ Making a case for transparency, inclusiveness, joint consultations for a win-win situation with nations participating in B&R, Li made a strong pitch for strategic and economic partnership between China and India. According to him, China and India should assess how their connectivity projects encapsulated in the B&R and Act East policy could be fused for mutual gains.

Abandoning its earlier stance (which has run its course) when China saw India as a rival in Asia, it today wants deeper cooperation in trade and commerce with it. This somersault is the consequence of the deftly crafted bilateral treaties on the contentious border dispute by China, whereby it holds all the cards. From a time when China was willing to discuss border resolution through exchange of territory, it today wants it all — from Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh. Its unabated border transgressions are a constant reminder of India’s diminutive political will and military power. Instead of managing an aggressive China on the border row, India pretends that border transgressions are done by both sides, which is not true.

Sushma SwarajIndia’s appeasement policy has encouraged China to boldly extend its footprints into the Indian Ocean Region. From its ‘string of pearls’ strategy of the Nineties which was primarily military, China has transformed it into the Road project (B&R), which, predominantly economic, has huge geopolitical and military implications. Using its economic power, (China is the second largest global economy with expectant medium to high growth rate) China has endeared itself to India’s neighbours, who unhappy with India’s big-brotherly attitude have welcomed China’s entry into India’s backyard. Given the tightened noose of China and Pakistan combined in the Himalayas, now fast engulfing the Indian Ocean region, India is at its wits end to confront the humongous geopolitical, military and economic challenge.

The US too faces its dilemma with China, which has changed the rules of big power game. As the victor of the Cold War, it took the US a while to understand that Chinese strategy for global ambition was the antithesis of the Soviet Union approach. Beijing could, unlike anything seen before, retain unending initiative with its blow hot and blow cold moves, baffling the opponents about what lay ahead. To the world steeped in the discourse of the Cold War where words like ‘combative’ and ‘cooperation’ appear incompatible, Chinese oxymoronic strategy of ‘combative cooperation’ is baffling.

While most policy-makers and analysts would disagree with such contradictory postulation, a long time China-watcher, Henry Kissinger believes China to be in a different league from the western way of strategising. Chinese strategy, according to Kissinger, exhibits three characteristics: ‘meticulous analysis of long-term trends, careful study of tactical options, and detached exploration of operational decisions.’ This approach to statecraft, he believes, is in sync with Chinese distinctive military theory where ‘Chinese thinkers develop strategic thought that places a victory through psychological advantage and preaches the avoidance of direct conflict.’ As China puts high premium on political and psychological victories rather than pure military triumph, its diplomacy has little difficulty in pursuing peace and hostility at the same time.

The gains of Chinese ‘combative cooperation’ are evident in the South China Sea crisis. While the US announced regular Freedom of Navigation manoeuvres and over-flights to comfort its regional allies; China called US’ actions provocative. However, neither did China dismantle its infrastructure in the SCS nor did the US compel it to do so — the former US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton had famously said that you do not fight with your bankers.

Hamid KarzaiBecause of different ideological approach to military victory, it was win-win for both — the US remains focussed on the impact of military power, China on decisive psychological gains. China has built strong points in the form of (military and civilian) infrastructure and moved its missiles on reclaimed land in the SCS, which overtime would help it reinforce ownership of the strategic islands — expansionism with Chinese characteristics.

Since both the US and India have problems with China, there exists a logical case of cooperation between the two. The perfect strategic converge for India and the US would be to assess China’s Road project, especially in the Indian Ocean Region. Unfortunately, Pakistan comes in the way of this bilateral cooperation — the US cannot forsake Pakistan and India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi finds Pakistan irrelevant to its rise.

When asked why the US was gifting F-16s to Pakistan which would be used against India, Admiral Harris said that the US’ relationship with India and Pakistan was not a zero-sum game: “Our relationship with both stands on our bilateral terms.” The US needs India to counter-balance China in the Asia-Pacific region, and it needs Pakistan for a host of things. Making the case for F-16 sales to Pakistan, the US state department had reportedly informed the US Congress that, ‘Pakistan lies at the heart of the US counter-terrorism strategy, the peace process in Afghanistan, nuclear non-proliferation efforts, and economic integration in South and Central Asia.’

China too needs Pakistan. From being a lackey, Pakistan today has emerged as the most important and trusted strategic partner of China. Responding to why China recently favoured Pakistan over India on terrorism at the United Nations, Li said at the Raisina Dialogue that “We are a good friend of Pakistan and we hope that both (India and Pakistan) would become good friends of China.”

Similar sentiments regarding India and Pakistan were expressed by the former Presidents of Sri Lanka and Afghanistan at the conclave. Speaking matter-of-fact, Chandrika Kumaratunga said that, “the Indo-Pakistan conflict has prevented the integration of South Asia.”

Given its importance for China, the US, Russia, Central Asian Republics, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan and littoral nations of South Asia, Pakistan, in strategic terminology has emerged as a critical geopolitical pivot. India, on the other hand, remains a hopeful geostrategic player. While geostrategic players have the capacity, capability and national will to exercise influence beyond their borders to affect existing geopolitical state of affairs, geopolitical pivots are nations whose importance is determined by their consequences for geostrategic players.

Elaborating on geostrategic players, the US former National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, wrote in his book The Grand Chessboard that ‘It should be noted that although all geostrategic players tend to be important and powerful countries, not all important and powerful countries are automatically geostrategic players’. To add to Brzezinski, all geostrategic players are leading powers.

Chandrika KumaratungaIndia, unfortunately, is not a geostrategic player for numerous reasons. The Modi government’s antipathy towards Pakistan is perhaps the most significant one. Since the Modi regime believes in the concept of Greater India (Akhand Bharat), talks on the Kashmir resolution are anathema to it. This is unacceptable to the Pakistan Army which runs its nation’s India policy. Given the antipathy between India and Pakistan which appears unresolvable, and the enhanced role of Pakistan on the Eurasia chessboard, can India be a geostrategic player or a leading power?

According to India’s foreign minister, Sushma Swaraj and foreign secretary, S. Jaishankar, the Modi government believes itself to be a leading power. There are many reasons for this. Since the Modi government came to power in May 2014 with a huge majority the overwhelming desire of people was for change. This spurred India to raise its international profile through ‘stronger national branding’, according to Jaishankar. With connectivity as its mantra for influencing geopolitics, India’s foreign policy is focused on ‘Act East matching with Think West.’ The start point of this policy is the region (South Asia) itself. Instead of seeking the traditional regional approach through SAARC where Pakistan is the constant impediment to growth, India has decided to concentrate on sub-regional solutions coupled with bilateral and trilateral arrangements with neighbouring countries. Case in point is the BBIN (Bhutan-Bangladesh-India-Nepal) where India sees great opportunities for growth and development through infrastructure connectivity. India has also embarked on building roads in its Northeast and border areas.

The difference between the Look East policy followed since the Nineties and the Act East policy now is that connectivity has been given a high priority, for example with Bangladesh and Myanmar. In phase two of the Act East policy, Jaishankar said, India would concentrate on trade and connectivity with ASEAN, Japan and South Korea: “A decade from now our involvement will be much more with ASEAN, Japan and South Korea,” he said.

Regarding Think West, India’s earlier passive approach in the region where seven million Indians live and work now has a strategic connotation. “It is no longer evolutionary,” Jaishankar said. Delving further, he went on to explain the importance of Iran’s Chabahar port where India has invested in connectivity and the north-south corridor (Iran to Russia and Central Asia), which is the game-changer. Moreover, the Indian Ocean is being given greater attention by various means including ‘cooperation between the Rim Association nations, coastal surveillance, working with neighbours and exercises with friendly nations for shared security.’

Interestingly, in the discourse on India’s foreign policy by its two main practitioners, there was no mention of China and Pakistan. China was spoken about without being named by Jaishankar: “Connectivity should diffuse rivalry, not add to it. Since we do not have an agreed Asian security architecture, in the multi-polar Asia like the multi-polar world, there should be respect for global commons and freedom of navigation.” The unsaid reference was to the CPEC which passes through the disputed Gilgit-Baltistan and Pakistan Occupied Kashmir which India objects to; it has lodged strong protest with China on the issue.

S JaishankarOn Pakistan, Jaishankar was blunt. Asked if India could achieve connectivity and its geopolitical goals by isolating Pakistan, he said that ‘it takes two hands to clap.’ India’s position is that Pakistan should stop terrorism for bilateral dialogue to begin. This of course will not happen; terrorism, for the Pakistan Army, is linked to talks on the Kashmir resolution.

Given that India’s position on China and Pakistan has remained unchanged since Independence, can it be said that India’s foreign policy under Modi has transformed to pitch it as a leading power? According to former foreign secretary, Nirupama Rao, ‘the foreign policy of a country is the product of both geography and history. Changes in leadership or government do not essentially alter its basic underlying premises. What Modi (Prime Minister) has done is to bring the stamp of his zeal and personality to impact well-entrenched policies, imparting more determination to the process. But the shadow of history and geopolitics are ominous.’

It is difficult to agree with Rao and other diplomats who think like her. While geography and history influence a nation’s foreign policy, they do not determine its present and future. This is crafted by the political leadership through strategy predicated on hard power comprising of economic and military power in equal measures. India’s foreign policy tragedy is that it is crafted by diplomats rather than the political leadership, who understand little about military power. Regrettably, the foreign policy of India’s two nuclear-armed neighbours with whom it has disputed borders is either driven or is heavily backed by military power.

If India believes that with geo-economic (connectivity being its manifestation) alone it could alter the geopolitics, it will not happen. India will also need a strategy or the ability to make a sound long-term plan based on present realities. Perception management of the foreign policy, which, under Modi, is on full display, will not make India a geostrategic player or a leading power.