There is ample evidence to show China takes us more seriously when India-US ties are growing

by Indrani Bagcchi

On Thursday, India signed a far-reaching deal with the US that says a lot about the strategic trajectory of this bilateral relationship. On Saturday, US President Donald Trump publicly threatened to cut subsidies to India.

It might be a bit to wrap our heads around. The COMCASA is a logical realisation of a strategy best articulated by a former US NSA, Condoleezza Rice, back in 2005. We will soon complete negotiations for the last such agreement, BECA, which will reinforce to everybody where the India-US strategic convergence is headed. But India will also sign the S-400 deal with Russia, let America do its worst. This is the new normal.

Let’s unpack this. The US has evolved as India’s most consequential strategic partner, we’re seeing this play out big in the defence and security spheres. Look further. One of the more interesting agreements this past week has been with a hitherto unknown entity called the DIU (Defence Innovation Unit) in Silicon Valley.

This is where the US is scanning new horizons of tech innovations for potential military applications. There was a time when defence innovated (like the internet) and the civilians caught up. Now it’s the other way around. For India to make a place for itself in this unit is an investment in the future, where we will hopefully be the designer, rather than just the buyer.

For the first time, India will have a liaison person at the Bahrain naval base of CENTCOM, the first “dialogue” with a US command that has been traditionally closer to Pakistan. India’s security and commercial interests still tilt more in the Arabian Sea-western Indian Ocean direction than anywhere else. India and US have been working well together to the east of India, not so much to the west. If you add this development with a greater Indian presence in Duqm, Oman, a growing security relationship with the UAE and investments in the Indian Ocean off Africa’s east coast, a clearer picture of India’s strategic intent emerges.

Before November, therefore, India should do everything to secure Chabahar from US sanctions. We can get oil from elsewhere but Chabahar is a bigger investment. On the other hand, Russia’s S-400 is currently without peer, though Moscow’s penchant for selling the same thing to the Chinese is profoundly disturbing. India should – and is – diversifying from Russia as a defence supplier, but if we think the S-400 is what we need let’s go for it. There was a time when India had pitched for an Israeli triad – Green Pine, Phalcon and the Arrow. The US successfully killed the third, hoping to hawk Patriot. India shouldn’t fall for that one.

In spite of Trump’s hollering US-India ties have actually thrived on his watch, perhaps because we’re neither an ally nor an adversary. Because the world has become less round, it’s equally important to share a caviar blini with Putin or a Gobi Manchurian with Xi Jinping. For the same reason, India should openly support Japan becoming a more security oriented power. Bringing France – even Germany when they can – into an Indian Ocean partnership would give India a fuller hand of good cards.

There is ample evidence to show China takes us more seriously when India-US ties are growing. Russia will sulk – Moscow, despite its old ties with India, remains profoundly distrustful of the idea that India should aspire to great power status. We shouldn’t worry too much.

Among other benefits of the India-US tango: Almost as soon as Pompeo’s plane reached cruising altitude over Indian skies, the State Department shot off a warning to Maldives about sanctions should Yameen become an elected dictator. India’s policy frailty is stark, since it has no way of influencing Maldives’ behaviour. It needs the EU and US to weigh in from afar, because the Modi government is terrified of repeating what it did in Nepal. In Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal however, India and US are beginning to tango more smoothly. Once the US Congress passes the BUILD Act, this should get easier.

On the other hand, notwithstanding its South Asia strategy, Washington is resetting ties with Islamabad, via tried and tested Rawalpindi. India needs that Plan B, both in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where a ‘reconciliation’ in some form will be stitched up, even with noses held.

A key element of the India-US thing is the Indo-Pacific. Washington is rooting for a “peace with strength” strategy, whatever that means. India needs that tagline, because it should work much harder on its own Indo-Pacific strategy. While India’s security policies are dandy, New Delhi’s asinine trade policies ensure India’s strategic reach won’t go beyond Andaman Islands. With WTO in deep distress, India should work harder to stay in regional trade arrangements. ‘Keep China out’ cannot be an effective trade policy.

If we want a serious Indo-Pacific policy we have to balance two important things – be trade generous in the region, and defence aggressive. Right now, we’re afraid of China, afraid of ASEAN’s competitiveness, afraid of weaning off an entitled and dependent India Inc, afraid of the Quad … we should grow up.

Do a trade deal with Australia, New Zealand and China, ASAP. Run warships all over the Indo-Pacific, expand maritime domain awareness with US platforms to constrain China.

Meanwhile, forget Donald Trump. Invite Baron Waqa of Nauru to lead the Pacific Islanders as chief guest for Republic Day 2019. The Pacific will thank us.