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Why Russia-Pakistan ties should not vex India

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How’s this for timing? On September 23, as many as 250 troops from the Indian Army’s Kumaon Regiment arrived in Vladivostok for INDRA-2016, an 11-day joint exercise with an equal number of Russian Army troops. On the same day, 70 Russian soldiers arrived in Pakistan for the first-ever Pakistan-Russia joint military drills named Druzhba-2016.

Coming days after the Uri attack, Druzhba-2016 has caused a collective uproar across the international border, with some media outfits calling it a Russian snub. To most Indians it appeared to be a betrayal by a long-time ally.

It’s understandable that the average Indian person would react with such dismay at a time when tensions are running high over the Pakistan masterminded attack that left 18 Indian Army soldiers dead.

However, considering the extensive and strategic nature of the Indo-Russian partnership – BRICS, G-20 and defence – it should be a no-brainer that Moscow’s engagement with Pakistan does not come at the expense of its ties with India.

Those who believe Moscow is flirting with Islamabad because India is drifting into the western camp belong to two categories. One, they probably live under a rock and have no idea about the nature of India’s ties with Russia. The second group comprises western commentators – and their camp followers in India – who want it to happen and are therefore expressing their inner desire.

According to Petr Topychankov, South Asia expert and Associate in the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Nonproliferation Program, “Pakistan cannot replace or even influence Russia’s strategic partnership with India. This is just impossible. Russia’s priorities are very clear. No matter how long New Delhi will enjoy its ‘honeymoon’ in relations with Washington, both India and Russia understand that their ties cannot be influenced by any third parties.”

Historical context

Russia-Pakistan ties had plummeted to such abysmal depths during the Cold War that they are only now recovering to normalcy. In 1947, when Pakistan was carved out of India by the retreating British, Soviet strongman Joseph Stalin believed the emergence of the two countries was just a deal between the Indian elites and the British imperialists.

In fact, the Soviet media did not pay any attention to the proclamation of the formation of Pakistan. Nisha Sahai Achuthan writes in ‘Soviet Arms Transfer Policy in South Asia -1955-81’ that the Kremlin did not deem it necessary even to felicitate to Pakistani leaders on the occasion of the formal inauguration of their new state. Stalin told an Indian diplomat: “How primitive it is to create a state on the basis of religion.” He even expressed the view that a federation between India and Pakistan would be the ideal solution, and doubted the survival of Pakistan as an independent nation.

While the Pakistanis didn’t like the negative Russian views on the world’s first Islamic state, the Soviet Union took exception to Islamabad’s denouncing of communism. And when the first Pakistani Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan visited Washington in 1948, and declined Moscow’s invitation, the rift grew wider.

On October 24, 1952 Izvestia wrote: “After Partition…Pakistan began to draw the fixed attention of the United States imperialist circles. The latter were enticed not so much by the country’s natural wealth as by Pakistan’s strategic position, especially its western part. Taking advantage of the United Nations mediation of the Kashmir dispute, the United States ruling circles endeavoured to derive from this “mediation” everything possible for strengthening American position in Pakistan. United States influence on Pakistan’s domestic and foreign policy increased especially after Liaquat Ali Khan’s trip to Washington.”

The chances of the two countries coming together disappeared when General Ayub Khan engineered a coup and took Pakistan into the Baghdad Pact in 1959. Denouncing the bilateral agreement, Moscow Radio said the Soviet government had several times drawn the attention of the Pakistan Government to the “grave consequences of Pakistan’s membership of the Baghdad Pact which had made that country an American bridgehead for the atomic bombardment of the USSR”.

However, it was after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 that ties with Pakistan rock bottom. Under the dictatorship of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, Pakistan assumed the role of a frontline state against communism and became the conduit for weapons to be used against the Soviet forces. Over 15,000 Soviet soldiers died as a result of Pakistan’s involvement.

It is a miracle that the mighty Soviet Army did not strike Pakistani supply lines and the numerous training camps where lumpen elements from all over the world arrived for jehad – in reality a one-way mission – against the ‘godless’ Soviets. Indeed, it is a measure of how much Pakistan was disliked in the former Soviet Union that long after the country dissolved, it wasn’t safe for Pakistani students and travellers to declare their nationality in places such as Uzbekistan and Azerbajian, where people held Islamabad responsible for the deaths of their boys in the Afghan War.

Thawing the Cold War

To borrow the words of Indian diplomat Eenam Gambhir, Pakistan has become the “Ivy League of terror”. The Pakistani passport is the third most unwelcome travel document in the world after the passports of Iraq and Afghanistan. Its only friend – or rather patron – is China, which uses it as a test market for its export model weapons. In this backdrop, Pakistan is desperate for new friends, allies or backers.

The country is an excellent example of what happens to a US ally after it is past its use by date. It was abandoned after the Afghan war by all its western backers, to be requisitioned a decade later for the War on Terror, which was in reality America’s War in Favour of Terror. Now that the US is winding down its operations in Afghanistan, America is again jettisoning Pakistan. To be sure, Islamabad has played both sides in the war so it can’t really point fingers at the US.

Russia and Pakistan have been circling around some sort of agreement for decades. During the 1950s, when communist newspapers were attacking Pakistan, Soviet diplomats left a door open for Islamabad. They said Moscow and Islamabad differed only 10 per cent while the remaining 90 per cent of their mutual relationship was fine.

Ayub Khan also hinted that Russia was waiting if the pact with the US didn’t work out. In an interview published in the French newspaper La Monda, he stated that Pakistan might turn to other powers for help if the United States continued to underestimate Pakistan’s needs. He said, “The camp opposed to the Americans attaches great importance to our country both militarily and politically and persistently makes advances to us.”

The Pakistan Times in an editorial commented: “Our foreign aid requirements are vital and urgent, and we cannot be expected to wait indefinitely in the hope that opinion in America will eventually be persuaded to view our needs with greater sympathy and understanding. Some other states in a position to help, have in the recent past repeatedly expressed their desire to give us substantial aid without political strings, and America should have no grouse if we turn to those countries to make up the shortfall between our needs and the aid available to us from our major allies.”

History repeats itself. With America withholding military and economic aid, Pakistani generals – who form the deep state that runs the country – are interested in building bridges with Russia.

What Russia wants

The United States’ retreat from the Middle East and its pivot to the Asia-Pacific has created several low-hanging opportunities for Russia in the region. Moscow is moving into Egypt with advanced MiG-35 jets. Iraq is buying Russian attack helicopters after a 25-year gap. Weapons sales are being considered for Saudi Arabia. Pakistan is among these new opportunities.

For the first time ever Russian and Pakistan interests have converged – in the backdrop of a resurgent Taliban. America’s slow motion exit from Afghanistan has got the jehadis salivating at the prospect of regaining power in the war-torn country. While the Taliban may not have won more than a handful of battles in America’s longest war, in the popular Afghan narrative they have defeated yet another superpower. If, and when, they storm the gates of Kabul, the emboldened Islamists are likely to target Pakistan next.

This has set off the alarm bells in Moscow. The Russians are paranoid about waves of Islamic terrorists attacking their soft underbelly in Central Asia. “First they will hit Tajikistan, then they will try to break into Uzbekistan… If things turn out badly, in about 10 years our boys will have to fight well-armed and well-organised Islamists somewhere in Kazakhstan,” current Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin had warned way back in 2009.

The Pakistanis are worried too. Not only will they lose the hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation that the United States doles out for the use of Pakistani military bases, Islamabad feels it is being abandoned in the midst of its fight with the Islamists.

Although it is a fact that they created the Islamist genie in the first place, for once the Pakistanis are right in saying they are bigger victims of terror than India. For instance, in a joint attack in 2011 the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda nearly totalled the Karachi Naval Base. While India suffers a major terror attack once or twice a year, across the border bomb explosions are a weekly or sometimes daily occurrence. It’s got so bad that Shia mosques in Pakistan don’t have regular prayer times for fear of being bombed by Sunni terrorists.

So, whether India likes it or not, Pakistan is really at the frontlines in the battle against the Taliban. The Pakistanis are, therefore, looking at extricating themselves from the US-created mess. For Russia, there could be no better time to pry Pakistan away from the Americans.

The Mi-25 saga

Druzhba-2016 isn’t the first instance where India has behaved like a jilted lover. In 2014 there was considerable anger among the Indian public when Russia announced it would supply Mi-25 helicopters to the Pakistan Army. Since Indians have for decades considered Russians as friends, many felt the sale was a betrayal. However, it is very likely Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin had sounded out South Block before green lighting the deal.

At any rate, New Delhi wasn’t upset over the sale of a few 1970s vintage gunships to the rust bucket Pakistani military. In a previous era, despite being equipped with better weapons than the Indian side, the Pakistanis botched both the 1965 and 1971 wars. P.V.S. Jagan Mohan and Samir Chopra describe in their book Eagles Over Bangladesh how the Indian Air Force neutralised the Pakistan Air Force “in less than 72 hours”. Today the Indian military is a behemoth and the balance is skewing – in India’s favour – by the day.

Besides, the IAF itself operates two Mi-25 helicopter squadrons (No.104 Firebirds and No.125 Gladiators) and so the gunship is hardly a secret weapon.

The reason why the Russians offered the Mi-25 helicopter is significant. During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, Russian pilots nicknamed the Mi-25 the “Flying Tank” because it was not only extremely survivable, it also created terror among the Afghan mujahidin. The gunship was so effective that the fear-stricken Islamic fighters called it the “Shaitan-Arba” or Satan’s Chariot.

While a handful of gunships to Pakistan won’t change the military balance vis-a-vis India, the Mi-25 can be the game changer in battles with guerrillas up in the mountains. Also, in Afghanistan where airfields are as rare as hen’s teeth, helicopters are the only way to get out and about. By supplying these gunships to Pakistan, the Russians get the Pakistanis to continue with the job of clearing up Islamist opposition.

In fact, the proven effectiveness of Russian helicopters was the reason why the US Defence Department – no less – paid Moscow $1 billion for supplying the Afghan military with their gunships.

India’s leverage

As the world’s largest arms importer, India has considerable leverage over Russia. Moscow is hardly likely to risk its strategic relationship and defence trade amounting to dozens of billions of dollars by allying too closely Pakistan.

So long as Russia doesn’t cross the red line by supply strategic weapons like long-range jet fighters, submarines or missiles to Pakistan, India doesn’t have any reason to be alarmed by low-key joint military exercises. Sergey Chemezov, the CEO of the Russian state-run technologies corporation Rostec assures, “Our strategic partner has always been, and will be, India.”

Long-term partners

And finally, a note to the media: do not label every new development as a “landmark deal” or a “strategic decision” as you did when Russia announced in 2014 that it was lifting its unofficial arms embargo on Pakistan. Here’s why: between 1996 and 2010 Russia had sold 70 Mi-17 transport helicopters to Pakistan. There was nothing “landmark” about the Mi-25 deal.

Joint military exercises are essentially confidence building measures. For Russia and Pakistan, considering their bitter history, defence contacts are necessary for erasing their past distrust in order to start over.

The India-Russia relationship is quite stable so the Indian public and media have no reason to get worked up over 70 Russian soldiers conducting drills with poorly motivated soldiers of the Pakistan Army.

According to Topychankov, “India will always play a very special role in Russia’s foreign policy and Russia is very much interested in keeping the strategic level of its ties with India.”

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CoVID-19 Control: Can Pakistan Learn From China?

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coronavirus people

It has been over a year since the first case of CoVID-19 was confirmed in Pakistan. The tally has reached 721,018 confirmed cases, 15,443 have died and 4,143 critical cases by 11thApril2021. Across many countries, since January 2020, a massive surge of research into CoVID-19 had enabled the scientific and medical community to better understand how to manage and eliminate the virus through public health interventions. Today, we have learned, CoVID-19 causes acute symptoms and death. We have learned, immunity lasts at least eight months and we also have five licensed vaccines. We have learned, the long-term effects of CoVID-19 and the morbidity attached to having this virus. We have learned, virus transmission occurs through droplets and aerosols spread through coughing, sneezing, breathing and speaking. We also have learned, stopping the spread of CoVID-19 requires people to avoid mixing though restrictions on social life. We have learned, the virus can mutate into various strains that can be more transmissible – and we also have understand cat-and-mouse game between vaccine and variants.

To alleviate the destructive effects of CoVID-19 on the economy, Pakistan has sought debt relief of slightly around $2 billion from its G20 creditors. In addition to the G20 countries, China was the largest bilateral creditor with $9 billion, followed by Japan with $5 billion. By early April 2020, when there were just about 2,000 CoVID-19 positive cases in Pakistan, the World Bank approved $200 million package to help Pakistan. Likewise, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) had approved the payout of $1.386 billion as financial support to Pakistan to meet its urgent balance of payment needs halting from the CoVID-19 outbreak. Further, to support Pakistan’s public health response to the CoVID-19 and allow to meet the basic needs of the vulnerable and poor segment of society, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) approved $500 million emergency assistance loan to Pakistan. Similarly, The Islamic Development Bank (IDB) also provided a $650 million financial package to support Pakistan in its efforts against the CoVID-19. All these grants were provided to Government of Pakistan to assist in effective and timely action in response to the spread of the CoVID-19. The objective was to strengthen Pakistan’s public health infrastructure and to alleviate socioeconomic disruptions due to the pandemic. Despite huge grants and substantial endowments, Pakistan’s response to the CoVID-19 has been unsatisfactory. Lack of basic healthcare infrastructure, disease surveillance and management system,  and inconsistent implementation of policies and SOPs resulted in the rapid and incessant spread of third-wave of CoVID-19 throughout the county.

China’s extraordinary organized and preventive risk management approach, established on coalition between government officials, virologists, epidemiologists and public health experts, has demonstrated to be successful in containing and controlling CoVID-19.The experience in China emphasized the significance of listening to science and public health experts during pandemic event. Firstly, China’s response demonstrates the value of national research and public health capability. Huge investment in research and development rendered China much better prepared for CoVID-19. China’s experience indicates the value of investing in national health and research scheme to boost laboratory capacity along with workforce. They are essential to a rapid and effective national response to health emergencies and to national health security. Secondly, a strong foundation of research and development cannot ensure effective control without powerful top-level political dedication to use science to confront the outbreak. Government and leaders must respect science, understand its significance, and act on science-based advice in a way that is best for society. Thirdly, attaining speedy and successful implementation of control measures for CoVID-19 requires extensive community engagement. Public solidarity during the CoVID-19 outbreak in China had been unprecedented. Control measures that could sacrifice personal freedom were accepted readily by the nation.

To be brief, cricket is to South Asia and football is to Europe. In fighting CoVID-19, everyone is equal. Everyone has the identical liability and shares the equal threat. The effective implementation of prevention and control measures in China is a model for Pakistan other parts of world to follow. From the beginning, a science-based, risk-informed and phased approach was taken, with a clear appreciation and enthusiasm. Today, China has restarted its economy, reopened and almost returned to normality. The key of success story is to make everybody responsible, get every single division involved and held executives accountable. These are the most prominent lessons Pakistan could learn from China at national and local levels. After the failure of “Smart-Lockdown” strategy, Pakistan needs to choose a strict strategy, should follow the example of China and continue the lockdown until the number of CoVID-19 infections is brought close to zero; the strategy should then be to maintain infection rates at very low level until vaccination is done. China’s epidemic management provides an important experience from which countries such as Pakistan can learn. This applies in particular to Pakistan, which would risk to lose many of its achievements in case of a severe third wave of the epidemic. Government of Pakistan should involve not only public health experts, virologists and epidemiologists, but also scientist and respect science advice when making any decision that is required to keep the epidemic under control. The rest of the world can also learn from China’s success in bringing outbreak under control.

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United States snubs India for its excessive maritime claim

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On April7, 2021, a 9,000-ton guided-missile destroyer, USS John Paul Jones (US 7th Fleet), waded (not strayed as it was deliberate) into the vicinity of India’s Lakshadweep Islands. The ship was 131 nautical miles away from India’s coast (12 nautical miles territory) but well within its exclusive economic zone (200 nautical miles, 370.4 kilometre).

Shockwaves

The trespass by the US destroyer triggered indignation through all walks of life. It conjured up memories of the arrival of the 7th fleet during the Indo-Pak war of 1971. The fleet gave a message, loud and clear, to India that it should not dare finish West Pakistan, its long cherished desire. Even Nehru, an ostensibly liberal leader, regarded the creation of Pakistan a blunder. His rancour against Pakistan reaches a crescendo in his remarks: “I shall not have that carbuncle on my back.” (D. H. Bhutani, The Future of Pakistan, page 14). During 1971, Pakistan was a US ally. Now India is in the anti-China US-backed basket.

Yet, the `destroyer’ conjured up memory in India’s mind of `bitter’ American intervention.  Congress leaders voiced surprise at the U.S. move. In a tweet, Manish Tewari said, “This never happened in the 10 years of UPA [Congress-led rule] or perhaps even before that as far as I can recall. The last time I remember it being so rather in your face was 1971 – Task Force 74 – 7th Fleet. What then happened is History. Hope the NDA/BJP shows some Oomph?” Echoing the surprise, former Union Minister Jairam Ramesh, said, “And this happened when the former U.S. Secretary of State and Climate Envoy, John Kerry, was meeting Ministers in New Delhi.”

The euphoria created by US gung-ho support for Quad, and Pakistan’s exclusion from the climate conference petered out.

India’s foreign office tried to play down the event by stating that it was not a “military manoeuvre”. So, the USA was not bound to inform India about it. But, to India’s chagrin, the U.S. The Navy announced that its ship the USS John Paul Jones had carried out Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) in the Indian EEZ, adding that its operations had “challenged” what the U.S. called India’s “excessive maritime claims.” The U.S. defends its actions saying they were in compliance with international laws.  Even Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby justified what India calls “intransigence’ by announcing the US Navy’s move was in compliance with international law.  He told reporters, “I can tell you that the USS John Paul Jones, a Navy destroyer, asserted navigational rights and freedoms in the vicinity of the Republic of the Maldives by conducting innocent passage through its territorial sea in normal operations within its exclusive economic zone without requesting prior permission. We conduct routine and regular FONOPs, as we have done in the past and will continue to in the future. FONOPs are not about one country, nor are they about making political statements’.

India compelled to protest

As a face-saving gesture, India was forced to protest the U.S. decision to conduct a patrol in the Indian Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the western Indian Ocean, rejecting the U.S.’s claim that its domestic maritime law was in violation of international law. India’s external-affairs ministry retorted, ‘The Government of India’s stated position on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is that the Convention does not authorise other States to carry out in the EEZ and on the continental shelf, military exercises or man oeuvres, in particular those involving the use of weapons or explosives, without the consent of the coastal state.’ The ministry insisted that the USS John Paul Jones was “continuously monitored” transiting from the Persian Gulf towards the Malacca Straits.

The incident is a rare falling out between the two partners in the Quadrilateral Grouping that had recently committed to upholding freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific together.

Bone of contention

The USA shrugged off India’s ennui. According to the annual FONOP reports released by the U.S. Department of Defence for each fiscal year, the U.S. had been regularly conducting FONOPs in Indian EEZ. The FONOPs were carried out in several c continental shelves of several countries including its allies and partners. The USA regarded Indian maritime claim as “excessive” and in violation of International Law. From 2007 onwards till 2017, the U.S. carried out multiple FONOPs every year challenging “excessive” Indian maritime claims. No FONOP was carried out in 2018 and 2020 and one FONOP in 2019.

Difference of opinion is due to the fact that the USA has not ratified the UN Convention on the Law of Seas. India and China have ratified it with some reservations. But, the USA does not care a fig about provisos attached by China and India.

Ashamed of USA’s crass rebuttal, India is coining excuses to mitigate its embarrassment. To relieve pressure on Indian government, former Navy Chief Admiral Arun Prakash interpreted the US “trespass” as if it were a message to China that the USA has unfettered “freedom of navigation”. Prakash Tweeted

“While India ratified UNCLOS in 1995, the U.S. has failed to do it so far. For the 7th Fleet to carry out FoNOPs missions in Indian EEZ in violation of our domestic law is bad enough. But publicising it? USN please switch on IFF (Identification, friend or foe)! Prakash added FONOPs by U.S. Navy ships, “ineffective as they may be,” in South China Sea, are meant to “convey a message to China that the putative EEZ” around the artificial SCS islands is an “excessive maritime claim.” “But what is the 7th Fleet message for India?” he asked.

Might is Right

 Obviously, the USA is acting upon might-is-right policy. India itself acted upon this policy to devour princely states, and annex Nepalese territory. Junagadh and Kashmir disputes are still unresolved on UN agenda.  Indian Union is an artificial sally.

In its entire history India had never been a single nation, or one country, until united at gun point by the British. The artificial nature of modern India created by the British colonialists and adopted by post-colonial India generated insurgencies and separatist movements.

At the time of partition, India was in grip of virulent insurgencies and separatist movements (Dravidian South, Khalistan, Seven Sisters in the North East, so on). Wikipedia lists 68 major organizations as terrorist groups. Of them, nine are in the northeast (seven sisters states), four in the center and the east (Maoist/Naxalites), seventeen in the west (Sikh separatist groups), and thirty eight in the northwest (Kashmir). India kept afloat as a union only at the barrel of gun. The Indian army chief paid a five-day visit to Bangladesh as a prelude to conducting a massive operation against the Naxalbari militants.

UK and USA’s Diego Garcia headache

International Court of Justice advisory opinion on Chagos Islands has catapulted Indian Ocean into limelight. The ICJ `advisory’ is a blow to UK’s forcible occupation of Chagos Islands, including the strategic US airbase of Diego Garcia atoll (leased out to the USA by the UK).

The ICJ President Abdulqawi Ahmed Yusuf observed, `The UK has an obligation to bring to an end its administration of Chagos archipelago as rapidly as possible’. The court ruled that separation of Chagos Islands from Mauritius during decolonisation in the 1960s constituted an “unlawful detachment” and was a “wrongful act”.

In 1966, the U.S. signed a secret agreement with Great Britain allowing the Pentagon to use the Indian Ocean territory as an airbase in exchange for a big discount on Polaris nuclear missiles. Three years later, hundreds of Navy Seabees arrived by ship and began pouring out two 12,000-foot runway that would become a bulwark of American Cold War strategy in the region, and a key launching pad for the first and second Gulf wars, the 1998 bombing of Iraq and invasion and carpet-bombing of Afghanistan.

The base can house more than 2,000 troops and 30 warships at a time. It has two bomber runways, a satellite spy station and facilities enabling the use of nuclear-armed submarines. It served as a CIA black site (like Guantanamo Bay) to interrogate and torture terror suspects including those from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Indonesia.

The base holds key to America’s Afghan exit plan, by year 2024, to avoid a rout at the hands of Taliban.

Hand aloft

To India’s chagrin, the USA wants to exert its authority on Indian Ocean also. Forty seven countries have the Indian Ocean on their shores. The Indian Ocean is the third largest body of water in the world. It occupies 20 percent of the world’s ocean surface – it is nearly 10,000 kilometers wide at the southern tips of Africa and Australia and its area is 68.556 million square kilometers, about 5.5 times the size of the United States. India’s motto is ‘whoever controls the Indian Ocean dominates Asia’. Admiral Alfred T. Mahan (1840-1914) of the United States Navy highlighted the strategic importance of the Indian Ocean in these words: “whoever attains maritime supremacy in the Indian Ocean would be a prominent player on the international scene. The Indian peninsula (i.e. the Deccan and below) juts 1,240 miles into the Indian Ocean. 50 per cent of the Indian Ocean basin lies within a 1,000 mile radius of India, a reality that has strategic implications. Under the law of the sea, it has an exclusive economic zone of 772,000 square miles. Chennai is a mere 3,400 miles away from Perth in Australia, slightly more than the distance between New York and Los Angeles.

 To dominate Straits of Malacca (bordering Indonesia and Malaysia), India established its Far Eastern Marine Command at Port Blair in the Andamans. It has developed Port Blair as a strategic international trade center and built an oil terminal and trans-shipment port in Campal Bay in the Nicobar Islands.

Concluding remarks

In diplomacy, there are no permanent friends or foes, only permanent interests. Afghan exit plan requires the USA continues to retain Diego Garcia.

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US-China Developing Confrontation: India and QUAD

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At the request of the editors of International Affairs magazine, the renowned Kanwal Sibal, India’s Foreign Secretary and Ambassador to Turkey, Egypt, France and Russia, comments on new US initiatives in Southeast Asia.

Judging by its Interim National Strategic Security Guidance (INSSG) document (March 2021) the Biden Administration intends to be tough towards China on many fronts. Human rights issues in Xinjiang and Tibet, threats to Taiwan, limiting Hong Kong’s autonomy, encroachments and territorial pressures in the East and South China Seas, freedom of navigation and overflight issues, preserving a free and open Indo-Pacific, unfair trade practices, technology theft, resilience of critical supply chains, emerging technologies, standard setting for 5G, a new competitive US industrial strategy, and so on.

Whereas Trump had alienated allies and weakened America’s hand in dealing with China’s challenge, the Biden administration seeks to speak to China from a position of strength. For this it seeks to restore ties of confidence with Japan, South Korea and Australia in priority. In doing this the US is indirectly recognizing its reduced strength and its inability to meet the China challenge alone. In this perspective, It had reached out to Europe for policy coordination towards China even before it took office, but Europe went ahead to sign a Comprehensive Investment Agreement (CAI) to protect its own independent and competitive interests in China. After the fractious US-China Alaska meeting, the US has continued its coordinating efforts with Europe but faces resistance from Germany and France in particular who want to retain their strategic autonomy in dealing with China, believing that US policy under Biden will remain self-centred and that too much water had flown under the bridge for US-Europe ties to simply revert to the pre-Trump era.

The timing of virtual Quad summit before the Alaska meeting was also intended to signal to China that like-minded countries were coming together to deter what they view as China’s increasingly aggressive policies. From a telephonic meeting at the Foreign Ministers level in February 2021 the summit was a major step forward in consolidating the Quad politically. India, earlier reticent in moving too far too quickly with the Quad in the light of the need to manage the stresses of its China ties, decided to join. After the stand-off in eastern Ladakh India has realized that deferring to Chinese sensitivities is not reciprocated by China. The visit of the US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to India coincided with the US-China meeting in Alaska.

In the INSSG, India is not treated strategically in the same category as US allies like Japan, Republic of Korea and Australia. The China challenge is felt primarily in the western Pacific where the US has bases, deployed military forces and a powerful naval presence. China’s challenge in the Indian Ocean is not considered of the same order for the time being, but partnership with India, with its significant naval assets and geographic position, overlooking the critical sea lanes of communication in the region, is important for the future. India is seen as a net security provider, fitting into the template of burden sharing. For this the US has shown its readiness to build India’s maritime surveillance capacities by supplying defense platforms, intelligence sharing, increasingly complex military exercises with the inclusion of Japan and Australia, and utilizing the India-US defense-related foundational agreements that provide for inter-operability and sharing of geo-spatial data.

Although the joint statement issued by the Quad summit did not mention China by name, China was of course discussed, with each leader sharing his thinking. According to US NSA Jake Sullivan, China, about whom none of the leaders had any illusions he said, was discussed at the meeting but was not its focus. Coercion of Australia, harassment around the Senkakus, border aggression against India figured in the discussions. According to him, the Quad is now a critical part of the architecture of the Indo-Pacific. Cybersecurity incidents impacting Quad members too figured, including attacks against India’s power sector. He dismissed the talk about Quad being a military alliance, though he stated that it has to worked out at the leaders level and that of the working groups how the Quad can move from freedom of navigation to broader regional security questions. Apparently, at Alaska, the Chinese reacted negatively to US mentioning its dialogue with India.

The summit rightly felt that the Quad should have a broader agenda than simply China, a point of view that India has studiously supported. India is conscious of the fact that the US, as well as Japan and Australia, have deep economic ties with China, which can be rolled back selectively to lessen dependence by decoupling in critical areas, restricting Chinese access to advanced critical technologies in which China has external dependence such as semi-conductors, preventing Chinese investments in sensitive areas etc but cannot be dramatically reduced, given China’s huge weight in the global economy. The US policy seems to be “extreme competition”, cooperation and confrontation, as required. India’s investment in the Quad, beyond the maritime security aspect, would be to benefit from a shift away from China of critical supply chains, use India’s democratic environment to attract more US investment and technology transfers that would accelerate India’s growth for the welfare of its people, besides enabling it to close the developing gaps with China.

It is in this perspective that the decision on building India’s capacity for vaccines should be seen. The three expert groups set up by the Quad summit, on vaccines, critical technologies (5G, AI, Quantum Computing, human biology) and climate change broaden the Quad’s agenda, opening up bilateral opportunities with the US for India, besides creating the beginnings of a structure. In line with Indian thinking and emphasis on a broader agenda, the Quad leaders pledged “to respond to the economic and health impacts of COVID-19, combat climate change, and address shared challenges, including in cyber space, critical technologies, counterterrorism, quality infrastructure investment, and humanitarian-assistance and disaster-relief as well as maritime domains”. The decision to manufacture US vaccine in India with Biological E Ltd to provide one billion doses to the Indo-Pacific region was taken, with Japanese finance and Australia’s delivery support. The third group will deal with critical – and emerging-technologies to facilitate cooperation on international standards and innovative technologies of the future. 

China’s concerns about the Quad summit and the strengthening of India’s strategic ties with the US have no basis. China has benefited enormously from US capital and technology and that of its allies for China’s rise. The economic power it acquired, and with that military power, has been used by it to expand territorially in the western Pacific and globally through the BRI, not to mention in the Indian Ocean. Now that defenses are being put up against China’s policies and ambitions, China, after the stand-off in Ladakh, has no ground to warn India not to become close to the US. Even now the US is China’s biggest economic partner and China is reaching out to the US to ease pressures on it. Its critique of “selective multilateralism” would apply equally to the Russia-India-China group, BRICS as well as the SCO. It has established a Quad in our region- the China-Pakistan-Afghanistan-Nepal group, in which Nepal does not fit at all.

The bristling encounter at Alaska demonstrates that China’s expectations that a change of administration in the US could lessen tensions and some accommodation could be worked out have been belied for the time being. China touted the Alaska meeting as a strategic dialogue, which was strongly denied the US. In response to Secretary of State Blinken’s severe strictures on China’s infringements of a rules based international order on various issues, Politburo member Yang Jiechi hit back brutally, decrying US democracy, castigating America’s racism, calling it the champion of cyberattacks, rejecting the notion that western nations represent global public opinion, and, most significantly, stating that the US lacked the qualifications to speak to China from a position of strength, now or even 20 or 30 years earlier. Yang Jiechi may have intended to say all this in private but felt compelled to do so in public to show to the domestic and international audience that China will not be bullied and will deal with the US as an equal. If he had reacted meekly, it would have been a blow to China’s prestige and its self-image. It appears that after the public spat the two sides got down to business calmly on the agenda items , with serious differences over Taiwan emerging and raising US concerns that this could become a flash point if Xi Jinping was determined to achieve reunification, by force, if necessary. There was no commitment by the US side to meet again despite persistent probing by Yang Jiechi to elicit a response.

With China and Russia in the cross-hairs of the Biden government, it is not surprising that both countries have closed ranks against the US. Lavrov and Wang Yi rejected US calls for “a rules-based order” and proposed a summit of the UN Security Council’s five permanent members to be held “to establish direct dialogue …in the interests of maintaining global stability”. With the sharper US divisions with China and Russia it is unclear what the P5 summit could achieve concretely, especially as the representative nature of the UN Security Council as currently constituted is questioned in large parts of the world.

Regrettably, a new version of the Cold War might now be taking shape. In the developing scenario, it is very important that the India-Russia dialogue is strengthened so that the implications of the new developments and the compulsions of the two countries are better understood bilaterally.

From our partner International Affairs

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