The American Backstory
[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] T [/yt_dropcap]he American positions for the past two years have focused on China’s relatively aggressive and unchallenged construction of seven artificial islands and at least three airstrips in the South China Sea. Despite neighborly protests, China has refused to even take part in legal arbitration that was initiated in 2013 by the Philippines at a U.N.-backed tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands.
Chinese officials have repeatedly asserted its right to reclaim land within its own sovereign territory, while warning that the US needs to keep out of regional territorial disputes that it has no business being a part of. US President Barack Obama, while visiting Jamaica, declared that China “was using its sheer size and muscle to force countries into subordinate positions.” The US president continued to bolster the hopes of the smaller South China Sea neighbors by staunchly stating that “just because the Philippines or Vietnam are not as large as China doesn’t mean that they can just be elbowed aside.”
Adding to the growing American alarm about China’s “aggressive” activities in the South China Sea comes from the commander of the US Pacific Fleet, Admiral Scott Swift. He went on record saying China was provoking an unprecedented military build-up in the region. Swift also complained that the acceleration of China’s “disruptive activities” in contested waters was causing widespread anxiety in the Indo-Pacific region. How did this widespread anxiety manifest itself? Scott emphasized that the lack of transparency around China’s behavior had caused other Asia-Pacific nations to respond by spending more on their own military build-up. Ultimately, China’s so-called defensive measures were in fact creating a runaway escalation that hindered deterrence stability rather than promoted it. In February 2016, Admiral Harry Harris of US Pacific Command, appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee to give testimony about events transpiring in the South China Sea, bluntly stated that China is “clearly militarizing” and the “you’d have to believe in a flat Earth to believe otherwise.”
The obvious first counterargument to President Obama’s commentary is that it seems to be ignoring what has been basic reality around the South China Sea for decades: China has not dominated the region simply because of size and sheer force but also because of its industrial, financial, diplomatic, and political prowess compared to its South China Sea neighbors. The comments from the commanders of the US Pacific Fleet also come off more like political positioning that objective analysis: no matter how much militarization or competitive force build-up is supposedly taking place within countries like the Philippines or Vietnam, it is not possible for these countries to be militarily competitive in the region with China. It is this relatively easy ability to always counter American rhetoric that gives insight into China’s formal South China Sea backstory.
The Chinese Backstory
In addition to the aforementioned perspective that China sees as ‘creeping THAADism’ and has little to do with the formally declared need to deter North Korean ambitions and aggression, US forces have been negotiating new access to as many as five Philippine military bases, with some of them strategically positioned in the disputed South China Sea. Also of great concern to Chinese military analysts are negotiations that will see new US military deployments to Australia and Singapore as supplemental parts of the Philippine plan already under way. China feels this is a disingenuous approach to bilateral diplomatic negotiation, as it has long been in discussion with the Philippines over various South China Sea disputes. Ironically, China saw Philippine entreaties to engender great American support and participation as pure manipulation, especially given that parts of the South China Sea are also currently claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam. These claims have been largely ignored by the United States. While Manila has been encouraging the US to play a more active role in resisting what it regards as Chinese aggression in so-called Philippine waters, China sees it as highly suspicious that America finds only the claims of its closest military ally in the region compelling.
China not only sees America as attempting to project its global power in the South China Sea disputes. It sees the US doing this while simultaneously preaching that China should not project any regional power in waters that have always been directly impacting Chinese national interests. Thus, in a way, China is quietly characterizing itself as a victim because it claims to have never seized a single islet in the waters from others, whereas countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam have occupied Chinese islands and islets for years.
China also pressed Japan not to broach its disputes with Beijing with regional neighbors in the South China Sea at the Group of Seven summit that was held in Japan in May. It argued that touching on the issue would hamper efforts to improve bilateral relations, even somewhat ominously warning that the ‘approach’ Japan chooses to employ to address such issues will have a long-lasting impact on overall Chinese-Japanese relations. This last position is very important to the overall understanding of how China feels South China Sea disputes should be engaged and resolved: it is a local issue best negotiated by the local powers. It is a fundamental question about power disbalance and good faith negotiation: on the Chinese side, it maintains integrity and mutual respect makes ‘outside influences’ only a hindrance (read America), while on the smaller power side of South China Sea littorals, they maintain that not leveraging a bigger player for their position will leave them hopelessly subordinate (read America).
Thus, the Chinese backstory for the South China Sea, whether it is in considering the true purpose of THAAD or the ‘interference’ in individualized bilateral relations or even the philosophical meaning of regional hegemony, revolves significantly around the exercise of American power and its interplay with what China considers legitimate Chinese national security interests. This, of course, does not take place in a vacuum: there are other voices expressing opinions beyond America and China. The ‘smaller’ littoral voices of the South China Sea have their arguments. And while they are more on the side of American assistance, they are not wholly dependent on American foreign policy. This will be the subject of the upcoming part III of THAAD MAD BAD.
What makes India’s participation in the Quad intrinsically unique?
In this essay, I try to shed light on the geopolitical imperatives that make India’s involvement in the Quad intrinsically unique and distinct from the other members.
The prime ministers of India, Japan, Australia and the President of the United States met in Tokyo, for the second in-person Quad summit on 24 May 2022, coming three months after the foreign ministers of these countries met in Melbourne, for the fourth time in three years. In addition to two virtual summits in the month of March in 2021 and 2022, the leaders also met in-person in September, last year, in Washington DC. In the last two years, the Quad has gathered rapid momentum with regular multi-level interactions, and the scope of co-operation has widened.
While the Quad is not a formal collective security alliance, Japan and Australia are two of the ‘major non-NATO allies’ of the United States in the Indo-Pacific, meaning, the three countries are already allies, with or without the Quad, which brings us to the question of India’s participation. Indian involvement brings about an existential purpose to the four-nation grouping as it reflects the growing geopolitical heft of the Indian Ocean region and India as an emerging Asian power in the strategic thinking of the three countries, particularly of the United States, the de-facto leader of the grouping.
Growing strategic insecurity emanating from the perceived disruptive rise of China in the last two decades, especially after 2012, has been a factor that brought these four countries together, ever since the grouping was revitalized in 2017 after a gap of ten years since the idea of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ was put forward by the former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. China and Russia are the only two countries in the world that outrightly rejects the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ and favours the usage of the term ‘Asia-Pacific’ instead, as they consider it as a US-led strategy to counter China.
The Russia factor
While India is a democracy, just like its three Quad partners, it also happens to be the only member of the grouping that has neither openly criticised nor imposed sanctions on Russia for its military intervention in Ukraine. Moreover, no other Quad member is as overwhelmingly dependent on Russian arms supply as India is, even though measures to diversify India’s imports are actively underway. Currently, up to 70 per cent of India’s military hardware is estimated to be of Russian origin.
The post-Cold War years saw India reaching out to Southeast Asia, a region that lies at the centre of the Indo-Pacific, and also to the United States. However, the fading aura of ASEAN-led regional institutional mechanisms, which India has been involving since 1992, in balancing mounting Chinese power can also be stated as one of the key factors that led to the rise of the alternative plurilateral groupings in the Indo-Pacific like the Quad and AUKUS (Australia, United Kingdom, and the United States security partnership) in the last few years.
Even after the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, the successor state of Russian Federation continued to be a close strategic partner and major defence supplier of India. Just last year, in 2021, India and Russia observed the golden jubilee of the signing of a landmark friendship treaty between the two countries during the Soviet-era. Russian President Vladimir Putin was welcomed in New Delhi in December 2021 for the annual India-Russia summit, and two months later, Russian forces breached the Ukrainian borders, pushing global political stability into the brink.
Varying geostrategic imperatives
Unlike the predominantly maritime geostrategic imperatives of other Quad members, India’s geography is connected with the Eurasian continental landmass, of which Russia has the commanding position, as much as it is connected to the Indo-Pacific oceanic continuum. In fact, the biggest and most pertinent of India’s security challenges arise from its land borders. While Japan is an archipelagic country located entirely in the northern Pacific, Australia lies in between the Indian and Pacific Oceans to the south, and the United States is sandwiched between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans to its east and west respectively.
Moreover, India happens to be the only Quad member that shares a land border with China. The 3,488-km-long undemarcated Line of Actual Control (LAC) between India and China’s Tibet Autonomous Region is often regarded as the world’s longest disputed border. Apart from these differences, India also happen to be a participant in Russia and China led groupings such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa grouping), which constrains India’s options in a full-fledged involvement in US-led groupings such as the Quad or any other. New Delhi views its involvement in the aforementioned groupings as an indicator of reformed multilateralism, which has been traditionally seen as West-dominated, and wishes to chart its own place in the emerging multipolar world order.
India’s opportunities as the scope of co-operation in the Quad widens
Even after four summit-level meetings, four ministerials and numerous issue-specific working groups set in action, the Quad has not yet openly acknowledged the elephant in the room, i.e., China, or its higher purpose of balance of power, which essentially ought to give a security dimension to the grouping. But it is yet to see progress. Accommodating and reconciling India’s varying interests with the grouping’s larger collective agenda is a big challenge too. Items in the Quad’s agenda since the very first virtual summit in March 2021 include a partnership to manufacture and distribute vaccines to needy countries of the Indo-Pacific region drawing on each other’s strengths, critical and emerging technologies, climate resilience, cyber security, space, fostering people-to-people ties through educational opportunities, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) and so on.
The launch of the Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness (IPMDA) at the recently-concluded Tokyo summit could enable information-sharing across the existing regional fusion centres. It can also bolster India’s involvement in an agenda item that is closely related to security – maritime data sharing. Being the regional leader in the Indian Ocean, India’s naval surveillance capabilities, including the Gurugram-based Information Fusion Centre-Indian Ocean Region (IFC-IOR), can be better utilised to achieve the grouping’s collective objectives, aimed at identifying illegal activities in the region’s seas.
Another key initiative launched on the sidelines of the Tokyo summit is the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF), which adds a key economic pillar to Washington’s engagement in the region, especially in the backdrop of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which India also opposes due to concerns on its sovereignty and territorial integrity. Moreover, India’s pharmaceutical industry can play a major role in the vaccine initiative announced last year, which is yet to materialise fully.
India’s ties with the US shapes its involvement in the Quad and vice versa
India’s deepening ties with the United States is also playing a significant role in shaping India’s participation in the Quad and in expanding the currently identified generic agendas of co-operation to a more security-oriented one, for which the recent signs are positive. While the previous Trump Administration subtly welcomed India again to the Quad, in 2017, the Biden administration cemented on the ties and has been largely following a policy of continuity towards India. The decision on whether to impose sanctions on India under CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act), owing to the purchase of Russian weapons, is put on hold, and is unlikely to be imposed as the ties between the two countries continue to remain robust, despite the Russia factor, both bilaterally and under the Quad framework.
In 2018, the United States renamed its oldest and largest military command, the Pacific Command, to the ‘Indo-Pacific Command’, in a largely symbolic move acknowledging India’s growing importance in US strategic thinking and calculations for Asia. In the same year, the annual India-US ‘2+2’ ministerial dialogue was also inaugurated. Two years before that, in 2016, India was made a Major Defence Partner of the United States, followed by the inking of a series of foundational pacts for military inter-operability, the last one being the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA), signed in 2020.
At the same time, while one Quad member Japan hosts the largest number of US military bases in the world, coming further under the US alliance protection and the nuclear umbrella, the other Quad member Australia is part of other US-led groupings in the region such as the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence network, ANZUS (Australia, New Zealand and the United States) treaty and the recent AUKUS grouping. However, India has never been part of any security alliance right from its independence and has followed the path of ‘non-alignment’ (during the Cold War years), which later metamorphosed into ‘multi-alignment’.
India’s simultaneous involvement in a diverse set of groupings with varying purposes, goals, and participants, and being close to both Russia and the US at the same time is indeed sheer diplomatic skill. However, the fact that being a vibrant democracy and a key maritime power in the Indian Ocean region brings India closer to the Quad’s shared values and interests. The Quad today reflects the need for balance of power in the Indo-Pacific, where-in a power transition is underway with the rise of China. The Quad is largely reflective of a Western-led response to this power transition, while Indian interests are aligned both in being part of the Western-led response, i.e., Quad, IPEF and IPMDA, and also in acting as a key independent pillar in the changing regional and global order.
Is Fatigue Causing Twists and Turns in Russia Ukraine War?
As Russia Ukraine war completes three months, both sides are witnessing spectacular twists and turns, showing that reality is biting both sides. Few would have predicted a month ago that President Putin would be willing to swallow the bitter pill of Finland and Sweden’s bid to join NATO, which effectively amounts to NATO’s eastward expansion, adding over a thousand kilometres of direct land border between Russia and NATO, and respond only with a weak warning to react to increased weapon deployment in these two countries.
Likewise, the rhetoric of Ukraine winning the war overhyped by US led NATO through exhaustive information and perception war, seems to be fading with surrender of over 2000 Azov fighters in Mariupol, cutting off of Ukraine from Sea of Azov, besides losing a large chunk of land in Donbass Region. President Zelensky acknowledgement of diplomacy being only answer, highlighting concerns for people and soldiers is not too late, if those interested in prolonging this war let him act on it.
Parties to the Conflict
The war is sparing no-one in the world from inflationary pressures, having doubled the figures of global food insecure population, due to acute food shortage, triggering the blame game by both sides to seek concessions. While Russia can be accused of launching pre-emptive ground offensive on Ukraine, NATO can also be accused for creating conditions threatening Russia by continued eastward expansion and proxy war. While the kinetic, contact, hybrid war is on between Russia and Ukraine, the US led NATO is fighting a non-kinetic, non-contact, undeclared war in economic, information, diplomatic and political domains, against Russia; hence de-facto parties to the war.
Russian Stakes and Compulsions
After three months of war, while Russia can draw solace by sizeable territorial gains and linking Donbas with Crimea after capture of Mariupol, but at a very heavy cost of men and material, besides an unprecedented economic stress due to crippling sanctions by the West. It has made President Putin revisit his stance on Finland and Sweden, as it is cost prohibitive for Russia to open another front with NATO on Finland borders. It therefore makes better sense for him to achieve the desired end state in ongoing conflict with Ukraine by liberating Donbass Region, landlocking Ukraine and deal with Finland later. Russia realizes its limitations in economic, diplomatic, information and political warfare domain; hence more territorial gains on ground to landlock Ukraine by extending land bridge between Crimea, Odesa to Transnistria and liberating Donbass is the best option for it, to gain better negotiating position, to have the sanctions lifted.
Ukrainian Stakes and Compulsions
President Zelensky appears to recognise that neither he nor the western propaganda-based information war, which has made him a hero and outright winner, can be sustained in the long run, having lost more territory than size of some European countries, left with devastated towns, over four million refugees, heavy casualties, and the surrender of his overhyped Azov Regiments. While additional aid and weaponry with $40 billion cheque from US and $16.4 billion from EU can boost his combat power, but regaining lost ground from Russians is going to be extremely difficult, as they will use built up areas for defending their gains, as Ukraine did. Prolonging war doesn’t guarantee peace for Ukraine, but it may result in greater territorial loss, unending proxy war, and a long-term Russian threat.
NATO’s Stakes and Compulsions
NATO seems to be emboldened by soft Russian response to the bid of Finland and Sweden to join NATO, with a confidence that Russia has been adequately weakened to challenge eastward expansion of NATO; hence, it is keen to add these two countries with strong militaries, to secure its northern flank and have a better collective security posture in the long run. It also makes sense in context of Sino-Russian footprints in Arctic region and North Atlantic Ocean. Towards that aim, it is ready to sacrifice some of its energy and economic interests for the time being.
It is too early to predict how long this show of unified strength will continue, because the war is certainly not making Europe peaceful, with millions of refugees and non-state actors activated and a longer border with belligerent Russia, which will reorganize itself, learning from its miscalculations. While NATO may be able to handle the objections of Turkey and Croatia with few concessions/addressing security concerns, but the disagreement regarding long term energy security may not be easy to handle, once the rhetoric of united NATO starts fading with economic fatigue and energy deficit.
Is USA the Beneficiary?
In short term USA can rejoice some immediate gains. It has been able to get control of NATO, weaken Russia, create market for its arms dealers, energy companies and infrastructure contractors. It has been able to block strategic Nord Stream1 and 2, and encourage EU to find alternate energy sources, thereby reducing Russian influence drastically.
It has, however, incurred certain long-term losses, the most serious of which is driving Russia into a stronger China-Russia Axis than ever before, which is beyond its individual capabilities to handle. True, this battle has revitalised NATO, but it has also strengthened the Russia-China-Iran nexus, or anti-West alliance. Sanctions have fueled calls for an alternative financial system to avoid financial paralysis caused by a monopolized dollarized financial system, which could harm the US in the long run.
The US’s global exhibition of backing proxy war by enabling Ukraine/Zelensky to fight to the bitter end in order to achieve its geopolitical aim of weakening Russia, with no American losses has tarnished the US’s reputation as an ally/partner. Indeed, more than $56 billion in funding for a proxy war in Ukraine, which is more than double the amount spent in Afghanistan’s 20-year war, reveals misplaced priorities, unless US is counting on making much more money from increased weapon sales by prolonging the war.
It has put Taiwan, Japan and South Korea on notice facing similar threat from aggressive China, to which US has been extremely shy of sanctioning it, despite later breaching territorial integrity of many democracies in South China Sea, violating Taiwanese air space at will, and incremental encroachment in Himalayas. The world, struggling with financial, food and energy crisis, doesn’t want any extension of war, on any pretext.
The visit of President Biden to Indo-Pacific is significant to restore declining confidence of allies and partners in Indo-Pacific, without which, taking on China challenge is difficult. Many in this region accuse Biden administration of reactivating Cold War 1.0 with Russia, diluting Cold War 2.0 with China, which is a bigger global challenge with better economic muscles. The proposed launch of Indo Pacific Economic Forum is to lure more regional countries to gain lost ground in economic engagement vis a vis China.
In a situation where NATO continues to persuade Zelensky to fight, giving hopes to recapture entire territory of Ukraine, and the Russians continue incremental efforts to achieve an end state of landlocked Ukraine and independent Donbass, the war will continue. Neither the sanctions have deterred Russia, nor blocking gas flow by Russia will deter NATO. As long as Ukraine is ready to be used as a tool in big power contestation and NATO continues to add fuel to the fire, the chances of talks or any mediation seems to be a remote possibility. In Russia Ukraine war, there will be no winners, but a new set of security and economic challenges will impact entire world.
Having tested US responses in Ukraine, the growing Chinese aggressiveness in Indo-Pacific is a wakeup call to US to avoid losing influence in the region, especially after losing considerable strategic space in the Middle East and Af-Pak regions. Chinese footprints in the Solomon Islands surprised US and Australia. Regular violation of ADIZ of Taiwan, belligerent North Korea threatening South Korea and Japan, reassertion of Chinese and Russian claims against Japan indicate that US resolve is under greater threat in the Indo-Pacific, where it has obligation to defend Japan and South Korea and strategic necessity to save Taiwan. It is also not easy to find another Zelensky/Ukraine in Asia, willing to act as proxy of NATO. It is for this reason President Joe Biden needs partners in Indo-Pacific, strengthen/expand Quad, and put up viable alternative economic, infrastructure, technological and supply chain in Indo-Pacific with allies and partners. The UK Foreign Minister’s call for Global NATO seems far fetched at this point of time, but indicates desperation for global support to face the reality of threat from growing Chinese Russian alliance.
U.S.’ Unperturbed Response to Indian BrahMos Launch in Pakistan: Aberration or New Normal?
As India’s nuclear-capable BrahMos cruise missile crashed into the territory of its nuclear-armed and ever-hostile adversary on the evening of March 9th almost pushing the two countries to the brink of catastrophic tit-for-tat exchange, the usually vociferous strategic experts and arms control enthusiasts in the USA maintained a cautionary conspicuous silence. Even it took the US State Department Spokesperson 06 days to issue a formal statement on the precarious issue and that too after being asked by a journalist during the daily press briefing. If one thinks for the USA – the self-proclaimed champion of nuclear safety and security – such a belated response to such a potentially hazardous “accident” constituted an anomaly, having a look at what the USA’s State Department’s spokesperson finally stated would be handy, which in essence uncritically endorsed the ambiguous and self-contradictory Indian viewpoint on the issue while refusing to make any further comments.
One does not need to wonder what would have been the reaction in the West had something of this character landed in India from Pakistan. Hell would have readily broken loose and the relevant academic, policy-advocacy, and policy-making circles in the West would have been up in the arms predicting a nuclear holocaust owing to irresponsible handling of sensitive weapon systems by Pakistan and making calls to fulfill their long-held desire of ‘securing’ Pakistan’s strategic arsenal. But given it was a breach on part of India, the belated and unperturbed response despite the profound precariousness associated with the fiasco makes complete sense. Anomaly! Not really, because the apparent aberration is all set to be the new normal: only those nuclear safety and security breaches would concern the Western (specifically the US) strategic community happening apropos countries considered on the other side of the geostrategic equation and India – given its geostrategic utility vis-à-vis China – is positioned on the same side as with the Western world so even the strategic blunders like the recent one would be conveniently brushed under the carpet. Reason: any criticism of Indian BrahMos blunder or even expression of concern about the safety and security of India’s cutting-edge weapons systems would have infuriated overly touchy souls in New Delhi, which Washington has been trying so desperately to woo.
Though the convergence of geopolitical interests forms the most consequential and undoubtedly the umbrella reason for the USA’s unperturbed response to India’s BrahMos launch into Pakistan, it is not only the only one. Currently, the Indian diaspora constitutes one of the most powerful lobbies in the USA domestic political and electoral landscape augmented by their deep ingress into academia, policy advocacy, and policy-making spheres, where they primarily act as the arm of Indian foreign policy and security establishments essentially safeguarding and qualifying all rights and wrongs by New Delhi and by default working to discredit its prime adversary Pakistan using a wide range of means and mediums. The relegation of the Jammu and Kashmir dispute from a self-determination demand of nearly 20 million people once backed by the USA at international forums to a mere Pakistan-sponsored insurgency in complete concurrence with the Indian standpoint and conspicuous apologetic attitude of the USA government and intelligentsia over India’s now almost undisputed plunge into the abyss of fascism under Modi are the most vivid case studies of the lobby’s influence in the USA, though backed by the umbrella of convergence of geostrategic interests.
Though the USA and Pakistan being long-time allies have their own baggage of alleged betrayals, sanctions, and double-games, the steep decline in the goodwill for Islamabad during the past few decades is attributable to years-old concerted efforts by the Indian lobby and the muted reaction to India’s BrahMos launch in Pakistan even by the strategic and focusing on South Asia intelligentsia within the USA was another manifestation of the reality that the lobby has gained considerable check over the academic and policy discourse in the USA.
Ironically, the trend of overlooking India’s shenanigans at home and aboard and potentially catastrophic breaches of safety and security of destructive weapons systems is all set to be the new normal as the aforementioned factors of geopolitical convergence and the lobby’s role in influencing academic and policy discourse responsible for the setting the trends are only likely to be reinforced in the coming years and decades. However, there is a big question mark whether unwaveringly covering up New Delhi’s abysmal domestic and regional track records undermines the USA’s international legitimacy as the principal sponsor of “rules-based international order”? An unequivocal yes! But it appears policymakers in Washington are willing to let their legitimacy tarnish in barter for India’s utility vis-à-vis China – a characteristic case of power politics triumphing idealistic charades.
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