Foreign policy

Dangerous tilt

Print edition : February 20, 2015

Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Shinzo Abe at the Toji Temple in Kyoto, western Japan, on August 31. Japan was one of the first countries Modi visited as Prime Minister. Photo: Atul Yadav/PTI

A joint naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal in 2007. More than 20,000 naval personnel from Australia, India, Japan, Singapore, and the U.S. took part in it. Photo: AP/US NAVY/Juan Antoine King

Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar, who favours a robust anti-China policy, with the Chinese Ambassador to India Le Yucheng in New Delhi on January 30. Photo: PTI

The U.S. has been trying to draw India into the anti-China security grouping as part of its “pivot to the East” policy. But such a tilt may not serve India’s interests.

The success of President Barack Obama’s intention to rebalance the power equation in East Asia with the “pivot to the East” policy depends a lot on cooperation from the major powers in the region, notably India. India, under both the National Democratic Alliance and the United Progressive Alliance governments, has been portraying itself as the “natural partner” of the United States. The leaderships of the two countries revel in describing themselves as the two largest democracies in the world which also share core values. Since the signing of the defence partnership agreement between the two countries 10 years ago, strategic and military relations have indeed deepened. But, until now, India has striven to retain its strategic autonomy in foreign affairs. Even after the foreign policy tilt towards the U.S. became obvious, India, over the last decade and a half, has been careful in nurturing ties with the developing world through the auspices of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and other international forums. Membership in groupings like BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) gave diplomatic heft to India’s relationship with major countries like Russia, China and Brazil.

Things, however, could be changing after the second visit of President Obama to India in January. In the joint vision statement released during the visit, India endorsed the U.S.’ positions on the South China Sea, freedom of navigation, Iran and North Korea. India’s own “Look East” policy seems to be working in close tandem with U.S. policy goals in the region.

Beijing has reasons to suspect that Washington has succeeded in convincing the new government in New Delhi to work closely along with Japan and the Philippines to build an alliance against China. The Philippines under President Benigno Aquino has deviated from the policies of his predecessors and further intensified relations with the U.S. by renewing basing facilities for the U.S. military.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, known for his nationalistic rhetoric and antagonism towards China, has been urging for a “quadrilateral” defence agreement between the U.S., Japan, Australia and India. Before starting a second term as Prime Minister, Abe had argued in favour of a strategic alliance between the four countries “to safeguard the maritime commons stretching from the Indian Ocean region to the Western Pacific”. Japan was among the first countries Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited. Modi and Abe are both on an avowed mission to make their countries important global players, economically and militarily.

After Modi became Prime Minister, he announced his “Act East” policy, signalling an even more activist policy in East Asia. After his first meeting with the U.S. President in Washington last year, a joint statement was issued which designated the South China Sea as an important area where the freedom of navigation and maritime security had to be safeguarded. China has been reiterating that there was absolutely no threat to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. China again reacted strongly to President Obama’s remarks in New Delhi in January about the freedom of navigation being threatened in the South China Sea.

“At present, the situation in the South China Sea is generally stable and there is a consensus among ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] countries to jointly safeguard peace and stability in the South China Sea,” a Chinese government spokesman said in the last week of January. The spokesman also added that aircraft “over-flights had not encountered any problems and there will be none in the future” over the South China Sea. China has laid claim to most of the South China Sea but it has said that it is open to negotiations with the other countries that have similar territorial claims in the mineral-rich area. Forty per cent of the world’s maritime commerce passes through the South China Sea.

The joint statement issued during Obama’s India visit emphasised “freedom of navigation” in the South China Sea and the issue of over-flights. Last year, Ajit Doval, Modi’s National Security Adviser (NSA) was in Washington for talks with senior U.S. officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry and U.S. NSA Susan Rice. The talks, according to reports, centred on maritime security in South-east and East Asia and the looming threat from China. India’s newly appointed Foreign Secretary, S. Jaishankar, had voiced support for a more robust anti-China policy in coordination with the U.S. According to a 2010 diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks, Jaishankar is quoted as saying that India would like “to coordinate more closely” with the U.S. in the face of China’s “more aggressive approach to international relations”.

When the “Pivot to the East” policy was first announced in 2012, the then U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, had written that the rebalancing would be underwritten in part by “forging a broad-based military presence” in the region. The U.S. has been trying for many years to draw India into its web of military alliances. Its hopes have risen with the coming to power of a right-wing nationalist government in New Delhi. It is a dangerous web. The U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, has said that the U.S., in the near future, “may be obliged to overtly confront China just as it faced down the Soviet Union”.

Even as Obama keeps on saying that a “thriving China is good for America”, Washington is keeping all options, including the military one, open. Besides stationing troops in the Philippines, the U.S.’ military alliances with Japan, South Korea, Thailand and Australia have been further strengthened. The Pentagon has adopted an air-sea battle doctrine in the Asia-Pacific region, deploying 60 per cent of its nuclear-armed and high-tech navy in the region. Joint exercises with the navies of the region have also increased. Vietnam, with its “friends with all nations” policy, has given the U.S. Navy access to the Cam Ranh Naval Base. Washington has established military-to-military contacts with the Myanmarese Army in its efforts to stop the Chinese from getting access to the Indian Ocean. Obama’s “pivot to the East” policy has encouraged Vietnam and the Philippines to be more inflexible on their positions in the territorial disputes with China.

India has no territorial disputes with any of the countries in the Southeast Asian region. The territorial disputes in the region between China and a few countries are not of much relevance to India’s national interests. The country’s strategic interests, according to most experts, are limited to the eastern side of the Strait of Malacca. If India persists in wading into the South China Sea by either militarily siding with Vietnam or allowing its Navy to have permanent berthing facilities there, it will be viewed as a provocation by China. During the recent visit of Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung to India, Modi said that India considered Vietnam one of the main “pillars of its Look East Policy”. During the visit, Modi highlighted the growing military ties between the two countries.

In fact, many members of the ASEAN group do not want India to have adversarial relations with China. Their focus is on unencumbered economic growth. They feel that this goal can be achieved only if there is peace and tranquillity in the region. There is a general view that the U.S. is a declining power. The “pivot to the East” could be a last throw of the dice for the U.S. in its uphill efforts to retain its hegemonic status in world affairs. Some senior U.S. officials have questioned the rebalancing to the East hyped up by the Obama administration. They consider the situation in West Asia, South Asia and North Africa much more volatile than the East Asian situation. Many of them have gone on record as stating that these threats are more serious than the one allegedly posed by China.

The Chinese media have taken note of the tentative moves to bring India into the already existing anti-China security grouping. “The U.S. wants to use India to contain China, but Delhi may not agree to such a strategy,” a commentary from China National Radio stated.

Global Times warned both India and China against “falling into the trap of rivalry set up by the West”. The article in the paper goes on to add that the stereotypes of the “Chinese dragon” and “Indian elephant” were created and hyped up by the West. Xinhua, the official news agency, in a commentary, said the Sino-Indian relations would not be significantly impacted by the U.S. President’s three-day visit to India. The article emphasised that the two countries were “natural partners in many different areas” and were also “the two largest emerging economies”. The Indian External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj, was in Beijing in the first week of February to attend a meeting of Russia-India-China (RIC) Foreign Ministers.



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