President Barack Obama’s recent visit to New Delhi has generated a lot of speculation that India’s foreign policies under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership are slouching toward an alliance between the two countries with the shared objective of finessing the rise of China.
The pro-American lobbyists in the Indian media have gone to town celebrating a so-called “new entente” with the US. Is there an entente, really? If so, is it altogether new? Is an entente necessary at all? Frankly, this is all becoming a bit like what Lao Tzu, the great philosopher and poet of ancient China, once said, ‘Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know.’ We simply do not know how far those who speak for Mr. Modi’s mind are in fact speaking for him. The high probability is – not one of the lobbyists.
All the speculation was engineered from one source, namely, a New York Times report attributed to unnamed US officials to the effect that during the conversation with Mr. Obama, Mr. Modi spoke in a 45-minute torrential flow of deep angst over China’s rise. Of course, why Mr. Obama’s senior diplomats felt prompted to plant a mischievous story in the media is intriguing. They are either plain duffers or were being clever by half. Suffice it to say, the “leak” was deliberate, exposing Mr. Modi badly ahead of his forthcoming visit to China.
The heart of the matter is that Washington always sought to co-opt India as a participant (“lynchpin”, as former defence secretary Leon Panetta once said) in the US’ ‘pivot’ to Asia and a defining moment may be reaching soon. To be sure, Mr. Modi has injected dynamism into Indian diplomacy. For the first time after Narasimha Rao (who navigated India’s difficult and complicated transition to the post-cold war era), we have a prime minister who is not ‘one-dimensional’ in his world outlook. Mr. Modi is negotiating harder than any of his predecessors in the recent decades for getting the best terms possible from the world’s major powers for meeting India’s emergent needs as an economy and society, which is passing through a formative transition period.
Being the gifted politician he is, and with his intense awareness of the mood of his people in this vast country, Mr. Modi knows that the fantastic mandate he received in the 2014 poll will prove ephemeral unless he delivered on the development agenda that he pledged. Quintessentially, it boils down to creating job opportunities in the tens of millions for India’s unemployed youth. Thus was born Mr. Modi’s obsessive idea of ‘Make in India’ as the leitmotif of India’s partnership with major powers. Without doubt, Mr. Modi has thought through a recalibration of policies geared to advance his ambitions regarding a rising India as well as his own (legitimate) political agenda to secure a renewed mandate from the Indian people in 2019.
Enter China. Mr. Modi has visited China five times, more than any other country. The Chinese companies invested most in Gujarat when he was the chief minister than in any other state. As a subaltern, Mr. Modi has taken immense pride in his region’s Buddhist heritage and the ancient links between China and his own village. His pride and emotion on that balmy evening on the Sabarmati riverbanks hosting Chinese President Xi Jinping was self-evident. But far more important is the role that Mr. Modi attributes to China in his ‘Make in India’ project.
China’s experience is unique in undertaking massive labor-intensive infrastructure projects and creating a manufacturing sector that enabled that country to lift some 700 million people out of the trap of poverty, a feat without parallel in modern history. While the West can provide India with technology, which helps the economy to become more efficient, the pressing demand of the political economy, which Mr. Modi prioritizes as a statesman, is job creation that makes the benefits of growth percolate down to the dispossessed and disadvantaged sections of society. In sum, India needs both the West and China.
Mr. Modi is taking a leap of faith toward China. A $32 billion Chinese railway project and the fulfilment of the $20 billion offer made by Mr Xi during his September visit to create two industrial parks in India have the potential to create several lakhs of jobs in a very near future. The purposiveness with which he is planning his return visit to China so soon shows Mr. Modi’s sense of urgency.
On the other hand, the Chinese are pragmatic enough to know that the border dispute with India does not lend itself to an easy resolution anytime soon and the art of the possible lies in providing underpinnings for peace and tranquility in the vacant lands that separate the two countries. China is keen to deepen and expand its ties with India comprehensively, especially in the hugely beneficial economic arena, which in turn would create the mutual trust and confidence to stabilize the overall relationship and put it on a predictable footing.
China seems to understand Mr. Modi’s political personality and made an unprecedented overture to the new government as soon as it took over last May. China sees Mr. Modi as a decisive leader who can take difficult decisions, and an effective interlocutor – and that a rare opportunity has presented itself for a historic upgrade of the relationship contemporaneous with the twenty-first century. Mr. Xi would like to receive Mr. Modi in Xian, his hometown. Quite obviously, India-China relations form an important template of the geopolitics of Asia-Pacific. Being two of the fastest-growing countries in the world, how they bond – and the quality of their bonding – will be of profound consequence to the world order. The short point is that in the emerging polycentric world order, India and China are already two key centres. This and this alone explains the US’ keenness to see that a genuine India-China reconciliation does not take place, which undermines the western hegemony in the international system.
Mr. Modi is a tough negotiator. His diplomatic moves underscore that he wants partnerships with all major powers, which are of use to India. But then, the US historically viewed with wariness any robustly nationalistic leaderships abroad – from Charles de Gaulle to Vladimir Putin. Unsurprisingly, the US hopes to leverage the interest groups that surround Mr. Modi. But then, there are serious contradictions, too.
Three things need to be noted. First and foremost, US-China ties are complex and it is unwise for India to become a function of that relationship of high interdependency (which at times takes the hue of a “G-2” partnership or may seem adversarial.) At the end of the day, China tops the list of countries that finance the US’ debts. The massive bilateral trade; Chinese investments in the US; China’s commitment to dollar as the world currency; China’s market as the driver of growth for the world economy; China’s gargantuan appetite for world’s resources (and its impact on commodity prices) – all these impact the US’ vital interests.
The US-Chinese cooperation is actually quite dense regarding regional and global issues – Iran, Islamic State, North Korea, climate change, maritime security and regional trade. In fact, they closely consult each other with regard to the South Asian region. Mr. Obama, while visiting China in November, urged a ‘proactive’ role by Beijing to stabilize. Curiously, China has begun discussing with the Taliban (and Pakistan) how it could mediate a reconciliation process. (Washington will never countenance a similar role for India, lest it annoyed Pakistan.)
A second aspect is that the majority of Asia-Pacific countries themselves are stakeholders in friendly relations with China and have turned their back on the US ‘pivot’ strategy. They do not even believe that the US can extricate itself out of the Middle East quagmire. So, what is this US-led alliance system against China in Asia-Pacific all about?
Finally, India has its own problems to resolve with China and there is no scope for an American role there. The bottom line for China is that India should not link up with any US-led containment strategy. China’s record is consistent here. Decades of Soviet-Chinese border negotiations reached nowhere, but no sooner than the hostilities ceased following the end of the cold war and Moscow made overtures to Beijing, a settlement could be reached – to Russia’s full satisfaction.
Clearly, it is not in India’s interests to identify even remotely with the US pivot to Asia. Besides, a good market already exists in India for the export of American weaponry. India provides a level playing field for the foreign arms manufacturers and the US lately figured as India’s main supplier. It is unnecessary to fuel arms trade with geopolitics or India’s relations with China, as India genuinely needs to modernize its armed forces and is keen to develop an indigenous arms industry. Let market forces prevail, which is in the best interests of ‘Make in India’.
asianage.\The writer is a former ambassador