Lost in the middle of nowhere
China is a ‘peer competitor.’ Relations with Russia are ‘special and privileged.’ The USA has now received a promotion from being ‘natural friends’ to ‘best partners.’ Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a thespian of political theatre. He knows how to play the media to his advantage. The script, however, seems to have remained unchanged from Atal Behari Vajpayee’s time in government.
The latter had written to then US President Bill Clinton after Pokhran II saying that the ‘fear’ of China was the cause behind our nuclear weapons test. The White House had quickly leaked the letter to the media and a chill had appeared in the relations between Beijing and New Delhi.
Monday’s New York Times (NYT) had done a story that said that during the first round of meetings between Obama and Modi, the latter had taken the first 45 minutes expressing apprehensions about China.
Anyway, it is not as if that Beijing has shown deep concern over all the symbolism and substance. It has reacted in a measured way by denouncing the joint statement of the US and India on the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean. Meanwhile, it has also reiterated that Pakistan is an ‘all weather friend.’
Beijing’s second reaction could be considered knee-jerk to say the least; for Pakistan today can hardly be anyone’s reliable friend. Such an analogy, however, can be transferred to the USA. Ask Ngô Ðình Di?m and Nguy?n Van Thi?u, the presidents of then South Vietnam. You will have to reach for the heavens to get an interview with them about their US ally, led by a combination of Kennedy-Johnson-Nixon. Or remember the famous Pakistan ‘tilt’ of Nixon-Kissinger Washington! History seldom suffers from dementia.
After talking about Modi’s 45-minute diatribe, the New York Times wrote, “For years, American presidents have tried to enlist India, the world’s largest democracy, in a more robust partnership, partly to offset China’s rising power. India has had a long history of suspicion and rivalry with China, which allied with Pakistan during the Cold War. But it has long insisted on being an independent actor in world affairs and resisted aligning itself with the United States against its giant neighbour.”
It can seem to any observer that neither Modi nor his party, BJP (from past and present records) believes in having an independent foreign policy. They would rather burn bridges to be close to what is superficially called the only superpower of the world. Having muscular friends can help, as every school boy can tell you. One doesn’t need Chanakya’s advice to take you on the garden path. However, a firm grasp on statecraft is not required to understand how one can grow taller in the company of nations that transform their own destinies, seeking minimal help from others.
So, what has been achieved in this glorious trip of pomp and glamour? The balance sheet says that the US has reduced its liabilities by achieving breakthroughs on two of their favourite issues, nuclear accident liability clause and the climate change bugbear. For India, the assets side seems a little bare. Barring the piffling $ 4 billion investment pledge – that may require India to hire American consultants or their Indian collaborators – and an unsigned ten-year Defence Framework Agreement, the draft of which can undergo change after the new Defence Secretary, Ashton Carter takes charge, there is little more than just talk and of course, walk.
In the process, New Delhi has lost Beijing, at least for a while. It seems much water has flown down the river near Varanasi. It has also made Moscow jittery, in terms of its role as the primary supplier of India’s military arsenal. It has also landed itself in a position of competition with Pakistan to please a friend 14,000 miles away and that friend can firmly believe that like a cat it has eaten all the cream. Modi’s political sagacity will be sorely tested to maintain this ‘better friendship.’ For a few incursions across the line of actual control (LAC) will not rouse Washington enough to play against a nation that holds most of its treasury bonds.
The author is a senior journalist