"Natural Allies"

 MPost |  2016-08-31 21:13:11.0  |  New Delhi

The NDA government has made a concerted effort towards cozying up to the United States at the expense of China and possibly its own strategic autonomy. On Monday, the governments of India and the US signed the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement that will enable their militaries to use each other’s assets and bases for repair and replenishment of supplies. Reports indicate that it will make joint military operations a lot easier. As per the joint statement signed by Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar and US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, strategic defence ties between the two countries are based on their “shared values and interests” and “abiding commitment to global peace and security”. Finer details of the defence pact notwithstanding, Parrikar emphasised that the LEMOA will not entail a “provision for any base or any sort of activities to set up base in India”, as many observers had feared. Although India seeks greater movement on the issue of high technology trade, the US establishment remains non-committal. There seems to be no intent on their side to give India any positive assurance at this stage. The joint statement also goes on to state that Washington has agreed to “elevate defence, trade and technology sharing with India to a level commensurate with its closest allies and partners”.  Meanwhile, US Secretary of State John Kerry landed in New Delhi on Monday for crucial talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Kerry is expected to discuss ambitious plans for a five-fold hike in trade between India and the US to approximately $500 billion with Modi on Wednesday. Reports indicate that the senior US official is also tasked with furthering the “strategic and commercial dialogue” launched by US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi last year. During his address to the US Congress in June this year, Modi invoked former incumbent Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s expression of “natural allies” to indicate that India has well and truly aligned with America. He also cited a range of common objectives and collaborations—from securing the Indian Ocean to climate change.

There were clear signs that New Delhi was ready to fulfill Obama's vision of India and America forming the defining partnership of the 21st century. In an era marked by the competition between the US and China for greater economic and strategic influence, Modi has clearly decided to look westwards. It is imperative to remember that Vajpayee’s expression of “natural allies” was avoided during the previous Congress-led UPA regime to maintain the pretense of non-alignment. However, one did a witness a slight shift in India’s foreign policy priorities under the UPA. The Indo-US civil nuclear deal in 2008 was probably the first indicator of this shift in strategy after the Vajpayee years. But Modi has kicked it into overdrive. Washington has already officially recognised India as a “Major Defence Partner”. Signs of this enhanced relationship were on display throughout the year with Washington supporting India’s bid for membership in both the Missile Technology Control Regime and the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Back in June, India had also decided to buy six nuclear power plants from Toshiba-Westinghouse, a major American corporation. But the Westinghouse deal remains in the throes of “finalising the contractual agreements by June 2017”. During his visit to India, Kerry has also been tasked with furthering negotiations on civilian nuclear cooperation. Modi’s desire to kick Indo-US relations into overdrive was probably best summed up by the man himself. “More than fifteen years ago, Prime Minister of India, Atal Bihari Vajpayee stood here and gave a call to step out of the ‘shadow of hesitation’ of the past,” he said. “The pages of our friendship since then tell a remarkable story. Today, our relationship has overcome the hesitations of history.”       

China has indeed taken note of India’s overtures to the US. Although Beijing downplayed the LEMOA as “normal cooperation”, China’s state-sponsored media warned that India’s attempts to ally with the US could “irritate” China and Pakistan. China has decided to use Pakistan to not only further their economic interests in the region but also as a buffer against potential security threats. On the economic front, it is heavily invested in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project, which stretches between Chinese province of Xinjiang and Pakistan’s Gwadar Port. Strategic experts believe that this “economic corridor” will give China quicker access to markets in both Europe and the Middle East. This corridor, however, passes through one of Pakistan’s most volatile areas, i.e. the Balochistan province, home to Pakistan’s longest running insurgency. The construction of the Gwadar port has angered Balochis. Prime Minister Modi’s recent comments on Balochistan have raised some concerns within the Beijing establishment. Unlike the Cold War era, we do not live in a time where it has become imperative to align with one superpower at the cost of the other. In the past, Prime Minister Modi also made unprecedented overtures to China, courting greater economic investment into India. China remains India's largest trading partner. Nonetheless, the strategic implications of Modi’s recent visit to the US are very clear.

The Obama administration wants India to become a major player in its “Pivot to Asia” doctrine. Meanwhile, Modi seems happy to play along, considering China’s recent economic and military concessions to Pakistan. Beijing has worked overtime to undermine India across international forums. Apart from blocking India’s passage into the NSG, China has used its veto powers in the Security Council to assert that Pathankot attack mastermind Masood Azhar does not qualify as a terrorist who would have to face UN sanctions. Nonetheless, India must be careful not to enter into a one-sided relationship with the US and isolate China. Washington’s track record with its allies in the developing world does not inspire much confidence. There is a reason why commentators criticise any move that seeks to develop closer ties with the US. One only has to look at Pakistan to understand the consequences of such a one-sided relationship with the US. India must consider its own self-interest rather than become a mere pawn in America’s “Pivot to Asia” doctrine. 

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