Business with caution
Being a big arms consumer, it would serve in the best interest of India to be wary of China’s growing and lucrative military market
It's ugly but scripted. It is also an indelible reality. "150. Conversation among President Nixon; President's National Security Adviser (Henry Kissinger), and President's Chief of Staff (Haldeman); Washington DC, Friday November 05, 1971: 8.15 am-9.00 am".
"Nixon:...She (Indira Gandhi) is a b.....ch."
"Kissinger: Well,......Indians are b....rds anyway...".
"Kissinger: While she was a b....ch/w...ch, we got what we wanted...".
Today, the very same Kissinger, the redoubtable National Security Adviser of impeached POTUS (President of the US) Nixon who had roundly abused then Indian Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, in unparliamentary language, like an aspiring teen-aged politician to catch attention and win confidence, of his seniors, 48 years ago, (subsequent tendering of weak-kneed "sorry" notwithstanding), at 96 years and 5 months, visited India. His visit was on occasion of high-level business interactions with India and he didn't come alone. Alongside him were two former PMs, Tony Blair of UK and John Howard of Australia, not to mention former US Defence Secretary Robert Gates and former Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice.
That's fine; notwithstanding the fact that this author still has mixed feelings regarding the extraordinarily foul language of US leadership against every Indian, the whole of India and Prime Minister thereof. It's just not possible to forget or erase the inscribed words of history books. I am sure the Han Chinese wouldn't have forgotten. Some of us may not be fond of Chinese but the fact is that their sense of history and self-respect is admirable. Hence, it is worth emulating. Nevertheless, the English word "sorry" is a great diplomatic and social leveller which soothes tense situations. Yet, words are like bullets. Once fired, they cannot be recalled or retracted. Much like one can never unscramble a scrambled egg. Still, the India visit by the former leaders as goodwill and perception-management ambassadors, to bridge and build public diplomacy with their states and explore ways to proceed and untangle knotty issues of/on trade, commerce and co-operation for "mutual interest" appeared routine. This was owing to it being in "mutual interest" of/for all.
To this author, however, things don't appear as they are portrayed. The word 'mutual' is attractive in diplomacy undoubtedly but which country in the world would not be interested in pushing its own 'self-interest'? First and foremost, which country would not aim to extract the maximum amount of advantages and concessions from another country? According to this author, there are none. Hence, to camouflage one's real motive and intention, the word 'mutual interest' plays optics, rather than reflecting the real agenda and actual motive of the states in a high table or otherwise. Such is the name of the game in diplomacy, arguably the most visible of all arts, not necessarily always effective yet needing the craftiest of semantics to convert half-chance into success and half-truth into a diplomatic victory of the times.
That's the game played by all countries and states through the ages and there are hardly any examples that run contradictory to this truth. Hence, let's accept the norms. This author, in the context of the presence of well-known public figures from the USA, UK and Australia, nevertheless would like to think in terms of India's defence market, amongst other issues, which could be re-visited.
The focus of Washington, London and Canberra being on New Delhi is understandable. They all figure prominently in the armament export market. They stand contrasted from India which lags behind as a producer but is leading as a consumer. Indeed, such is the reputation of India as a consumer in the arms market that the world looks up to New Delhi visits with eagerness. To cuddle, caress, convince and come to the vicinity and spend time in India.
And, why should they not? Arms bazaar is business. It represents profits, employment, economics and a general step towards prosperity. Not to mention, a road to technical and technological superiority and an effective and robust instrument of state policy. It allows a nation the luxury to influence foreign capitals and enhance camp followers. Unsurprisingly, USA is the largest supplier of arms (US$10.508 billion in 2018), alongside being the largest producer. Britain stands sixth in the list in 2018 and Australia with the export of US $38 million in 2018, positioned 22nd. India has, however, improved her arms-exporter rank of 40th in 2009-2013 to 27th in 2014-2018.
That's encouraging but the overall scenario is yet to brighten as "India was the world's second-largest importer of major arms in 2014-2018 and accounted for 9.5% of the global total" as per the SIPRI (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute-2019). Reportedly, "Israel, USA and France all increased their arms exports to India in 2014-2018 and US and European offers are on the table to replace the cancelled Sukhoi-57 fighter, including production in India and technology transfers".
With little possibility of reduced dependence on costly imported weapons from the west any time soon, what if India faces another unforeseen situation in future? As things stand today, India's largest non-military trading partner is China. This is the very same China which mauled the Indian military in no time in 1962 and ceased fire of its own volition but displayed little in the way of regret or willingness to apologise for her aggression and subsequent provocations from time to time. As can be seen today, China has penetrated the Indian market through comparatively cheaper consumer goods which have adversely impacted non-Chinese manufacturers and their commodities. So much so that China, in near future, is bound to get even more intertwined with the Indian consumer market, owing to marked preference of the large base of New Delhi buyers for comparatively inexpensive Chinese goods.
And here comes the serious question. What's the distance between cheap fast-moving consumer goods' (FMCG) of Beijing and comparatively inexpensive, Chinese made firing machines and combat guns? If India is flooded with more than 35 crore China-made handsets and allows Beijing to enter deep into her communication system (used by the establishment), then what if China offers her combat weapons to New Delhi? All this on the pretext of Chinese systems being cheaper and better, being marketed with a 'value-for-money' slogan!
This author makes this point after his perusal of the latest SIPRI-2019. "China delivered major arms to 53 countries in 2014-2018, an increase from 41 in 2009-2013 and 32 in 2004-2008." Of course, it has also been acknowledged that the Chinese may find the going tough. "China's arms exports are limited by the fact that many counties including four of top ten arms importers in 2014-2018 (India, Australia, South Korea, Vietnam) as well as almost all European countries, haven't and are highly unlikely (at least for foreseeable future) to procure Chinese weapons for political reasons". That's understandable. But what if China suddenly "succeeds" in attempts to convince (and China has the "wherewithal" to do so) and 'break the ice'? What if it is done on the pretext of 'superior technology', 'low financial burden' and ratio on/of the user? Will an import-afflicted India be able to resist the temptation of not trying it out? To this author, danger lurks around the corner. India must avoid the trap. A trap which has so far been the monopoly of the west.
Abhijit Bhattacharyya is an alumnus of National Defence College and the author of 'China in India'. Views expressed are strictly personal
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