India pivots US-Sino calculus
India has struggled for decades to convince the West of Chinese ambitions in the Subcontinent
For decades, India struggled to convince the West (the US in particular) of the extent of the Chinese ambitions, implications, and the sovereign inter-linkages in the Subcontinent that directly affected India which would inevitably impact the rest of the world, soon. As recent as 1998, the US President Bill Clinton had incredulously urged China to share its 'global responsibility' in controlling the nuclear proliferation in Asia, drawing a sharp rebuke from India over the US attempts to 'carve out a supervisory role' for the Chinese, when the Chinese themselves had been guilty of all possible nuclear, diplomatic, civil, and military violations. Pakistan, too, had enjoyed a deliberate 'overlook' of all its nefarious terror-related activities across the Indian LOC, and owing to its role in the Afghan theatre during the cold war era of 80's alongside its ostensible joining of the 'war on terror', post-9/11. Indian frustration and warning of Pakistan's patent duplicitousness (which would bite the US later) and its parallel cozying up towards the Chinese regime went unheeded and the US military support continued uninterrupted. Even simmering fissures in the Himalayan state of Nepal with its communist militia, and the tell-tale signs of the Chinese 'cheque-book' diplomacy in Sri Lanka and the Maldives were initially ignored.
Today, clear portents of the Chinese 'dream of hegemony' and its emergence as the biggest long-term challenge along with all its retinue of indebted, vassal, or 'satellite' states is gripping the policy mandarins in Washington DC. Specific and 'localised' issues that concern the hyphenated relationship of the Indo-Chinese realm or the triad of Indo-Chinese-Pakistani dimension etc., which were hitherto 'un-factored' by the US, are now increasingly featuring in the holistic calculus and assessment of the US. The recent renaming of the erstwhile 'US Pacific Command' to the 'Indo-Pacific Command', is seen as a symbolic acknowledgement, nudge, and assertiveness of the Indian 'pivot' and necessity as the strategic counter to the Chinese. The sophistication and the clout unleashed, and patiently leveraged by the Chinese state through its vexatious combination of the military-economic-diplomatic initiatives, is soon emerging as an ensnaring pattern that is steadily consuming the economically vulnerable island states in the Pacific Rim, African continent, and countries such as Pakistan, Maldives, Nepal, and Sri Lanka in India's immediate midst. The inherent promise of economic-transformation in the hyper-infrastructure projects like the Chinese Belt and Road initiative (BRI), or in its subcomponents such as the Pakistan China Economic Corridor (CPEC) notwithstanding, the possible 'dual-usage' of these facilities for Military purposes is not lost on anyone, anymore.
The latest annual report for the US Congress titled 'Military and Security developments involving the People's Republic of China', prepared and released by the office of the US Secretary of Defense captures, in graphic details, the evolution of the Chinese 'comprehensive national power'. The report extensively captures the unresolved territorial and maritime disputes including the recent Doklam standoff by recording, "…both countries maintain a heightened military presence in the surrounding region. In December, an Indian unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) crashed in Chinese territory along the Line of Actual Control in the Sikkim section of the Sino-Indian border, near the standoff location. China and India have resumed border personnel meetings, though India halted another Chinese road construction effort in the disputed territory in Arunachal Pradesh in December 2017". The Indian tensions, concerns, and the underlying geostrategic implications of ignoring the Subcontinental flashpoints are now a matter of the past. In an ode to the new alignments and shifts, it notes the fact that Nepal conducted its first bilateral military exercise with China and that the same was preceded by the visit of the Chinese Minister of Defence to Kathmandu, a first in 15 years! The sixth iteration of the Sino-Pak military exercise 'Shaheen' (as also 'Friend 2017') with the first-ever participation by the Chinese Navy (PLAN) is minutely recorded. Even subtle moves of isolating the Indian interest in the region by cobbling together a Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism with Afghanistan, China, Pakistan, and Tajikistan is duly documented. It details the sale of Chinese Military weaponry worth $8 billion to the Indo-Pacific countries, primarily to Pakistan! Supporting the long-held Indian fears about the Chinese presence at the Gwadar port in Pakistan, the report explicitly states, 'China will seek to establish additional military bases in countries with which it has a longstanding friendly relationship and similar strategic interests, such as Pakistan, and in which there is a precedent for hosting foreign militaries'. All this has to be contextualised with the recent backdrop of the US freeze of Military support that was earlier committed to Pakistan.
The new-fangled urgency to immediately intervene in India's traditional arc-of-influence like Nepal and Maldives is alluded by noting, 'China also employs economic tools coercively during periods of political tensions with its neighbours'. The inevitable 'debt-trap' or economic-dependence on Chinese capital that follows suit has also been showcased with the example of the 99-year lease of the Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka. Increasingly the US-Chinese dynamics are going beyond the historical angularities restricted to North Korea, Taiwan, and the Chinese belligerence in the South China Seas. This expanded US outlook augurs well for India as the nitty-gritty and the churn in the region, which was earlier ignored and Delhi was left to fend for itself, has changed with Doklam, Gwadar, Kathmandu, and Hambantota resonating in Washington DC. The growing Indo-US confluence and joint-actions also signal larger implications than just those emanating from Delhi for capitals like Male or Kathmandu, where the presence of the Chinese footprint would be as much an eyesore for Washington DC, as that for Delhi. Lastly, the now established pattern of the ostensible Chinese generosity in financing the 'infrastructure' facilities, and the subsequent morphing of the same into Chinese military bases, as in the case of Djibouti would be a matter of concern for the likes of Hambantota and Gwadar. Such reports are a new incentive for India as they form the foundation of future strategy, engagements, and alignments for the US, while issues concerning India can no longer be ignored.
Lt General Bhopinder Singh (Retd) is a former Lt Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands & Puducherry. The views expressed are strictly personal