Home Has the Dragon pushed the Elephant into the Eagle's Embrace?

Has the Dragon pushed the Elephant into the Eagle's Embrace?

By undertaking a series of actions that India decidedly perceives as unfriendly, China appears to be succeeding in pushing India into the awaiting arms of the United States. Having decided long ago to use Pakistan as its proxy to keep India rooted to South Asia, China had imagined, incorrectly as it seems now, that Pakistan would be able to use its geostrategic advantage to keep the United States away from any serious partnership with India. The ‘all weather’ friendship with Pakistan and tightening the ring around India (‘the string of pearls’) has become so important to China that it has started compromising on its ‘principled’ stands on a number of issues, something that would have been unimaginable a few years back. Blocking India from having Jaish-e-Mohammed Chief Masood Azhar sanctioned as a terrorist by the United Nations was definitely seen by all Indians as a very unfriendly act by China, especially after his recent involvement in the cross border terror attack against the Pathankot air base, in which seven Indian servicemen were killed. China’s animosity towards India also seems to have come out of the closet in terms of its overt efforts at blocking India’s membership of the Nuclear Supplier’s Group (NSG), linking it to Pakistan also being made a member of the group, despite the latter’s confirmed role in nuclear proliferation. Overall, it appears China is also compromising on its claim to great power status – a case of ‘cutting your nose to spite your face’.It appears to many that China’s periodic muscularity in dealing with India may be having predictable consequences.

I had argued in a recent article (The Curious Case of the Tail Wagging the Dogs, published in the CLAWS webpage on 19 April 2016) that it was very surprising that powers like the US and China continued to allow themselves to be manipulated by Pakistan, and even reward it,despite Pakistan having carried out terror attacks in India and Afghanistan, and also having attacked US interests and facilities in Afghanistan. It is encouraging to note that, since then, the US government withdrew its offer of providing substantial subsidy for the sale of eight F-16 combat aircraft to Pakistan, and consequently, the sale has fallen through. Further, the US government is asking for Pakistan to sever its links with the Haqqani faction of the Afghan Taliban before it continues to provide military assistance to Pakistan.

Furthermore, thanks to US support, India will become the 35th nation to join the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR),thus getting one step closer to gaining NSG membership, for which also it will depend heavily on US government support. Entry into the MTCR would enable sale by India of the BrahMos missile to countries like Vietnam, Indonesia, South Africa, Chile and Brazil, which, reportedly have shown interest, and also could enable transfer of technology from the US for production of armed drones in India. China is not in a position to object to India’s entry into the MTCR because its own earlier efforts at gaining membership into that body did not find favour with the members, due to its history of proliferation of missile technology, especially to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Nonetheless, China continues to object to India being given entry into the NSG, based on its contention that India is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Rather than this move being seen as a principled stand by China, it is perceived by most as China playing the role of a ‘spoiler’ against India’s interests, at the behest of Pakistan.

It can be argued that the fresh impetus to the US–India partnership was inevitable, given that the countries are described as “natural allies”, one the world’s strongest democracy while the other the world’s largest democracy. Trade, investment and technology would form the basis for this growing partnership to achieve India’s ambitious development agenda, while sustaining US economic growth. But the fact that this development to give the mutual  relationship a higher stature took so long to fructify only goes to show that it has not been an easy journey so far. India has always been careful not to be seen as being aligned to any country or bloc, to the point of losing its strategic autonomy. Hence, while the Indian government in 2008 went the extra mile to sign the 123 Indo-US Agreement Nuclear Agreement,  it had reservations which prevented it from signing the other US sponsored agreements on the table at that time, i.e. the Logistics Support Agreement (LSA), the Communication Interoperability and Security Memorandum Agreement (CISMOA) and the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA).The LSA was specifically objected to strongly as it was heavily loaded in favour of the US and appeared to dilute India’s traditional strategic autonomy.

Now, it appears a modified bilateral version of the LSA, the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) may be signed after finalization of the text, which envisages Indian and American militaries seamlessly providing logistics support, refueling and berthing facilities to each other’s warships and aircrafton equal exchange basis, especially for disaster relief missions, with one time squaring of accounts every year.The LEMOA would provide the US forces regular access to Indian military bases like Mumbai, Vizag, Kochi, and Port Blair while granting Indian ships access to US bases in Djibouti, Diego Garcia, Guam and Subic Bay as well as Hawaii and the US mainland. However, there is a caveat with regard to logistics support for military operations undertaken against third countries, where both the US and India reserve the right to review the permission accorded by the agreement.

Also, it appears that India’s apparent willingness to get into a strong strategic partnership (some are calling it an informal alliance) with the US would facilitate India’s entryto the US high table, a formal recognition of India as a major defence partner, a status that was reserved so far only for NATO members. This would open the door to greater defence collaborations, technology transfers and co-production of defence equipment in India. The US government is proposing the sale of F-16 and F-18 aircraft to India, with a possibility of setting up manufacturing facilities in India, as part of this upgraded partnership. This would be in addition to the sale of six Westing house nuclear reactors as a follow up to the 123 Nuclear Agreement. That deal, which has the potential to raise power generation based on nuclear power to 25% by 2050 from 4% now, was stuck on issues of a very tough nuclear liability law, which has apparently been worked around now by having the Indian public sector pick up the insurance premium.

So, have China’s actions of antagonizing India by giving primacy to Pakistan at all costs backfired strategically? Ironically, similar actions by the US during the 1960s had pushed India closer to the USSR – a ‘zero sum’ Cold War outcome that took decades thereafter to unravel.To that extent, China’s recent actions are hard to explain considering that Chinese President Xi Jinping appeared to have invested overwhelmingly in improving and expanding relations with India, as evident from encouraging overtures during his India visit in September 2014, which included signing of 12 agreements, one of which will see China investing $ 20 billion over five years in India’s infrastructure.The fact that the positivity of that visit was marred by parallel territorial incursions in Ladakh by the PLA, only highlight the challenges faced by the China–India relationship as long as the border issues remain unresolved.

To that extent, it is China’s call now. Rather than baulk at growing US interest in India, it surely realizes that India’s relationships with China and the US, as also with other countries and blocs, are not a zero sum game. Though India has always hesitated from getting into alliances, which would end up diluting its strategic autonomy, it is capable of developing economic and strategic relationships with nations in pursuit of national interests, while still continuing to follow an independent line.Conversely, it is China which must decide whether it continues to blindly support Pakistan on issues that particularly impact negatively on its relations with India.

The Author is the former Vice Chief of Army Staff.Views expressed are personal.

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Lt Gen Philip Campose

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