New Delhi must reset its overt tilt to the US
Modi’s foreign policy has undermined 70 years of India’s approach of maintaining a distance from the great powers
Conflicting signals are emanating from Delhi. Washington cancelled the 2+2 talks scheduled for July 6 involving the foreign and defence ministers because it believed the BJP government was going off script. India indicated it would not compromise its ties with Russia and with Iran, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin elevating the bilateral relations at their May 21 “informal summit in Sochi to privileged special strategic partnership, several rungs above the plain strategic partnership with the US, and by the readying of alternative banking channels to pay for Iranian oil. But Delhi is also seeking waivers from CAATSA sanctions.
The sealing of the deal for the S-400 air defence system, the shortlisting of the St Petersburg-based Rubin submarine design bureau as foreign partner for the Navy’s Project 75i conventional submarine project, and reiterating Chabahar port as the linchpin of India’s geopolitical strategy for Afghanistan and Central Asia combined with India’s swift retaliatory tariffs on imports from the US after Indian steel, aluminium, and light manufactures were targeted by Washington reinforced the view that Delhi was doing a policy rethink. If this is indeed the case, then it is to be welcomed.
The standout feature of Prime Minister Modi’s foreign policy so far has, however, been its overt tilt to America. It undermined 70 years of India’s approach to the world of maintaining a distance from great powers, which enhanced India’s diplomatic leverage, its freedom of policy manoeuvre, and status as the arch balancer in the international system. The country’s traditional non-alignment policy was given the new raiment of “strategic autonomy” in the last decade but the central principle of balancing power did not change. Far from being outdated, this concept has attracted new adherents in the age of Donald J Trump, when the US seems to treat friendly states (in Europe and Northeast Asia) worse than it does its supposed adversaries. Contrast the rough treatment meted out to its historic allies with the soft-glove-handling of Russia, China and North Korea. It motivated the European Union last month to form a “joint interventionary military force” independent of NATO for reasons, according to an official statement, of “strategic autonomy”.
In 2016 Modi signed the Logistics Support Agreement permitting the US to stage air, naval and land forces operations out of India in the arc Perth-Simonstown. It encouraged Washington to push the two other “foundational accords” -- COMCASA and BECA advertised as increasing “interoperability”. What COMCASA will also do is facilitate vertical and horizontal penetration by the US of India’s most sensitive government and military communications grids, including the nuclear Strategic Forces Command – the reason why the armed services are against signing it. The Indian government is nevertheless inclined, it is said, to sign COMCASA based on iron-clad assurances that the information gleaned from accessing Indian official communications won’t be divulged to third countries. Is the BJP government really so naïve and gullible as to deem such assurances credible considering America’s track record of untrustworthiness and duplicitous behaviour?
Washington in 1982 forewarned Pakistan about the underway joint Indo-Israeli aerial strike mission to pre-empt the threat from Pakistani nuclear weapons by bombing the uranium centrifuges complex in Kahuta resulting in the scrapping of that mission. In 1998, it revealed to Beijing the contents of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s secret note to President Bill Clinton justifying the nuclear tests because of the Chinese threat and, in 2008, it failed to convey to Delhi the definite information it had about the preparations underfoot for the Pakistan Army’s ISI-organised seaborne terrorist attack on Mumbai.
COMCASA, moreover, will enhance Russia’s fears of compromising its high-value platforms, such as the leased Akula-class nuclear-powered attack submarine and the Su-30MKI combat aircraft in India’s employ. Such agreements, besides turning India into a crypto ally, pose a danger to national security and can cause serious misunderstanding with Moscow that India can ill-afford. They are being justified on trivial grounds, that the armed maritime Guardian drone, not used by the US military, needs COMCASA uplinks.
Modi’s tilt is undergirded by his personal regard and admiration for America shored up during his travels in that country in the 1980s on his own, as a BJP functionary, and as part of the US State Department hosted tours for “young leaders”. Modi promised to raise India’s stock in the world. This won’t happen if India becomes a camp-follower.
Bharat Karnad is a professor at the Centre for Policy Research
The views expressed are personal