India-America relationship is too solid and rooted in realism to be affected by the outcome of the US presidential election on November 3
Siddharth Singh and Ullekh NP | 30 Oct, 2020
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Donald Trump in Houston, US, September 2019 (Photo: AP)
THE VISIT of two senior members of US President Donald Trump’s administration to New Delhi ahead of the November 3rd elections in the US has evoked very different reactions. For India’s well-wishers, the message could not be clearer: domestic political uncertainty has little bearing on deepening ties with a partner considered important for American interests in Asia. Detractors, of course, point to the timing of the visit, in a deeply polarised election season, to sign the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA), an enabling deal that had been delayed endlessly. The reality veers towards a deepening relationship even if there are potential points of friction on the path.
So, will a change of political climate in the US affect its ties with India? Opinion among observers of the India-US relationship varies. C Christine Fair, professor of security studies at Georgetown University, US, says that while she feels Joseph Biden would be a better and more trustworthy president in creating an effective coalition against China, she thinks India-US relations are going to remain the same whoever wins: Trump or Biden. The worries of this scholar are not about the US meeting its commitments, but about India falling short in taking actions that promote defence ties between the two democracies.
“This relationship is so bureaucratised, it doesn’t matter who gets elected. It is not something I expect to change with the outcome of the election. It is well regarded within the government and defence establishment that this is a relationship over the long term. I don’t see the US changing course. In fact, my biggest concern is that India has failed to make the defence procurement changes it needs to make. It is a longstanding problem. India doesn’t know how to set its national security objectives. Over the 25-year-horizon, with the threatened environment India is going to face, it hasn’t figured out much about the capabilities it requires,” she says, adding that a lot of attention is laid in India on the personnel cost of the Army.
“There are other issues that no one focuses upon. India does not consolidate its weapons programmes. Whether you look at aircraft, artillery or even guns, they prefer to have more suppliers and completely different weapons systems that are not interoperable.”
Her views find an echo in what Michael Kugelman, Asia Program Deputy Director and Senior Associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center says: “There’s strong bipartisan sentiment in Washington in favour of maintaining and increasing the US-India partnership, and especially amid a growing US-China rivalry that’s here to stay. Let’s be clear: Leaders on both sides of the political aisle in Washington may talk about the shared values that bind the US and India together. But at the end of the day, it’s the cold, hard interests that drive the relationship. US concerns about China, and its increasingly troubling activities in the Indo-Pacific region, provide the lens through which it views its relationship with New Delhi. Washington sees India as a key partner in efforts to push back against Beijing.”
There are exceptions to these optimistic views about the bilateral relationship and how a possible change of political guard in the US may end up affecting India. In an essay penned in September, Ashley J Tellis of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote: ‘The community of liberal democracies internationally stands to lose if domestic unrest fuelled by confrontational politics stymies India’s growth or if India enlarges its material capabilities only by sacrificing its liberal character. Either outcome would dilute the West’s eagerness to partner with India.’ He was writing about the changes made to the constitutional status of Jammu and Kashmir and other issues.
This is a source of potential friction that India may have to watch out for and its diplomats remain alert in case a Democrat enters the White House. Human rights, minority rights and other liberal issues attract all Democratic administrations in the US. But as Tellis noted just after he penned those lines: ‘To be sure, India’s relevance in the Indo-Pacific will survive, thanks to the exigencies of balancing China. This ensures continued engagement by the United States and other powers, but a constrained acquiescence to partnership is a poor substitute for the enthusiastic boosting of India that would otherwise occur if its liberal credentials were not contested.’
NONE OF these potential sources of uncertainty was in evidence when the Indian defence ministry announced that Australia will participate in the forthcoming Malabar series of naval exercises. The announcement was hardly a bombshell, especially since there is a growing realisation that countries facing the Chinese threat need to stand together. It was speculated since the beginning of the year that Australia was likely to be invited to the event that features the Indian, Japanese and US navies. Yet, when the Ministry of Defence announced that “in the light of increased defence cooperation with Australia, Malabar 2020 will see the participation of the Australian Navy”, it seemed India had taken one more step to counter its increasingly warlike relations with China.
For India’s well-wishers, the message from the timing of the visit could not be clearer: domestic political uncertainty has little bearing on deepening ties with a partner considered important for American interests
The last time Australia was invited for Malabar was way back in 2007 when the navies of the four countries, plus that of Singapore, had carried out drills in the Bay of Bengal. China sent a strong note of protest and that put paid to the four-country format. That single note was enough for India to begin ‘respecting’ Chinese ‘sensitivities’. In the bargain, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, was also put in the icebox.
That was then. These days, there is never a dull military moment in the subcontinent. China’s misadventure in eastern Ladakh—that led to the skirmish in Galwan Valley in mid-June—has ended the taboo against Australian participation in what is increasingly seen as the concert of Asian democracies against Chinese aggression in the continent, from the Senkaku Islands to the icy heights of eastern Ladakh.
Along expected lines, all this was amped up during the visit of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper to India. Although several analysts are sceptical of the extent of Pompeo’s commitment, during his visit, India finally signed the BECA, the last of the four ‘foundational’ agreements between India and the US that enable close defence cooperation between the two countries. Four other agreements, in non-military spheres, were signed as well. In his remarks, Esper noted: “This year marks the 15th anniversary of the first US-India Defense Framework and our third 2+2 Ministerial. We have strengthened our defence and security partnership considerably since then… Our focus now must be on institutionalising and regularising our cooperation to meet the challenges of the day and uphold the principles of a free and open Indo-Pacific well into the future.”
Pompeo was even more direct in his remarks made after the 2+2 dialogue between the foreign and defence ministers of the two countries when he noted: “Thanks to Prime Minister Modi and President Trump’s leadership and our shared values, our ties are growing stronger day by day. This morning, we visited the National War Memorial to honour the brave men and women of the Indian Armed Forces who have sacrificed for the world’s largest democracy, including 20 that were killed by the PLA forces in the Galwan Valley in June. The United States will stand with the people of India as they confront threats to their sovereignty and to their liberty.”
The Joint Statement issued at the end of the meetings stated that henceforth Quad meetings will be held annually, hinting at the institutionalisation of the forum that had long shied away from giving signals of formalisation. As various analysts have stated, this will not be an Asian version of NATO but much more structured than an inchoate gathering that scatters at the first hint of Chinese displeasure.
Notwithstanding what a section of pundits says, two things are happening simultaneously. First, the depth of the US-India military engagement is now of a qualitatively different order than what could be imagined even a decade ago. Second, at a multilateral level, the four likeminded Asian democracies are now militarily engaged with each other at a more comprehensive level than ever before. At both fora, India has let go of its ‘hesitations of history’. There are good reasons for that.
Quad meetings will now be held annually, formalising the forum. This will not be an Asian version of NATO, but much more structured than an inchoate gathering that scatters at the first hint of Chinese displeasure
For all the talk of becoming a Great Power, India has always been acutely conscious of its military weakness and its need for friends who would help it in tough situations. This is a constant of India’s diplomatic and military history since 1947. In 1994, when India began its pivot to the West, it was reacting to a combination of events—global and domestic—that could have landed it in trouble. The outreach to the US, now a multi-party consensus, has remained strong through the terms of six different prime ministers. While the partnership with Russia has remained strong, it has increasingly acquired a transactional hue, something very different from the political closeness of the 1970s and 1980s. This has been for obvious reasons: even after the US’ ‘unipolar moment’ passed away, Russia remained at second rank. With China’s rise in the second decade of the 21st century, it is now a distant third. More worryingly, it is now tied to China’s political-economic heel. It cannot be the political partner that it was once, if not ever, at least for a very long time. Russia remains India’s partner of choice for military hardware even to the point of risking US displeasure, such as in the case of buying the S-400 missile system. The US had passed legislation—the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), 2017—that provides for sanctions against countries that purchase defence equipment from Russia. India ignored the warning, saying that its contract for the S-400 system pre-dated the CAATSA.
That leaves China in India’s increasingly simple Eurasian equation. China’s calculations behind its actions in eastern Ladakh remain opaque. India had until that point in May this year not done anything that China could have deemed offensive. If anything, India had subjected itself to self-denying tactics just to keep peace with its much more powerful neighbour. That did not work. When China began attempts to nibble away at India’s territory in eastern Ladakh, something had to give. And it did. One speculative suggestion on China’s actions is that it concluded a while earlier that India ‘was lost to it’ and, come what may, it would align with the West and hence it was in China’s interests to make ‘tactical’ and ‘territorial’ adjustments.
That also means India is in a situation where a much stronger partnership with the US makes enormous sense. The US also needs India to counter an aggressive China in Asia. But India ought not to be under any illusion that it needs the US more than the US needs it. The US has other ‘options’ such as Australia and Japan to counter China. India has none. The Quad sends an important signal to China that it is not business as usual with India.
This is an important step forward but India cannot rest here. At the very minimum, it needs to break the shibboleths that some in its strategic community display about the loss of ‘strategic autonomy’. One can turn it around and ask what else is the partnership with the US about? And didn’t bending over backwards to keep China happy amount to whittling down of ‘strategic autonomy’?
WHAT Pompeo and Esper said was music to the ears of their Indian interlocutors. There are plenty of challenges India has to confront before it can meet the military, economic and political challenges thrown down by China.
Fair says India is confronting a logistical chaos within its armed forces, and regrets that very few people are writing about this. “A lot of people focus on the sexy stuff, like aircraft. But it is good logistics that help you win the war,” Fair points out, emphasising that India needs to consolidate its weapons systems and save costs.
That is not all. There is an even bigger challenge that the US has left unaddressed: Trump failed to counter Chinese revisionism with respect to India. “A proper president would be organising a coalition to contain China. Trump didn’t do that. We need to have serious conversations (with our allies) to disengage our economies from China. Our President (Trump) cannot even articulate that,” she says, adding, “Biden is more aware of the national security concerns of India.” But finally, Fair asserts, as regards the India-US relations, “the ball is in India’s court” to promote defence ties by integrating its weapons programmes that would also help it tackle the growing threat from China. “There are weapons systems that the US has cleared for India, including armed drones, but India has not followed through,” Fair says, adding that China is increasingly becoming a formidable military power. “We do not have the capabilities to counter China. This is why we need a new SEATO.” SEATO, or the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, was an America-backed organisation created in 1954 to check the rise of communism in the region.
FAIR, meanwhile, is currently worried more about the chaos within her country than elsewhere. She says that the early voting turnout in the US, ahead of the keenly watched November 3rd election, has seen a rapid rise from previous occasions and that there has been voter suppression, even intimidation of poll workers, African-Americans and others reportedly by rightwing groups. Which is also a reason why she thinks Trump would return to power although the likes of Allan Lichtman, historian and co-creator of ‘The Keys to the White House’ model to predict wins, and various other commentators have talked about a Joe Biden victory. This is also because, she reasons, the US has a winner-takes-all system in most of its 50 states except two: which means whoever wins most votes (electors) in a state gets the entire Electoral College votes. Each state has ‘electors’ in the Electoral College and that number is proportionate to the size of each state. In total, 538 electors, who support their choice of president and who are voted in directly by American people, comprise the Electoral College, which decides the ultimate winner.
The question remains, will the varied styles of Trump and Biden have an impact on American strategy with China and India?
For his part, Kugelman says, “My sense is that New Delhi, recognising the significance of its relationship with Washington, would much prefer to have a predictable and conventional president in the White House. And that means Biden—for all his quirks—would be regarded as much preferable to the famously mercurial Trump.”
Kugelman also points out that the timing of the 2+2 meeting was significant. “One may wonder why there would be a high-level engagement at a moment when the US leadership may very soon be voted out of power. But I think the timing of the meeting may be meant to convey a US message about bipartisanship: In effect, our relationship with India transcends partisan issues like elections, and we won’t let those issues distract from the partnership,” he says.
To be sure, there are still challenges for US-India security relations, Kugelman warns. “We can talk all we want about the arms sales, the intelligence sharing and technology transfers, the revitalised Quad, and the new foundational agreements. But there is still a lack of clarity as to how to orient a deepening security relationship that, because of India’s insistence on strategic autonomy, must take place outside of the alliance system that the US uses for its closest defence partners. This will be an issue to be addressed in the next US administration,” he offers.
Offering a contrarian view, American military historian, Cold Warrior and strategist Edward Luttwak says that while India and the US are going to be forced to be allies until “Chinese President Xi Jinping retires to a Buddhist monastery”, not much can be expected as regards intelligence sharing, simply because Washington doesn’t have enough of it to share. He is pessimistic about military cooperation on a grand scale happening—that will heavily arm India—until the Indian Army is drastically reformed by changing the people to capital ratio. Although the Indian Army is the third-largest in the world in terms of personnel, it is often said that the 12-lakh-strong force has “too many personnel and too little firepower”. Analysts suggest that it must slash its manpower and invest more in weaponry, especially surveillance systems, helicopters and other arms, to be able to go into a war. They have also said that since a large section within the armed forces is often involved in conflicts on various sections of the border and in states, training for war has not been given due attention.
In their own way, each of these scholars confirms India’s Achilles Heel in countering China: its lack of military modernisation. And that makes it all the more difficult to wage a two-front war with China and Pakistan that would be a nightmarish worst-case scenario for Indian forces. Precious years were lost in debating whether to manufacture major weapons platforms like submarines, fighter aircraft and the like domestically or whether to import them. There was nothing but heated debate even as project deadlines slipped and major equipment did not land with the military. Some strategic projects, such as the indigenous nuclear submarines, did take off but others like combat-ready fighter jets have lagged behind woefully. Now there is little option but to import equipment post-haste to meet the Chinese threat. Defence Minister Rajnath Singh spoke glowingly about the partnership with the US to develop defence equipment jointly but it needs to be remembered that these options take years, if not decades, to bear fruit. The silver lining is that the US is ready to meet India’s defence requirements provided New Delhi’s legendary sloth in acquiring weapons does not defeat these efforts.
The objective that looms large before India is to shed any ambiguity in strategic matters and iron out any potential frictions in building an alliance with likeminded democracies in Asia—but even more importantly its single biggest source of strategic succour, the US. India is not what it was in 1962 but it needs to remember that countering China will require much more than advanced weapons, money and resources. India needs friends and an iron will not to let China walk over it.