Month of Plain Talking

Published: 05th September 2014 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 04th September 2014 10:46 PM   |  A+A-

All diplomacy is calculation but it is how the lines of national interests and strategy clash or converge that are of concern during state visits which, otherwise, are staid, scripted affairs. The decade of the wimpish Congress party regime showed an India at its most pusillanimous, wracked by doubts about leveraging the country’s myriad strengths. The spate of visits this September starting with prime minister Narendra Modi’s to Shinzo Abe’s Japan followed by jaunts to New Delhi by his Australian counterpart Tony Abbott and by Chinese president Xi Jinping, ending with Modi’s September 30 meeting in Washington with US president Barack Obama will, hopefully, reverse the trend. These will be occasions when foreign leaders, because Modi is new on the scene, will be keen to size him up, read his mind, try and decipher his intentions and get a fix on his foreign policy orientation and attitude.

Modi must have been disabused of the notion that cultural links and personal bonhomie count for much in international relations when Tokyo insisted on an unambiguous commitment against resuming nuclear tests before approving a nuclear deal. Despite being fully aware of this precondition why Modi still pitched for a nuclear trade accord isn’t clear. It is troubling that the Indian government from Manmohan Singh’s days persists in making a “nuclear deal” with every passing country the test of its seriousness to engage India, when actually what it does is reduce India to a supplicant and erodes its prestige. One hopes Modi reminded Abe that sections within Japan, which is the proverbial screwdriver’s turn away from the Bomb, are calling for nuclear weaponisation to deal with the North Korea-China combine, and that a thermonuclearised India and Japan at the two ends of Asia is the best solution to keep Beijing quiet. Moreover, surely Modi isn’t prepared to waive India’s liability law and buy the unproven Toshiba-Westinghouse AP 1000 enriched uranium-fuelled reactor just to please Tokyo? An aside, but prioritising the Mumbai-Ahmedabad Shinkansen “bullet train” line in existing Indian conditions may not be pragmatic considering it will also take a big chunk ($10-$15 billion) off the promised Japanese $35 billion foreign direct investment (FDI) in infrastructure build-up. It will cost more to protect the special corridor than run the high-speed trains.

Rather than “nuclear deals” and stuff, Modi should propound the logic of geopolitics and military cooperation. It pays. For instance, Modi’s reference in Tokyo to the 18th century-style imperialistic tendencies of China to grab land and sea territories, and Tokyo’s agreeing to sell 15 US-2 amphibious aircraft along with transfer of technology (ToT) that will result in a US-2i version tailored for Indian needs to be designed with Indian military’s inputs, and the talk of the Soryu-class conventional hunter-killer submarine in the Indian fleet, have made an Indo-Japanese pincer real. Beijing has reacted with reports suggesting that Xi Jinping is preparing to match Abe’s ante and to up it with even more attractive investment and other deals. To maximise geostrategic gains, Modi should maintain pressure by announcing the sale/transfer of Brahmos supersonic cruise missiles to Vietnam and other Southeast Asian states in the run-up to Xi Jinping’s visit.

Beijing is worried. The Islamic insurgency is taking hold in the Uyghur Muslim-majority Xinjiang, and Tibet continues to seethe with people angry with the Chinese policy of rubbing out Tibetan cultural identity. In this context, Modi should respond to Xi Jinping’s pleas for restricting the Tibetan exile community’s activities by suggesting the restoration of genuine “autonomy” for Tibet and as buffer zone devoid of the Peoples Liberation Army presence as the foundation for lasting peace.

Australia is ready to sell uranium in order to balance the exports of the same commodity to China and as a hedge against Beijing cornering the market on Australian natural resources, whence Canberra’s encouragement to Indian industrial houses, such as the Adanis, to invest in the Australian coal and minerals extraction sector. But a strategically more potent issue requires to be broached by Modi. Abbott should be sounded out about permitting Indian SSBNs (nuclear-powered ballistic missile-firing submarines) to stage out of a deep water port on the northern Australian coast as a means of increasing the strategic reach and deterrence impact of the Arihant-class boats. Such a basing-option will also enhance the “theatre-switching” maritime riposte preferred by New Delhi to Chinese aggression across the land border. An agreement on such basing would be welcomed by an Australia itching to be part of the evolving Asian security architecture rather than remaining a Western outpost.

The logic of strategic ties with the US is getting simpler. Washington has lost the will and doesn’t have the money to be very active in the Indian Ocean region and is eager for New Delhi to pick up the slack. America’s declining stock allows Modi to do some plain talking. The PM’s counter to changing India’s liability law should be to ask Obama to reform the nuclear deal enabling the 2006 Hyde Act instead. Washington wrongly assumes that an Act legislated by the US Congress is dearer to New Delhi than a law promulgated by the Indian parliament. He should also demand changes in America’s transactional, “buy this, buy that” bent of policy.

Modi should inform Obama that henceforth there’ll be no off-the-shelf weapons purchases, and US and other foreign armament producers will have to manufacture all military hardware from scratch in India itself starting with the first buy (as has been wisely decided in case of the army’s utility helicopter fleet). It will catalyse high-tech manufacturing sector growth and generate a demand for skilled labour and massive employment opportunities. American arms companies should be incentivised to set up shop in India or concert with Indian private sector companies to “Make in India” for the Indian market and, to make such presence economical, use their facilities here to source whole weapons systems, spares and service support to countries in Asia and Africa. India’s aim of self-sufficiency in armaments will thus be advanced, the haemorrhaging of hundreds of billions of Indian dollars end, and the country’s economic prospects immeasurably brighten.

The author is professor at the Centre for Policy Research and blogs at www.bharatkarnad.com

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