It is a relatively rare occasion to have the timelines converge for transitions in governments in the two countries India’s foreign and military policies, for different reasons, revolve around. The relatively greater importance of the United States in the Indian scheme of things is reflected in Barack Obama’s re-election being greeted by at least the English language newspapers here with banner headlines, even as Xi Jinping’s ascension to China’s political apex has merited more subdued, inside-page coverage.
America is an open book, which doesn’t mean New Delhi reads it well. In its usual delusional take on developments there, the Ministry of External Affairs is often as wrong as the hyperventilating Press. Most US policies can be traced from their inception in some paper produced by a Washington Beltway think-tank fleshing out options. There is never any doubt about just what the policies of a Democrat or Republican Party administration will be, or about the thinking behind them. Contrary to the spin given here, no, the United States does not really give a damn about the democratic credentials of this country or its cultural diversity and the song and dance about such tertiary issues — America has enough problems managing its own ‘melting pot’ to celebrate multiculturalism elsewhere.
Where India is concerned, what the US worries about, in the main, are two things. The sheer infirmity of the Indian government’s strategic will counter-balanced by fairly robust growth in the mostly non-strategic military wherewithal. This requires a lot of hand-holding and massaging of the Indian ego with every passing American when, not talking of India as ‘a global responsible power’, a ‘swing state’ or the ‘indispensable state’, extolling India as ‘a net provider of security’ to countries in the extended Indian Ocean region and farther afield. Such flattery and blandishments are what is seen to work with an astonishingly non-strategic-minded Indian government. To realise India’s potentially large footprint, as pillar for the US policy of ‘Asia pivot’, needs American pushing and prompting. The other thing that animates Washington is India’s vast market and its anxiety that it remain open to American imports even as President Obama targets ‘off-shoring’ and warns local businesses against outsourcing to Bangalore (something the Republican Party candidate Mitt Romney never did). Misreading America can be costly, but nothing that cannot be swiftly corrected.
China, on the other hand, is a closed book and how a Xi, Li, or even a Deng reaches the top in that closed system is almost always mysterious except to those with ‘Chinese expertise’, which a former US ambassador to China, Winston Lord, called, an oxymoron. Except, misreading Chinese policy by imputing benign intentions to Beijing, as is the Indian government’s wont, can get India quickly into a strategic jam. This is because unlike the United States, which is on the other side of the globe, China is right here — Kunming being closer to Kolkata than Kolkata is to Lucknow, what to speak of Delhi, and its military moves can immediately affect India’s security. How much at sea the strategic security minders of the state are, may be gleaned from recent utterances of the previous national security adviser. Speaking in Melbourne, M K Narayanan, a former Intelligence Bureau chief vaulted into the NSA’s post (for no good reason than his closeness to Sonia Gandhi), relieved himself of several nuggets.
India and China are “destined” by reasons of geography, civilisation, culture, and a border dispute to be “rivals”, he said, apparently looking up a map for the first time. “What is ...most disconcerting today”, he continued, “as China’s economic muscle expands — is increasing assertiveness on its part while dealing with disputes, whether on land or sea.” China has always been aggressive with respect to India even when it was a dirt-poor state, So its bellicosity is a revelation to only those who are wilfully blind to reality. Unsurprisingly, on his watch as national security adviser, his inattention to China developments harmed the country strategically. Indeed, military officers who were in the Strategic Forces Command recall Narayanan doing a Gowda — actually sleeping through briefings on the state of readiness of the country’s nuclear forces! The most conspicuously strategic thing Manmohan Singh has done was to pack Narayanan off to Kolkata. This is to make the larger point of the sheer disinterest in nuclear security of Narayanan, of course, but also of others at the highest levels of the Indian government because of lack of understanding of even the basics of deterrence.
In an inferior position militarily, New Delhi naturally cannot do other than fall in line with whatever agenda Beijing decrees. Thus, India has been told that the resolution of the border dispute be put off, and to let trade take precedence. Except, New Delhi has always made clear that its priority is formal delineation of the border and the removal of this issue as possible trigger for hostilities. If China says no, India subsides every time, meekly accepting any Chinese timeline. Have the Indian interlocutors ever had the guts to, in turn, set a timetable for their Chinese counterparts: Resolve the border issue in, say, two years time period of intensive parleys, or New Delhi is prepared to set aside border talks for a generation? Of course not, and hence our problems. Given the unsettled state of affairs in this country, the Chinese calculation obviously is that its hand can only get stronger with time.
National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon is to betake himself to Beijing, to confer with Dai and do his salams to the new dispensation. In the new leadership, the hard ‘yin’ of President Xi Jinping and his backers in the Peoples Liberation Army is unlikely to be offset by the supposedly soft ‘yang’ of the reformist premier, Li Keiqang. This is a familiar Chinese internal power arrangement: a relative hardliner, Hu Jintao, yoked to a moderate, Wen Jiabao, where the former invariably prevails. What way will Xi go? A straw in the wind — the PLA is being enjoined to re-embrace Mao Zedong’s war fighting doctrines and principles.
Bharat Karnad is professor at Centre for Policy Research and blogs at www.bharatkarnad.com