What can India expect with Senator John Kerry replacing Hillary Clinton at the State Department and former Senator Charles Hagel Leon Panetta at the Pentagon? Do these changes herald change in the US foreign and military policies that’ll hurt India?
Uniquely for a country aspiring to great power, the Indian government displays the sensibility of a marginal state surviving on small mercies shown by big powers. Lacking self-confidence, strategic vision, and the will to be assertive, New Delhi accepts that Indian national interests will be defined by others. So, if Iran is deemed a rogue state by Washington, New Delhi rushes to create distance with Tehran.
If President Obama champions a nuclear weapons-free world, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh jumps on to the disarmament bandwagon without realising that this’ll require India to first sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), leaving the Indian thermonuclear deterrent — with no prospect of further fusion weapons testing — the equivalent of a short, blunt, sword. Worse, New Delhi assesses new appointees in the US government in the light of their attitude to Pakistan. That doing so pulls India down to Pakistan’s level apparently concerns nobody, even though every lowly Under-Secretary in MEA is alert to the possibility of re-hyphenation by stealth! Consider the recent brouhaha over an exhumed Hagel statement that India “financed troubles” for Pakistan.
If New Delhi had any real sense of the Indian stake in Afghanistan, our Washington embassy would not have been instructed to react strongly, or even at all. Silence on Hagel’s 2011 videographed talk would at once have signalled that Indian interests are not necessarily convergent with America’s, and that India will do whatever is necessary to protect them.
With Hagel hinting at Indian Intelligence activity out of the consulates in southern Afghanistan, this was no bad message to remind GHQ, Rawalpindi, that two can play at covert warfare, and meddling in Jammu & Kashmir will exact a price that a slowly imploding Pakistan can ill-afford. There was nothing there to get worked up about in the first place anyway, and so the reaction confirmed Indian diplomacy in recent years as being sometimes flecked with unnerving naivete. Surely, it is in the national interest for everyone to believe that India is not helpless and RAW is very much a player on the Afghan scene. In any case, as an ex-member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Hagel was no doubt merely repeating something he heard in an intelligence briefing on the subject, and is not evidence of a bad-mouthing anti-India insider in the Obama Administration.
He has far graver issues to tackle such as managing a declining defence spend and lower readiness levels for the US forces. The American defence budget, frozen at the 2011-level, will combine with the sequestration of funds, resulting in expenditure reductions this year of $85 billion across the board, half of it coming from the Pentagon allocations, and $500 billion less available to it over the next decade. As a consequence, the US naval presence in the Indian Ocean, for instance, will be halved from two deployed carrier task groups to just one. A smaller American military profile in Asia is likely, moreover, owing to Hagel’s experience as an infantry drudge — a sergeant twice wounded, in the Vietnam War and scarred by that military defeat. It led to his opposing US interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is bad news for the Manmohan Singh regime, which implicitly relied on the American strategic security cover in any future dustup with China.
It’s a scenario the Indian government and military better wake up to. America’s security coattails are not long enough anymore for a strategic partner such as India to ride on, alongside America’s treaty allies in Asia.
India’s strategic discomfiture may be exacerbated by Kerry. A polished diplomat in the classical mould, who dazzled his audiences in his first trip as Secretary of State to France, Germany, and Italy with flawless French, German, and Italian, Kerry indicated at his confirmation hearings that getting up China’s nose with forceful displays of military strength is counterproductive. “I am not convinced that increased military ramp-up is critical yet….That’s something I’d want to look at very carefully”, he told the senators, who approved his appointment. “But we have a lot more bases out there than any other nation in the world, including China today. We have a lot more forces out there than any other nation in the world, including China today. And we’ve just augmented the president’s announcement in Australia with additional Marines. You know, the Chinese take a look at that and say, what’s the United States doing? They are trying to circle us? What’s going on? And so, you know, every action has its reaction. It’s the old — you know, it’s not just the law of physics; it’s the law of politics and diplomacy. I think we have to be thoughtful about...how we go forward.” With both the Departments of State and Defence headed by persons who are wary of alienating Beijing, conciliators in the Indian government, such as the National Security Adviser, Shivshankar Menon, are no doubt pleased. Just the other day, Menon repeated his stock wisdom that enmity with China is “not inevitable”. The corollary of such thinking is that, capabilities-wise, the Indian military packing a keg or two less of powder will not hurt the country’s security interests much.
But in the world of hard knocks, India may soon discover that a purely defensive posture coupled to virtually zero capacity for sustained offensive warfare in the mountains and a strategic deterrent that’s more “let’s pretend to be thermonuclear”, will beget coercive escalation by the massively ensconced People’s Liberation Army and the Second Artillery Strategic Forces on the Tibetan Plateau.
There’ll be no American help even of the kind available to India in 1962, lest China get upset. Indeed, there’s a growing sentiment in America to pull back altogether from a forward deployed military stance in Asia. That will leave a terminally complacent and security-dependent India, up a creek.
Bharat Karnad is professor at Centre for Policy Research and blogs at www.bharatkarnad.com