In Beijing to prepare the ground for the Narendra Modi-Xi Jinping summit, National Security Adviser Ajit Doval talked of Sino-Indian relations as being primed for an “orbital jump”. Seeing these bilateral ties as a satellite in a low-earth orbit which, presumably powered by the success in the apex level talks, will be thrust into a high-earth or more strategic orbit is fine. The problematic part is to know what will push the ties into that more desirable state.
Low-earth orbit satellites have relatively short life because pulled by the gravitational force they eventually collapse back into the earth’s atmosphere and burn upon re-entry. But a low orbit policy, metaphorically and otherwise, hews more closely to ground reality which is that, with the border dispute, the India-China relationship is dictated by the line of actual control (LAC) and what transpires around it.
The ongoing incident in Chumar with Xi in India, suggests China is playing a different game to what New Delhi believes it is in. For Beijing its territorial claims on Arunachal Pradesh and in Aksai Chin are uncompromisable (hence, “stapled visas” for Arunachalis) because accepting the status quo as boundary solution with India would pressure Beijing into accommodating several Southeast Asian nations on its extensive “nine-dash line” claims in the South China Sea. So, a resolution of the dispute can be safely pushed out to the remote future, with Special Representative talks only offering cover for lack of progress.
Modi’s plea for increased Chinese investments in infrastructure and manufacturing sectors and for shifting Chinese manufacturing plants to India as means of balancing Sino-Indian trade grossly favouring China was met partially with promises of foreign direct investment in industrial parks, etc. But there’s an irreconcilable clash of visions here.
Modi’s view of turning India into an international manufacturing hub generating massive employment runs smack into Xi’s vision for an “Asian century of prosperity” premised on coupling China’s “workshop” to India’s “backoffice”—the hackneyed Indian software wedded to Chinese hardware type of thinking. In other words, Xi is for freezing China-India economic ties on the basis of current national strengths, which surely is unacceptable.
With economic relations on the upswing, hardpower and geopolitics will matter more. India can exploit the mutual antipathy China and Japan feel for each other by acting the cat in the Panchtantra tale playing the two monkeys off each other. Japan will need no coaxing to assist New Delhi in slanting the balance of power and influence in landward and maritime Asia against China.
Modi can mouth trade makes for peace-mantra and grow the Chinese economic stake in India. But for larger impact, he should payback Beijing for its planned proliferation of nuclear missiles to Pakistan by transferring Brahmos supersonic cruise missiles to Vietnam, the Philippines, and any other state on China’s periphery desiring them, something I have advocated for over 20 years. There was talk of such transfer when the external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj and later president Pranab Mukherjee visited Hanoi on the eve of Xi’s visit, but New Delhi got cold feet. Unless India exploits the prevailing fear in Asia of China to the hilt, India will be forever disadvantaged. New Delhi better muster the will to conduct this two-faced game, or lose ground to Beijing.
Ties with the United States can be launched into a higher orbit by the simply agreeing to buy several Westinghouse enriched uranium-fuelled reactors, the Indian liability law be damned. This is not going to happen. In the event, the bilateral relations will fall back on familiar themes. The trouble here is that, contrary to the rhetoric of India as “net security provider”, the US is mostly interested in seeing how India can fit into its Asian security architecture.
Washington is habituated, from Manmohan Singh’s days, of talking up the “strategic partnership” but only as vehicle for advancing US interests. In its “war on global terror”, for instance, Washington expects New Delhi to do everything to zero out the risk to Americans but does little to pre-empt terrorism targeting Indians as that involves Pakistan Army’s sponsorship of terrorist outfits.
This is reflected in the nature of the intelligence exchanges — the US insisting on raw data while only providing information filtered through American policy lenses. In this same vein, the US government is always keen to shape Indian foreign policy as it did during Congress party rule regarding Iran, for example.
At the heart of the bilateral relations, moreover, is sheer divergence of interests, especially relating to India’s great power aspirations the core of which is nuclear security. The United States has been active from John Kennedy’s time to pre-empt and prevent India’s becoming a consequential nuclear power, scrupling to nothing, including buying into China’s scheme to nuclear arm Pakistan.
In the wake of the 1998 tests, it accepted a civilian nuclear cooperation deal that New Delhi for some mysterious reasons was eager to have on the condition India never test again, thereby ensuring India never has a modern high-yield arsenal of proven thermonuclear weapons to match China’s. The tragedy, of course, is successive Indian governments have partnered the US in thus reducing India.
Modi can right the relationship with America by telling President Barack Obama some home truths. Such as the fact that courtesy US policies of the past there’s a huge trust deficit between the two countries, that the transactional tilt of US policy is robbing the bilateral relations of strategic value, that India’s nuclear liability law is not some trifling matter that can be overturned to please Washington, that the United States has gained in the last 60 years from Indian foreign aid worth hundreds of billions of dollars in Non-Resident Indian talent, and that the djinn of Islamic extremism was uncorked by the United States (with its founding of the Taliban in Afghanistan).
It will help that, unlike with Xi with whom he has a warm, personal, bond Modi, who was treated shabbily by Washington on the visa issue, will be correct when he officially converses only in Hindi, with a laboured translation for Obama helping to symbolise the distance that still separates India and America.
Bharat Karnad is Professor at Centre for Policy Research and blogs at www.bharatkarnad.com