Geopolitics beyond the mega deal
The just-concluded 470 aircraft deal signed by Tata’s Air India, the biggest in aviation history, involving an estimated $85 billion, is creating a surge of excitement in Washington, Paris and London.
I recall that in one of the worst years in India’s existence as a nation—1991, it was forced to negotiate a $2.2 billion loan after pledging 67 tons of gold reserves as collateral security to the IMF so that we could tide over the acute balance of payments crisis. Things appear to have come full circle in 32 years. The just-concluded 470 aircraft deal signed by Tata’s Air India, the biggest in aviation history, involving an estimated $85 billion, is creating a surge of excitement in Washington, Paris and London. US President Joe Biden even thanked PM Narendra Modi for the deal, saying a million jobs would be created across 44 states. While the deal could lead to a transformed commercial aviation sector in India in the next few years, much like the Emirates model of the UAE, the international ramifications of the deal at such a crucial juncture cannot be ignored. The connectors are too strong to miss, and they lie in the field of geopolitics.
The excitement should actually be felt more in the geopolitical domain, which is currently in great flux. The Covid-19 pandemic was a watershed period in which the power of nations enhanced and dwindled unexpectedly. Global terror appeared to take a backstep, and the big powers were hesitant about the next steps due to inherent uncertainty in the world economy. While the Middle East caused a temporary stabilisation due to the measures undertaken to sign the Abraham Accords, most other conflict zones remained quiet.
The exception was China which attempted its strategy of wolf warrior diplomacy to gain some unexplained strategic advantage, which it failed to derive. The uncertainty somehow appeared to play to the nation’s advantage when it became clear that the Indian economy was bouncing back and recovery, to a large extent, was appearing guaranteed, the enhanced Chinese threat notwithstanding. The Russia-Ukraine war only added more complexity, especially for nations such as India, whose policy of interest-based strategic autonomy initially proved to be more of a challenge but progressively has won many brownie points on the international stage.
The surge in India’s strategic significance commenced with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s famous advice to the Russian president to end the conflict in Ukraine, saying, “Today’s era is not of war”, even as he called for finding ways to address the global food and energy security crisis. This moment, at a meeting on the sidelines of the SCO Summit in Tashkent, catapulted Modi and India to a strategic stature rarely seen before. India’s ability to meander the course between Moscow and Washington had already been established to some extent by the resistance to attempts to scuttle the $5 billion S-400 deal. India stayed the course and the CAATSA legislation was never applied to it. It needed the world’s finest air defence system produced by the Russians but also many elements of US defence and other technologies.
The US would gnash its teeth over the Indian energy purchases from Russia in defiance of all sanctions, the one major contribution in keeping the Russian economy afloat. It was rationally defended by External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar when he stated that Europe had imported six times more fossil fuel from Russia than India had since February 2022.
The mega Air India deal does not reflect just the growing Indian strategic stature. Two very high-powered visits almost six months apart have added their due share. Jaishankar’s 10-day stay in the US post the SCO summit weighed in substantially on the interest triggered in the West by PM Modi’s statement at Tashkent. His visit was officially to enable a high-level review of the multifaceted bilateral agenda and strengthen cooperation on regional and global issues to consolidate the India-US strategic partnership further. However, Jaishankar skillfully utilised this opportunity to project India’s interest-based approach to Ukraine, and it changed nothing as far as Indo-US interests were concerned. There was a momentary setback when the US returned to supporting Pakistan after a review of its Afghanistan policy. It was perceived as something against Indian interests, but only. Interestingly, this almost worked like a tradeoff. India objected to US support to Pakistan while the US protested Indian support to Russia; almost a quid pro quo. India and the US realised the futility of pulling back from the huge progress already made in their strategic relationship and the common understanding of mutual threats.
That is what saw NSA Ajit Doval in Washington in the second fortnight of January 2023 for the first high-level dialogue on the Initiative for Critical and Emerging Technologies (iCET). With China as the common adversary, India is aware that it cannot delay technology absorption and that the only way to reach a much higher technological threshold is through a partnership with the US. Much depends here on trust and willingness to play ball with US demands. India has successfully engaged with the US at a parent-to-parent level, but to give this a fillip, it will have to prove its strategic credentials a little more forcefully.
Perhaps it is with the above in mind that NSA Ajit Doval drew his route back to India via Moscow. Such strategic balancing between the hottest capitals has not been witnessed for long. The NSA’s agenda was attending a multilateral meeting on Afghanistan, with China, Iran and Central Asian states also participating. India’s interests in Afghanistan cannot be compromised since a return to global terror is ominously predicted for the near future. The fact that the Indian economy is doing fundamentally well and a private aviation deal of such proportions can boost western economies is an important waypoint in India’s rise in stature.
In 2023 India chairs G-20 even as it remains politically neutral in the Russia-Ukraine tangle. A couple of unsmart moves could compromise the strategic boost, and that is where the challenge lies. So much will depend on the outcome of the Russia-Ukraine war that scenario building is something Indian strategic think tanks need to consider. While doing so, India must continue to follow the outstanding policy of neutrality it has effectively adopted. With all other things in its favour it should quietly seek a mediation role with which it can further boost its international image.
Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd)
Former Commander, Srinagar-based 15 Corps. Now Chancellor, Central University