Tread with care

Self-interest should drive India's nuanced response to US policy

By Sunanda K. Datta-Ray
  • Published 13.01.18

In the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, the United States of America lectured India on its duty to join the good fight against the evil empire, although Ronald Reagan hadn't yet coined the phrase. Jawaharlal Nehru responded with non-alignment. Now, the 55-page US National Security Strategy document seeks to flatter India as a "leading global power" into adopting a confrontational position vis-à-vis China. That and Donald Trump's fulminations against Pakistan - both music to Indian ears - demand a response from Narendra Modi.

Any policy statement by the Lone Superpower would have grabbed the world's attention even without the imprimatur of the most flamboyant and eccentric American president in recent history. Indian interest focuses mainly on the document's relevance to its essential relationships with the US and China. India needs the US. India also needs a friendly China. But as Beijing's latest tantrum over ONGC Videsh exploring the South China Sea on Vietnam's behalf confirms, India has a range of problems with China that will not be resolved by treating them as aspects of the US-China or India-US equations. Some of these problems are of perception. India sees China's presence in every neighbouring country as a threat. Perhaps China sees in India's rise, no matter how peaceful, some ultimate curtailment of its own soaring ambitions.

The US can't help India achieve a rapprochement with China but it can strengthen India by providing the investment and technology needed for rapid industrialization and by exercising a restraining influence on Pakistani sponsorship of terrorism. Of course, the first depends to a large extent on India's own ability to resolve problems of land and labour and make the most of foreign investment and expertise. As for the second, the long-term effectiveness of measures like the recent freeze on security aid to Islamabad is by no means certain. Torn between its military and politicos, Pakistan may not be able to respond coherently to Trump's warning. It knows the US isn't a permanent presence in the region. India, viewed as an existential threat, is. Pakistanis who feel deprived by India in Kashmir and increasingly challenged by India in Afghanistan might therefore feel that it is in their long-term interest to come to terms with Islamists who are viscerally opposed to India.

Uncertainties surrounding Trump further complicate India's task of measuring the dividend, actual or notional, from a closer US alliance against the expected price. This column argued long before Trump's election that a man who expected to make a business profit in this country was likely to be a safe bet. But his countrymen have raised doubts about his ability to deliver. Questions are being asked about Trump's political acumen, grasp of administration, understanding of international relations, social attitudes, and even mental stability. His tweeted response to Kim Jong-un would have been juvenile if it were not also ominous. What he decides about climate change or deporting Nicaraguans, Haitians and Salvadorans doesn't affect India directly but the overall effect doesn't convey much sense of mature responsibility.

Not that 'America First' is any more a Trump invention than 'Make in India' is Modi's. Today's publicity-conscious incumbents may have coined the slogans but the concepts have always inspired policy. Import substitution was a national mantra under Nehru when many otherwise attractive defence contracts were vetoed because the "make-in-India" element was not substantive enough. Similarly, the Monroe Doctrine was an early expression of 'America First' thinking. The US's admirable focus on its national interest has often entailed liberal spending abroad. Whether it was the Marshall Plan to reconstruct war-torn Europe, investment in Mexico to make emigration less attractive, or handsome weaponry to Pakistan to resist a hypothetical Soviet invasion, the US has been more generous with aid than any other nation on earth.

The rationale for this largesse hasn't changed since the joke about Monaco cabling Paris to send a couple of communists so that the principality qualified for US help. American objectives have always been pragmatic, whether it was Franklin Delano Roosevelt propping up one of Nicaragua's most vicious dictators ("Somoza may be a son of a b***h, but he's our son of a b***h") or his successor reneging on Roosevelt's commitment on Palestine because he had "to answer to hundreds of thousands who were anxious for the success of Zionism" but didn't "have hundreds of thousands of Arabs among his constituents". (Jared Kushner must have pressed that argument on his father-in-law.) Bill Clinton testified Pakistan was not developing the bomb, knowing it to be a lie, to allow the resumption of a defence relationship whose suspension was undermining American influence and affecting American exports. Trump's NSS ignores the Bush administration's commitment to "the voluntary exchange of goods and services based on mutual benefit, not favoritism" and Barack Obama's promise to "help the next generation of global entrepreneurs sustain momentum in growing a global middle class." It isn't as blunt as the earlier demand that US allies pay cash for protection but its nods in the direction of traditional values like liberty, freedom of religion and speech do not prevent Trump from courting the authoritarian rulers of Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

In identifying the four national imperatives as protecting the homeland, promoting American prosperity, preserving peace through strength, and advancing American influence, the NSS singles out China and Russia as competitors that "challenge American power, influence, and interests". It also recognizes the strategic significance of space and cyber as new domains, and discusses efforts by adversaries to lower confidence in democratic institutions. Moreover, it accuses adversaries and competitors of resorting to "grey zone" activities that are coercive without qualifying as military action or unlawful behaviour. China is portrayed as a competitor who not only challenges America's global leadership but also uses aggressive investment and other economic activities in areas outside the Indo-Pacific region, including Latin America and Africa. The NSS also has much to say about China successfully leveraging the most advanced technologies (often acquired through cyber and other economic theft) to strengthen its military capabilities while tightening restrictions on its own people. The message seems to be that Trump will not hesitate to take tough action on a range of issues including North Korea, maritime disputes and bilateral trade.

Once again, this isn't a certainty. Reports and rumours of Trump's Russia connection, last year's 10-point US-China trade deal which allows the Chinese to feast on American beef while Americans munch Chinese cooked chicken, and calls to China to rein in North Korea indicate that US self-interest will always temper outright hostility. Instead of continuing to rant about China as a "currency manipulator" and "unfair trade partner", the president eulogizes China's Belt and Road Initiative which India alone opposes. The message is that American rhetoric against China should not be taken too seriously. Understanding this, Manmohan Singh assured Hu Jintao that despite his dalliance with George W. Bush, there was "no question of ganging up against China". He also reiterated after Malabar '07 (the Indo-American naval exercises expanded to include Japan, Australia and Singapore) that the Quadrilateral Initiative or Quad wasn't "a military alliance".

Just as US self-interest dictated the NSS, India's self-interest must determine the response. It's pleasant to read the NSS's praise for India's "leadership role in Indian Ocean security and throughout the broader region" but India cannot afford to pull out of its commitment to Chabahar port or the trilateral pact involving Afghanistan just because the US is determined to "neutralise Iran's malign activities in the region". Russia, too, is an old friend with the ability to still extend diplomatic and technological support. The nuanced foreign policy that lies ahead, and of which India's participation in November's Quad working-level meeting gave a foretaste, may not be all that different from Nehruvian non-alignment. Nowadays it is called strategic autonomy.