Hindu art of double hedging against China
By M K Bhadrakumar
Although destined to remain in fine print, an Indian "discovery" as to what
prompted the United States last week to offer it futuristic, radar-evading
fighters has laid bare the countries' "defining partnership" for the 21st
Put simply, a miniscule group of avant-garde truth diggers among India's
well-heeled and smug community of defense analysts came up with a startling
find last week involving the deal. It seems the US was making virtue out of
Robert Scher, US deputy assistant secretary of defense for South and Southeast
Asia, announced on November 3 that while India had not requested information on
its fifth-generation fighter, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), the US was
making a unilateral
invitation for sales as an "example of the high regard that we hold for India's
In good measure, the Pentagon drafted an extraordinary nine-page report to the
US Congress and swiftly publicized it, which offered, "Should India indicate
interest in the JSF, the United States would be prepared to provide information
on the JSF and its requirements … to support India's future planning."
The initial speculation was that the US was making a last-minute effort to
gatecrash India's mega tender for the purchase of 126 multi-role combat
aircraft, from which Delhi has "disqualified" the original American bids of
F-16 aircraft. However, the analysts' "discovery" is that the US has
desperately sought Indian participation in the JSF's development as the program
faces unaffordable rising costs, with a price tag estimated at $150 million per
aircraft. In sum, the JSF has become a white elephant and, hopefully, cross
breeding it with the Indian black elephant might just about make its uncertain
progeny probably airworthy as a beast of burden.
The tragi-comic episode exposes an aspect of the US-India "partnership" hardly
glimpsed by Indian pundits, namely, the desperate need for the US to conjure up
an ideology-driven relationship that enables it in real terms to boost its
exports to the Indian markets - the latter being one of the few world markets
today enjoying growth prospects of around 7-8% in its gross domestic product
Getting the head examined
Indian think takers are talking through their hat by structuring new security
architectures for India with Australia or Japan, riveted around these
countries' traditional Cold-War alliance with the US in a strategy to "contain"
China. The hard reality is that the US is "flirting with national solvency", as
a noted American scholar Robert Kelly recently put it, "which will dramatically
impact all its alliances" in Asia. Kelly wrote:
"The US is now
borrowing 40 cents of every dollar it spends; the deficit is US$ 1.5 trillion
(160% of South Korea's entire GDP); the debt is almost US$10 trillion; the IMF
[International Monetary Fund] predicts America's debt-to-GDP ratio will exceed
100% by the end of the decade; and integrated US national security spending
tops US$1.2 trillion, 25% of the budget and 7% of the GDP. These are
mind-boggling figures that all but mandate some manner of US retrenchment from
its current global footprint."
In sum, except in the highly
unlikely eventuality of the "Wall" protestors in America accepting a still
lower standard of living with deep cuts in social welfare programs, the US
cannot fix its finances without applying a scalpel to its defense spending.
Former US defense secretary Robert Gates summed it up brilliantly when he said,
"any future defense secretary who recommends sending a big US army into Asia or
Africa again should have his head examined".
Yet, the relative decline of the US is an untold story, locked up in the attic
by Indian think-tankers.
Of course, India's plight is not as grave as that of South Korea or Australia,
which are swimming in shark-infested waters in a geopolitical context. Both are
being called upon to realize the probability of US military (and political)
power receding from Asia in the budgetary environment. Kelly concluded:
"America's political and financial dysfunction will soon force a painful
re-prioritization of US foreign policy. Commitments like Germany, Iraq,
Afghanistan, South Korea and others will be scrutinized, and no amount of
Korean-American friendship will undo a US$ 10 trillion debt.
Measure of balance
How does it add up for the alchemy of the US-India partnership? The former US
ambassador to India and a strategic guru on the circuit, Frank Wisner, handed
down a checklist at a speech on his current tour of India. The list combines
with great sophistication solid business with airy geopolitics. Wisner
identified Pakistan, China and the US-India bilateral economic approach as the
three key "difficulties" that will shape the US-India partnership ahead.
He made the astounding remark that there is no issue more important to the
US-India relationship than the "question of Pakistan" - that is, jointly
devising a "winning strategy" that makes Pakistan an obliging partner. He
proposed a division of labor: the US would have to focus on building up ties
with the Pakistani military in the fight against terrorism, while India should
press Pakistan to have transparency with regard to cross-border terrorism and
at the same time persisting with the normalization dialogue, including on
However, with regard to China, Wisner was plain-speaking, telling the Indian
audience precisely what it would like to hear: "The US and China want good
relations with China, but the problem is not as much with China's economic
expansion as it is with China's assertions that we have to be careful about."
Wisner cautioned India about developments on the Sino-Indian border and in the
South China Sea. He added, "We [US and India] have to reach out to nations like
Japan, [South] Korea, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, among others, to build
relations and give a measure of balance."
Wisner all but echoed what the US deputy secretary of state William Burns said
in a major policy speech in Washington last Friday, where he described the
Asia-Pacific as the "strategic pivot" of the US foreign policy and said the US
and Indian strategies "reinforce each other" in that region.
The US is vociferously exhorting India to switch its "Look East" policy to an
assertive mode of "Act East". Burns, in fact, expressed satisfaction that this
transformation was already happening. Clearly, Washington has taken note of the
Indian elephant bestirring itself to scale up economic, energy and strategic
ties with the Asia-Pacific region (which Delhi-based pundits now unequivocally
assume to be India's "extended neighborhood") - with Japan and Vietnam, in
But bluster is an integral part of the US public diplomacy, and separating the
chaff from the grain isn't always easy. Two relevant aspects must be noted.
One, it serves Washington's purpose to create some angst in the Chinese mind
about an emergent US-Indian strategic axis in the Asia-Pacific, which may have
useful fall-outs for the broader canvas of Sino-American interdependency, as
Washington keeps switching between the two tracks of "containment" and
"engagement" depending on current exigencies.
On the other hand, Delhi also may hope to gain something if Beijing's angst
translates as conciliatory gestures toward India on a host of other
geopolitical templates, especially the dynamics of the Sino-Pakistan
relationship or the peace and tranquility along the disputed Sino-Indian
border. Over and above, Delhi most certainly seeks a helpful stance by China
vis-a-vis India's search for a place at the "high table" - the United Nations
Security Council and Nuclear Suppliers Group, in particular.
The big question is whether China is taking note of an "assertive" India in the
Asia-Pacific. If a Xinhua commentary on Tuesday is any indication, it does. The
commentary did a neat cataloguing of Delhi's moves in the past six to eight
weeks alone suggestive of an "Act East" policy. It appreciated the authenticity
of India's desire to seek a "secure" external environment for its "peaceful
development as an emerging power." However, Beijing seems to be still reading
the tea leaves.
Xinhua's catalogue is impressive:
An agreement between India and Vietnam to jointly explore oil resources in the
South China Sea "despite China's indisposition and amid strains in their ties
India signing a strategic agreement with Afghanistan;
Signing defense agreements with "China's neighboring" Vietnam and Myanmar;
Delhi's "interest" in selling BrahMos supersonic cruise missiles to Vietnam;
Assisting Hanoi in "bolstering its naval and air force capabilities";
India accessing Vietnam's Nha Trang Port, "which is situated close to the
strategic Cam Ranh Bay";
"More significantly, scared by China's 'muscle-flexing' ", India's plans to
recruit and deploy another 10,000 soldiers "along the disputed borders with
China and the Chinese southwestern Tibet";
The Indian army's biggest-ever $13 billion modernization program; >
India's deployment of BrahMos supersonic cruise missiles on the border with
Tibet in "India's first tactical missile deployment targeting China ... awfully
disrupting the volatile tranquility along the China-India border";
India exploring "potentials to enter a glowing partnership" with Japan, based
on shared concerns and wariness about a rising China.
Nonetheless, interestingly, Xinhua concluded on a mixed note partly
conciliatory, partly challenging:
China's rise might have given [India]
a nudge ... Beijing's growing influence in India's neighborhood, especially in
Pakistan, causes anxiety to New Delhi ... On top of that, warmer ties between
India and Japan have been given a nudge by the US. Washington has been eyeing
China's increasingly assertive posture and has grown more wary about Chinese
There is nothing to be said against its [India's] overtures to others for
strategic cooperation. But if it intended to estrange and antagonize its
neighbor [China] by taking it as an imaginary enemy and get unwisely involved
in affairs which fall within others' backyards, it would hold its national
strategies as hostage and put at stake its own national interests. It is highly
advisable for New Delhi to think twice about the pitfalls in making its foreign
Delhi lost no time reacting positively to Xinhua's
advice. Indian government sources "leaked" to the media that contrary to
general impressions, India is yet to respond to two sensitive demarches from
Vietnam in defense cooperation - namely, to transfer to Vietnam medium-sized
warships and to upgrade the strategic port of Nha Trang.
But the mandarins in Delhi left tantalizingly open as to what India proposes to
do with regard to two other Vietnamese requests - submarine training and
transferring the BrahMos supersonic cruise missile. Vietnam uses Russian-made
kilo class submarines and BrahMos is an India-Russia joint venture - which
actually makes it a double hedging on futures and options.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign
Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka,
Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.
(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please
contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)