A flurry of international activity marked the end of a long, lazy monsoon weekend straddling Raksha Bandhan and Independence Day.
While these events appeared to take place in isolation in different parts of the world, they were, in fact, interlinked, and cumulatively underscore our need for a new India-centric security architecture.
Defence Minister Rajnath Singh was in Moscow for a security conference, which, Russian President Vladimir Putin said, was part of a process to usher in a multipolar world.
This is something India desires as well, meaning that there is commonality of both objective and purpose, and something that Putin can neither achieve on his own nor without India’s active cooperation.
National Security Adviser Ajit Doval was also in Moscow at the same time for separate meetings with his Russian counterpart. While India didn’t issue a statement, a Russian readout emphasised “the progressive development of the Russian-Indian special and privileged strategic partnership.”
Naturally — since it was India, more than any country, that effectively negated the West’s efforts to isolate Russia with sanctions after instigating a proxy conflict in Ukraine.
French President Emmanuel Macron and Prime Minister Narendra Modi had a telecon. While the official French statement was all over the place, touching on climate change, taking digs at Russia, food security, and the political crisis in Sri Lanka, the Indian statement showed that the call’s focus was plainly on cooperation in defence, nuclear energy, and a strategic partnership.
While the Sukhoi-30s of the Indian Air Force, off to Brisbane to participate in the biennial Pitch Black exercise, were refuelled by a French tanker en route, the Vietnamese sent an army contingent to India for their first-ever exercises in a foreign country.
This news was, however, shadowed by the announcement of ‘Yudh Abhyas’, a major exercise to be conducted jointly by India and America at high altitudes in Uttarakhand.
The Malaysian naval chief, an alumnus of the Indian Navy’s gunnery school at Kochi, was in New Delhi this week, even as India accelerated its push to sell Tejas fighter jets to Malaysia by opening an overseas office of Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) in Kuala Lumpur.
Nonetheless, a Chinese spy ship docked at the Chinese-run port of Hambantota in Sri Lanka in spite of strong protests by India and America.
Germany continues to refit maritime patrol aircraft for the Pakistani Navy. And the Royal Air Force has been making near-daily hauls between Rawalpindi, Akrotiri air base in Cyprus, Poland, and bases in Britain for the past fortnight.
According to press reports, they are allegedly ferrying large loads of Pakistani ammunition to feed the Ukrainian war effort. These include artillery shells made by the Pakistan Ordnance Board and components for Ukrainian tanks. (The Pakistan Army has 320 Ukrainian T-80UD tanks, which they maintain using an indigenous ecosystem.)
This is not good for India. What sort of international pressure might we ever exert on Pakistan, for example, by spending scanty diplomatic coin in good faith on the West when they so blithely set our needs aside for their own?
What is an Indian soldier killed by a jihadi to them when they have jihadis of their own to kill or dire requirements for Pakistani shells to feed their proxy conflict in Ukraine?
The simple point is that we cannot indefinitely countenance a situation in which our diplomatic and strategic efforts to improve our regional security are callously undercut by the very same nations with whom we engage in good faith and rightful earnestness.
The root cause of the problem is that India, Russia, and China, the three largest powers in Eurasia, have rarely found unanimity on issues. The last time was during the Second World War when all three nations joined the Allies to successfully defeat the Axis powers led by Germany and Japan.
Since then, it has been a case of any two agreeing on something, with the third one dissenting.
But there are two points on which the trio is, in fact, in agreement even if they do not acknowledge this openly. First is a common wish to rid Eurasia of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). And the second is that India has changed irreversibly since 2014.
Unfortunately, these key points of concurrence are presently buried under the weight of a China on the rise.
Beijing, propelled by the phenomenal socio-economic progress it has made in the past three decades, is blinded by visions of replacing the colonial era with one of its own.
In the process, it has alienated all its neighbours save three — Pakistan and North Korea, who are steadfast allies, and Russia, with whom it enjoys a strategically quiescent, profitable, symbiotic trade relationship.
This aggressive ascent has also brought China into conflict with America and the West. However, the old colonial powers are limited in their ability to contain China’s rise for two reasons: Beijing’s formidable military might and Russia’s neutrality.
The West does not possess the ability to prosecute a successful, large-scale, conventional campaign on mainland China in spite of having three powerful springboards in the region — Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan.
As a result, they have been forced in the past decade to fall back upon the only power which can do so — India.
New Delhi has, therefore, been subjected to wearily ardent wooing by the West, with our native chiefs being offered piles of shiny, colourful beads to loyally pitch our tepees around America’s campfire.
Western leaders fall over one another to extol India’s democratic values. They talk of organic partnerships, shared ethics, and overdue friendships. Some even make the effort to speak Hindi. They propose trade alliances spanning oceans and military ones straddling renamed geographies to institute a ‘rules-based order’.
All the while, that alluring pile of beads keeps growing.
But nowhere in this courtship’s serenade can Indians hear their own interests. Instead, the staccato riff is of how it is in India’s interests to align with the interests of the West.
Believe it or not, this is, in fact, formal Western foreign policy.
American Deputy Secretary of State, Wendy Sherman, deposed at a Congressional hearing of the US House Foreign Affairs Committee that “…we just have to keep working at this relationship and understanding the complexity of it, and helping India to really understand what is in their national security interests."
(Note: At the other end of the spectrum is the mainstream media’s euphoria at the recent news that the Indian defence attaché has been granted the special privilege of unrestricted access to the Pentagon.
Rather than over-enthusiastically interpreting this move as a mark of how joyously deep Indo-American ties have become, as they did, they would have bolstered their journalistic credibility by seeing it for what it really is — more shiny beads for the natives.)
By that logic, it is in India’s interests to join the West in sanctioning Russia over Ukraine (while we shell out premiums for our crude oil) or to tamely toe the American line and brand Iran as a pariah state when all the solutions to our energy needs lie just a few hundred kilometres west of Kutch, past the Makran Coast.
But, on the central point of a China-Pakistan nexus, and the existential threat it poses to us, or on Islamist terror propagated from Pakistan and Afghanistan, there is only silence or liberal sanctimony.
This is the international hypocrisy and condescension which India has to address if it is to secure its national aims and substantially come into its own in the exciting quarter-century that awaits us.
The fly in the ointment is Pakistan. Everyone needs it. As demonstrated by the recent killing of Al Qaeda leader Ayman Al Zawahiri by an American drone missile strike in Kabul, Pakistan still has immense value as a facilitator, and as a launchpad, for anti-terrorist operations in Afghanistan.
The amazing thing is that Pakistan has managed to carry on its geopolitical harlotry without descending into violent contradictions or conflicts of interest. It isn’t growing closer to America, or farther from China, just because it allowed its soil to be used by the Americans as a springboard.
Similarly, it won’t alienate America, no matter how much more of a Chinese vassal state it becomes, even if to the detriment of Indian interests and Indo-American ties in turn. Pakistan is where it has always been — at the geographically advantageous intersection of survival and profit.
Europe, as a geopolitical subset of America, toes the same line at the cost of India’s interests.
France is an exception, but only to some extent. So, too, Japan. Both nations may speak imaginatively of novel security architectures for the ‘Indo-Pacific’ with India at the core, but neither has adopted a hardline stance against Pakistan or actively aided India through diplomatic or military means to overcome the threats posed by Pakistan to peace in the subcontinent.
For China, Pakistan is both a military flank against India and an overland access route for commercial and strategic movement to the Persian Gulf. Pakistan along with North Korea form the two poles China employs to balance itself upon Asia. The instability that these two poles supply gives China an invaluable strategic buffer.
History teaches us that the West has always been forced to go after the effect — either the Taliban or the nuclear threat posed by Pyongyang rather than the root cause: China.
As a nuclear power, Pakistan is a major attraction to the Sunni Islamic world for both civilian and military reasons. It has provided troops and military advisers to Saudi Arabia on and off for over half a century now. (The Middle East may be rich, but it has not been able to establish a large, professional, battle-hardened, standing army as Pakistan has.)
Turkey and Pakistan, as firm allies of America from the early Cold War days, have a long history of military cooperation, including arms sales to Pakistan, the training of Pakistani F-16 pilots in Turkey, and joint naval exercises in the Mediterranean and Arabian seas.
Readers may recollect that Turkey offered to dispatch troops to guard the Kabul airport when America and its allies withdrew from Afghanistan last year. That kite-flying ended only after the Indian foreign minister raised a warning flag by making a rare, symbolic visit to Greece.
Pakistan is also viewed within the Sunni sphere as a natural counterbalance to Iran’s regional ambitions, although Islamabad has been careful not to antagonise Tehran on this point (not least on account of the fact that Shias constitute a significant minority in Pakistan).
Nonetheless, unverified claims emerge periodically of a Pakistani hand in separatist activities simmering in Iran’s Sunni-majority Sistan province, which borders Pakistan.
Iran, being a Shia republic, stands apart, but it is too cowed by Western sanctions and Pakistan’s military might to ever take sides.
Russia is an exception, but their outlook is too transactional to have any real impact in helping India to neutralise the threat Pakistan poses to India. China is simply too large an energy market for the Russians to annoy Beijing beyond a point, and if, as has been the trend in the past decade, India starts deviating from its old practice of sourcing military platforms almost exclusively from Russia, Moscow’s incentive to assist India politically only diminishes.
Nonetheless, Russian president Vladimir Putin has tried repeatedly to get China and India on to the same table through groupings like the INSTC, SCO, and BRICS. Each time, he has failed because he was unable to overcome the central issue — China’s attitude towards India and its unwavering support to Pakistan.
Putin will try again, and fail again, until China’s strategic dependency on Pakistan is ended — either by reason, incentive, or force.
In November 2019, Foreign Minister S Jaishankar said that our “aspiration to become a leading power someday cannot continue with unsettled borders, an unintegrated region, and under-exploited opportunities”.
But how exactly do we settle our borders and integrate our region?
Conceptually, the best way to do that is by neutralising Pakistan’s ability to mean so much to so many powers. But the eternal conundrum is that those same powers see no real profit in aiding India to free itself of the fetters of Pakistan, particularly when those nations are so dependent on, and profit so much from, China.
In reality, no one wants a change in the subcontinental status quo because we would then be the one major nation on the planet with no enemies. We would be unstoppable — partly because of our sheer size and partly because of our geography — and existing global dynamics, no matter how firm, would be upset.
At 75, and looking at 100, it is, therefore, becoming increasingly imperative that India looks beyond a China-Pakistan axis — either by isolating it or defusing the threats it poses — if we are to finally carve an overdue path to accelerated industrialisation and wealth creation.
In political terms, it would mean the replacement of colonial-era ‘isms’ with older, time-tested tenets of vanijya-dharma. We’ve glorified poverty and looked askance at prosperity for long enough.
But we cannot do that as long as these multiple millstones continue to weigh us down. Until 2014, we dovetailed our security needs with the needs of those who deigned to link their interests with ours and compromised them because India’s aims were seen in Delhi as fungible tokens.
This has stopped. A new breed of policy makers candidly accepts that our policies cannot function at the sufferance of another nation’s noblesse oblige, no matter how earnest an engagement it professes or how shiny its beads.
Yet, as we learnt once again from the fallout of the Ukrainian conflict, forcing a change of such magnitude isn’t easy or without risks, both military and economic.
Therefore, the political objectives of a new security architecture would have to hark back to what India had always been — the largest economy in the world — and always sought — profitable trade with the rest of the world.
It may seem like a hard line, but that is also where we are at. As it is, governments in India, be they central, provincial, or local, are already hard-pressed to meet the burgeoning popular aspirations of a nation growing younger and more impatient by the day. If left unchecked, this impatience will get channelled into social turmoil, and no one wants that.
Grudging acceptance is also growing that while freebies may seem attractive, they are no alternative to prodigious industrial growth. So, it is not just imperative, but inevitable, that peace arrives in our region soon.
Nonetheless, in conclusion, whatever the permutations, implications, or features of that security policy, its political objectives will remain rooted in our civilisational outlook: “Leave us alone to trade with you.”
That was the way of the merchant for millennia, and that is what it will become again — with the cooperation of friendly nations or in spite of them.
As you are no doubt aware, Swarajya is a media product that is directly dependent on support from its readers in the form of subscriptions. We do not have the muscle and backing of a large media conglomerate nor are we playing for the large advertisement sweep-stake.
Our business model is you and your subscription. And in challenging times like these, we need your support now more than ever.
We deliver over 10 - 15 high quality articles with expert insights and views. From 7AM in the morning to 10PM late night we operate to ensure you, the reader, get to see what is just right.
Becoming a Patron or a subscriber for as little as Rs 1200/year is the best way you can support our efforts.