By laying down the next North Korean nuclear test as tripwire, India should start hitting the brakes when, for example, the US government — as it is prone to do — goes from friendly to bully in pursuit of its own agenda in double quick time. For instance, for Washington to insist that energy-deficient India must cut off its oil imports from Iran and opt for the “Mission Impossible” TAPI pipeline (Turkmen gas to India via Afghanistan and Pakistan), while allowing Taiwan, Japan and South Korea to import oil and gas from Iran, is a bit rich.
It is very likely that sooner or later Washington and Tehran will come to an understanding, even as India’s stand against Iran will jeopardise our leverage and goodwill in Tehran. All the effort India has made to fill the economic vacuum in Iran by ramping up trade will amount to nought. India learnt nothing from freezing relations with Burma to please the West. Nearly 25 years later, Delhi is scrambling to recover its position, only to find the Chinese too well entrenched.
Curtailing China’s ambitions is a convergent interest and, as Leon Panetta, the American defence secretary, said at the Shangrila Dialogue in Singapore, India “will play a decisive role” in Asia’s future. But this role will not materialise if India permits itself to be nudged and elbowed into accepting US terms. Two cases in point: the US insistence, in the main, on India signing CISMOA (Communication Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement) and LSA (Logistics Support Agreement) ignores the fact that India does not as yet perceive the US as completely trustworthy. Why not formalise workable technical solutions that have permitted joint military exercises to-date, instead? The other issue is American attempts to shape Indian military requirements. The Indian Army asked for a certain number of Javelin anti-tank, “fire- and-forget” missiles, costing roughly $150,000 a piece. Washington, on its own, pared down that order by half. Who is to decide on the quantity and quality of weapons purchased from the US for hard cash — the Indian military or the US government?
A senior US defence official travelling with Mr Panetta on his week-long visit to Asia explained this as a “snafu”, as reflecting “old thinking” and not new ideas in the process of being “phased in”.
US ambassador Nancy Powell has talked of $8 billion worth of arms deals with American companies in the pipeline. Delhi has to ensure the “old” US thinking does not get factored into new arms contracts.
The United States cannot be blamed though for trying to get its way. The blame rests entirely with the Indian government for allowing itself to be pushed around. Alas, the Congress coalition government with Manmohan Singh as figurehead Prime Minister is so dead in the water that it cannot even summon the will to resist US-imposed strictures on stuff India is paying hard cash for. It is frightening to think how much policy ground will be ceded to the US and other foreign governments till the next general elections by an Indian government that has apparently given up protecting this country’s sovereign prerogatives and interests.
The Washington round of the strategic dialogue, other than the demarche on North Korean test, should be about fleshing out cooperative military ways and means to distract China and weaken its tendency to hegemonism in South China Sea and elsewhere, and fast-tracking co-development of new military technologies and weapons development, bypassing a series of arms deals that Mr Panetta outlined as a prelude. Delhi has to be mindful of America’s short-term outlook that can hurt India’s strategic position in the long-term, if Delhi does not push back. On issues where Indian interests are compromised, the US should be told, in plain words, to back off. Given the stakes in Asia, it will.
The writer is a
professor at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi
Read More: The Asian Age