Will India now be pushed to fight America’s wars, asks former MEA Salman Khurshid

India will not baulk at a war to defend its sovereign territory but we need to learn from the US. The US might be able to put its misadventures behind, but India can ill afford such outcomes

Will India now be pushed to fight America’s wars, asks former MEA Salman Khurshid

Salman Khurshid

For some years there has been an ambivalence about our foreign policy on the US. The growing irrelevance of NAM, the break-up of the Soviet Union, the emergence of China and Pakistan losing its clout with the US because of the latter’s belated recognition of the terrorist threats that emanate from Pakistan’s soil not limited to India alone, have all changed the lines carefully drawn on the policy parchments that stood us in good stead. But eraser and pencil in hand, as we sit down to sketch our aspirations, many questions are being asked about the emerging picture.

Central to the enterprise of new foreign policy for new India is the inevitable question, ‘will the emerging shape of Indo-US relations help India’s global aspirations and concerns closer home?

The civil-nuclear agreements carefully steered by Dr Manmohan Singh broke new ground in the strategic area although economic, cultural, scientific and intellectual relationship between the two countries had already felt a second breath despite the immediate reaction to India’s nuclear explosions.

Compared to the steady reclaiming of nuclear legitimacy during the earlier NDA and UPA regime there was consciously no move towards a strategic and military partnership. After a one-off statement about becoming allies, the NDA too quickly switched to the phrase, strategic partnership. However, of late and somewhat quietly, the government has moved towards signing of several agreements with the US — the Logistics Support Agreement (LSA), the Communications and Information Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA), and now on the cards, the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA).

The agreements have underscored what might be a radical break with past consensus. These agreements, it might be argued, are the natural flow of the trend of the UPA policy. But given the context of recent developments it would be naive to believe that this is a win-win situation without any adverse consequences.

A quick look at the agreements will be helpful. The LSA appears an innocuous enabling agreement that facilitates routine reciprocal use of each other’s facilities. It does not specifically commit India to provide logistical support, though it may well be seen by the US as a stepping stone for possibilities. However, together, these agreements cannot but signal a significant departure in India’s foreign policy positions.

Beyond shared democratic values India always had reservations about US role in different parts of the world and with these agreements signalling a geopolitical alignment with the US, it is far from the Indo-Soviet partnership of yore. That and our growing willingness to align our defence requirements with the American military- industrial complex is certainly a major shift.

But does all this mean that unlike our conscious aloofness in the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is now a possibility, even inevitability, that these agreements will push India to closer involvement in US conflicts and initiatives like regime change? We may not have heard more than cryptic pronouncements of the spokesperson, but the fact remains that Indian people will not accept body bags of their young ones from alien theatres of war.

More than future engagements elsewhere in the world, there is credible information that the US expects India to play ball in the containment of China. From the string of pearls to a countervailing force to China is a narrative that seems still somewhat far-fetched but has already seen a counter-narrative on the LAC that we are still trying to untangle.

Do we need a war with a nuclear neighbour, with another checking out its own weapons? Of course, India will not baulk at a war to defend its dignity and sovereign territory but to seek one to help a far-off country settle its own scores might not make much sense to the Indian people.

Undoubtedly India of 2020 is not India of 1962, but we need to be objective about our economic growth and military preparedness, particularly for a two-front battle. There is an ambitious American plan to police the waters of the Indo-Pacific with India’s active participation.

Thus, comes the Quad maritime exercise that we have joined. China will not be pleased.

India along with several countries, has a legitimate interest in a rule based, accessible maritime order in the Indo-Pacific but it will take more than being very pleased at the US including India in the description of the region and renaming a fleet as Indo-Pacific Command.

India's immediate interests may not align with America and certainly not at attempting at sea what we are still not able to on land in the north. Furthermore, substantial investments in the blue water navy for a sustained presence in the neighbourhood and beyond are still to be made before we think of greater use of American bases. Joint exercises might be one thing but to fight along US forces as the British and Australians have done several times might be quite another.

South China Sea might remain a far-off place for India even with the ambitions that some people nurture. Perhaps we need to learn from the US how not to get involved where there is no clear path for success. The US might be able to put its misadventures behind, but India can ill afford such outcomes.

The jury is still out on the LAC and the torturous military level talks continue to drag on. Meanwhile our development partnership to access high-end American technology cannot come at a price already displayed by the Chinese.

On the other hand, on development issues such as trade, intellectual property, immigration we have not really had satisfaction. How much must we blissfully give away in terms of autonomy of decision making in return for so little? And then are we dealing with an increasingly aggressive and assertive China or the Russia-China-Pakistan collaboration hoping to keep the US at bay?

Greater engagement with the US is inevitable and, in many ways desirable. But as President Clinton put it once, does the tail wag the dog? We have certainly not been given to believe that we harbour such an ambition. Nothing in recent years has given an indication of such a thing happening despite Howdy Modi and Namaste Trump.

Domestic politics may not provide a template for international affairs. Besides ideological warmth, if that is what it is towards the US, cannot be oblivious to the history of Indo-US relations and the peculiarities of the Trump presidentship under some stress as the election day approaches.

On the other hand, have we done a cost benefit analysis of dealing with an administration that seeks to put America First? If that be the case, must India be Second? Is all the effort we have made over the past few years got us the remark from US President Donald Trump that ‘India hides its COVID figures’?

(The author is former Union Minister of External Affairs)

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Published: 26 Oct 2020, 1:44 PM