Is 'Save India from China' the real motive for Modi's US odyssey?

The Prime Minister has to go shopping for arms and energy supplies in the US, with Asian international relations a mess and Russia at war. Question is, what will India need to pay?

Joe Biden, US President, and Narendra Modi, Indian PM (photo courtesy: Getty Images)
Joe Biden, US President, and Narendra Modi, Indian PM (photo courtesy: Getty Images)

Ashis Ray

The United States administration’s authorisation to General Electric company to sell GE414 engines to India is aimed at assisting Hindustan Aeronautics Limited’s Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft programme or AMCA1 — a fifth-generation stealth, multirole fighter plane, with sixth generation technologies, for the Indian Air force (IAF) and Indian Navy. The understanding — finalised during US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin’s visit to Delhi earlier this month — could be among the announcements during Narendra Modi’s visit to Washington this week.

Also in the pipeline, expected to be made public during or around Modi’s trip to France on 14 July, is a purchase of the naval version of Dassault Aviation’s Rafale. The air force variety — chosen by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government — is already rendering service in the IAF.

It has generally been reported that the GE414 engines were meant for the Light Combat Aircraft, LCA Tejas 2, project. Their dual utilisation in the development underway at HAL is an additional dimension. It’s apparently a setback for Rolls Royce, whose engines were used in earlier trials for Tejas 2. There’s speculation in diplomatic and political circles in London that the switch to sourcing from the US may not be unrelated to BBC’s incisive expose of Modi’s role in the 2002 Gujarat riots in a recent television documentary. It’s just the kind of vendetta he was expected in Indian diplomatic parlance to indulge in.

It was also previously indicated that India had struck a deal to acquire 18 General Atomics-made MQ-9B armed drones for the navy and the air force at an estimated cost of $1.5-$2 billion. These have the ability to fly for about 48 hours and carry a payload of around 1,700 kilograms. They are intended to empower the Indian Navy to better monitor the expanding presence of Chinese warships in the Indian Ocean and at the same time arm the IAF and the Indian Army with firepower along India’s frontiers with Pakistan and China.

Modi is in dire straits on India’s defence. It’s a crisis of his own making. His much-touted muscular foreign policy has turned out to be a mouse like approach to China. His image conscious mindset has prevented him from admitting that under his watch Chinese troops have advanced into and built concrete infrastructure on the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), which is meant to be the provisional border between the two countries.

Certainly, in the Galwan Valley in Ladakh and reportedly in the Doklam plateau near Sikkim and the Upper Subansiri district in Arunachal Pradesh. In Galwan, 26 of 65 Indian patrolling points are said to be effectively in Chinese control.

A former US ambassador to India, Kenneth Juster, revealed last year India was ‘very concerned’ about not ‘poking China in the eye’. Thus, even after the Chinese transgression in Galwan in 2020, the US and QUAD (the US, Japan, India and Australia grouping instituted to stand up to China) have been restrained by New Delhi from issuing any statement on the matter.

During Dr Manmohan Singh’s prime ministership, the Indian Army generally tackled People’s Liberation Army (PLA) incursions by returning the compliment at some other front. Thereby checkmated, the Chinese would withdraw. Also, under Singh, multi-alignment was intact as India’s post-Cold War, Narasimha Rao, coined foreign policy and therefore its relationship with Russia was still more strategic than transactional.

Modi’s undisguised tilt towards Washington soon as he came to power annoyed Moscow and triggered a diminution in Indo-Russian ties. In 2018, Modi went scurrying to Sochi for an informal summit with Vladimir Putin to re-set relations. Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov put a gloss on the talks. But the Kremlin was no longer the ‘friend in need’ that it had been since the 1960s. Indeed, it progressively moved closer to China — with which it had a ferocious border confrontation in 1969 — and could no longer be expected to intervene in India’s favour in the event of hostilities between Indian and Chinese armed forces.

The give-and-take between India and Russia is now founded on trade, which is a bonanza for the Putin regime. Reuters last week quoted an Indian Oil Corporation executive as telling the St Petersburg International Economic Forum that India’s intake from Russia will soon constitute 30 percent of its crude oil imports. India is the world’s biggest arms importer; 46 percent of this is sourced from is Russia. But critically, concerns have arisen about Russia being able to maintain the agreed schedule of supply of military hardware.

Rahul Roy Chowdhury, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, said supplies are ‘definitely’ affected by Russia getting bogged down in its Ukraine adventure. ‘It will,’ he added, ‘progressively worsen as the war continues. Not many in India’s defence set-up thought it (the war) would last so long.’

Bad foreign policy endangers a nation’s security. This is precisely what’s tragically happened to India, thanks to Modi. India’s current most reliable ally among the Permanent-5 at the United Nations Security Council, namely France, simply doesn’t have the clout, reach or appetite to take on China at India’s behest.

Thus, Modi’s India has boxed itself into a corner. It has no choice but to fall into the US’s clutches to protect itself from China. The Americans have historically had a commitment to safeguard their Asian partners – Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Philippines, Thailand, Singapore, and even Malaysia and Indonesia. They have the resources to sustain this strategy; and the determination to contain a dangerously rising China. In the Pentagon’s world view, India can be another building block in the encirclement of the communist behemoth. At this moment, though, India needs the US more than the other way around. It’s an unequal collaboration.

In such circumstances, what’s the price for India? What will the current incumbent of the White House, Joe Biden, demand to come to India’s rescue? An aggressive military tie-up? Perhaps not. Modi can agree to reducing India’s dependence on Russian defence and energy supply; but at least the former part will take decades to implement. And the US’s hardline towards Russia could mellow, if an armistice is reached over Ukraine, for western sanctions against Russia has been mutually injurious.

The word ‘diversification’ of defence inputs was first indicated by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in an informal chat with Indian journalists at the conclusion of her visit to France in November 1981. This marked the beginning of what has burgeoned into a reliable association. Her entente cordiale with the first socialist French president, Francois Mitterand, paved the way for the Mirage deal for the IAF. Yet, 42 years later India is still significantly at Russia’s mercy for its defence requirements.

Notwithstanding the turning point in mutual trust with the 2008 nuclear pact, the US has withheld its latest weaponry from India; and is yet to allow manufacture under licence of its products in India. GE414 engines or MQ-9B drones are not the same as being sold F-35 combat aircraft, a precision strike missile or an advanced air defence system.

On 19 June, the Indian Foreign Secretary, Vinay Kwatra, stated India expects ‘progress’ on ‘defence industrial cooperation’ during Modi’s visit to Washington. He spelled out this would ‘essentially’ take the two sides ‘on the path of how the defence industries on both sides can partner closely, both in not just in the field of co-operation, co-development, but also to do it in a manner that the supply chains on both sides in this field … the industrial ecosystems, broadly speaking, in the field of defence could talk to each other, could cooperate with each other far more intensely’. Not wholly comforting, nothing really specific; but it would be fair to await further disclosure.

There has of course been a belated attempt by the Modi government to piggyback on Indian private sector success and consequently generosity. India has proposed that American companies increase sourcing components from India in view of the $70 billion order awarded by Air India to Boeing. Doubtless, it will suggest the same to France in lieu of the $50 billion contract extended by Indigo to Airbus. But there’s no contractual obligation on the part of either pursue this course.

There’s a deep state ring about the term ‘military industrial complex’. The Encyclopaedia Britannica says it was first used by Dwight Eisenhower in his farewell address as US president in January 1961, when he warned – he a former general and Second World War hero – that his country must ‘guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence … by the military industrial complex’. Such confluence had given rise to lawmakers from areas with defence production industries, the department of defence, including the military, and major defence contractors forming an unholy nexus not in the United States’ best interests – extracting funding at the expense of human development and more seriously, undermining democracy.

It's a moot point whether a developing country like India should be enamoured of such a model. Pakistan adopted such an archetype and has come a cropper. It’s agonising that Modi’s misguided external affairs coupled with an assertive China — which was always a possibility and ought to have been anticipated — have squeezed India into an unenviable dilemma.

The bad news is the absorption of the GE414 engines for the LCA Tejas 2 and AMCA1, not to mention the naval Rafales, will provide medium to long-term – not short-term – stability. Furthermore, there seems to be an emphasis on Indian naval prowess by stressing ‘Maritime Domain Awareness’ between the US and India. While this admittedly reflects foresight, the immediate, perceptible threat to India from China emanates on the ground from the PLA.

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