Wuhan spirit vs Quad cooperation: Modi's botched up balancing act?
Is India in a military alliance with the US against China or is it not? We do not know, because there has been no discussion, no transparency and most likely no real thinking on this matter at our end
Is India in a military and strategic alliance with the United States or is it not? In January this year, the United States declassified a 2018 document which says its national security challenge is ‘to maintain US strategic primacy… while preventing China from establishing new, illiberal spheres of influence’.
It lays out the case of how China’s rise will change the region and challenge US influence globally, and concludes that ‘a strong India, in cooperation with like-minded countries, would act as a counterbalance to China’.
To this end, the ‘desired end state’ the US sought, was to be ‘India’s preferred partner on security issues’, and ‘the two cooperate to preserve maritime security and counter China’s influence’. As part of this, the Americans would also have as an objective the creation of a quadrilateral (‘Quad’) framework that would pull in the navies of India, Japan, Australia and the US as the ‘principal hubs’ ranged against Chinese influence. Over a couple of pages, the US lays out the plan of how it will make India a ‘Major Defense Partner’ and how ‘a strong Indian military (would) effectively collaborate with the United States’.
The document lays out also what is intended to be done with China: prevent it from ‘harming US competitiveness’ and ‘prevent China’s acquisition of military and strategic capabilities’.
The zone of the Quad’s operations, the so-called ‘Indo-Pacific’, is centred around the Strait of Malacca, a narrow passage linking the Indian Ocean with the Pacific, between Malaysia and Indonesia through which the bulk of China’s imports and exports flow. The dependence of China on this passage has led China to consider the ‘Malacca Dilemma’ and is behind the Belt and Road Initiative, opening up alternative routes.
So why was India signing up for this alliance to thwart China? It is not clear. With no discussion in Parliament, with no interviews to the media and no press conferences, with no reference to this in his manifestos, Modi began drifting India into a strategic partnership and military alliance with the US. In February 2020, during Donald Trump’s visit to India and days before the Ladakh crisis began, Modi committed India to this agreement essentially ranged against China.
On 27 October 2020, during the visit of US defence secretary Mike Pompeo, India signed the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA). It would help India access American intelligence to improve the accuracy of the Indian Army’s missiles and armed drones. This portended air force-to-air force cooperation.
The second agreement signed was the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA). It allows the two nations’ militaries to replenish from each other’s bases, and access supplies, spare parts and services from each other’s land facilities, air bases and ports, which could then be reimbursed. LEMOA is for India-US navy-to-navy cooperation.
Signing the BECA pact in Delhi, Pompeo attacked China directly: ‘I am glad to say that the United States and India are taking steps to strengthen cooperation against all manner of threats and not just those posed by the Chinese Communist Party.’ Secretary of State Mike Esper said: ‘We stand shoulder to shoulder, in support of a free and open Indo Pacific for all, particularly in light of increasing aggression and destabilising activities by China.’
Rajnath Singh and S. Jaishankar, who were standing next to Pompeo and Esper, did not name China. Rajnath Singh’s prepared remarks (which were later changed) had reference to this line, which was later deleted: ‘Excellencies, in the area of defence we are challenged by reckless aggression on our northern borders.’ This change was not given to the Indian translator in English, who read out the original text and the Americans released it, to India’s discomfort.
When that paper on America’s strategy was declassified, China said that ‘its content only serves to expose the malign intention of the United States to use its Indo-Pacific strategy to suppress and contain China and undermine regional peace and stability’. And that ‘the US side is obsessed with ganging up, forming small cliques and resorting to despicable means such as wedge-driving, which fully exposed its true face as a trouble-maker undermining regional peace, stability, solidarity and cooperation’. India did not react to the release of the document.
The third pact, signed earlier, was the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA). It allows India access to encrypted communications equipment and systems so that Indian and US military commanders, and the aircraft and ships of the two countries, can communicate through secure networks. BECA, LEMOA and COMCASA completed a troika of ‘foundational pacts’ for deep military cooperation between the two countries.
COMCASA was signed in September 2018, five months after Modi travelled to Wuhan to meet Xi. The Wuhan spirit agreement between Modi and Xi, signed on 28 April 2018, says that India and China would not be rivals but would cooperate with each other. They would ‘push forward bilateral trade and investment’. The rest of the statement is anodyne, in keeping with Modi’s fondness for informal summits with no particular agenda, but the spirit referred to is that of cooperation and not rivalry.
The problem, whether he fully has understood it or not, is Modi was hunting with the hounds and running with the hares. At the same time as Modi was holding hands with Xi, India was also winking at Trump’s Indo-Pacific strategy aimed at China.
In May this year, army chief Gen M.M. Naravane told PTI in an interview that the Quad is not a military alliance: "The Quad neither intends nor attempts to be a military alliance. It is meant to be a plurilateral grouping which focuses on issues specific to the Indo-Pacific. Some countries have portrayed the Quad as a military alliance to raise unsubstantiated fears despite no concrete evidence to show the same," the Army Chief added.
So, is India in a military alliance with the US against China or is it not? We do not know, because there has been no discussion, no transparency and most likely no real thinking on this matter at our end.