The geopolitical opportunity that has been presented to Prime Minister Modi by President Trump would be stillborn were the Russian S-400 system to get installed in India, in a repeat of the 1960 opportunity for a Sino-Indian border settlement that was turned down by Prime Minister Nehru.
New Delhi: In 2007, an informal initiative was attempted by then Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence James Clad and the futuristic minds within the Pentagon who understood the importance of India becoming the primary strategic partner of the United States in the 21st century. The plan was to transfer an aircraft carrier, the USS Kitty Hawk, to the Indian Navy. This would be on the lines of the earlier transfer of USS Trenton, which was handed over to the Indian Navy in 2007 and renamed INS Jalashiva. It may be noted that acquiring platforms superannuated elsewhere has been made possible in the Indian Navy because of its immense skills in ensuring that such instruments of war remain seaworthy and capable of deadly effect. INS Virat, for example, served the Indian Navy for 30 years after having been active in the UK navy for 27 years. India’s first aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant, had followed a similar trajectory, having been launched as HMS Hercules in 1945 and sold to India in 1957 as INS Vikrant. DASD Clad’s efforts at transferring USS Kitty Hawk to the Indian Navy sent tremors within both the Pentagon (where at that time, the Pakistan lobby was still in the ascendant) as well as within the Lutyens Zone in Delhi. The latter were alarmed at the prospect of losing what may be termed as the “collateral benefits” of acquiring the Russian aircraft carrier “Admiral Gorshkov” at a cumulative cost of $4 billion and counting to date. In 2007, Admiral Gorshkov was not even seaworthy, being incapable for years of leaving a dry dock and having had seaworthiness issues from the day it was commissioned into the Russian navy. Despite such a record, it was eagerly accepted by the UPA government for induction into the Indian Navy. The induction of a vessel that for long periods could not even float at sea took place even as USS Kitty Hawk was confidently steaming across the oceans. Once acquired by the Navy, much of the time of INS Vikramaditya has been spent on repairs and maintenance, at an increasing cost in both money as well as capability. Of course, those who were interested in the “collateral benefits” of the Gorshkov deal remain wreathed in smiles from their London and Dubai residences. The informal proposal to transfer USS Kitty Hawk (which was double the size of Gorshkov) was therefore not pursued by the UPA government, and an opportunity was lost that could have begun a process of transferring some naval assets to India that were no longer being used by the US Navy despite being in good condition. It helped that President George W. Bush and his trusted counsellor Condoleezza Rice were very interested in a strong India-US defence relationship. Indeed the Bush-Manmohan nuclear deal of 2005 was born of that desire. That such a chance was passed up indicates that even in his first term, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was not carrying sufficient weight within the councils of the Congress Party to overrule those looking only for “collateral benefits” from defence deals rather than the overall national interest. It must be said that Manmohan Singh as Prime Minister was known for his disdain for “collateral interests”, and that the gentle economist knows more than any other leader in the Congress Party the importance of a close strategic relationship between Washington and Delhi in the 21st century.
Proposals for massive transfers of equipment from the US to an allied force in order to jointly deal with common threats are not new. “Lend Lease” was introduced by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941 to enable the UK and later Russia to battle Hitler’s troops during the 1939-45 war through supplies of US equipment on an unprecedented scale. The Lend Lease brainwave of President Roosevelt (who to the end of his life stood for the immediate granting of freedom to India by his British allies) enabled the UK to hold out against Germany and for the Soviet Union to finally prevail over the three million German troops that Hitler unleashed in order to try and conquer the USSR. For both the US as well as India, being in the driver’s seat in matters of ocean, space and virtual dominance is critical for the future, hence the growing acceptance within both Delhi and Washington that the two need to come together in a fullscope manner that has eluded them since 1947. The Indo-Pacific is so vast, and the superb military-grade human material in India so plentiful, that only a massive transfer of naval and other assets from the US to India would ensure that this country pull its full weight in geopolitical terms rather than be limited by reasons of a relatively low level of economic muscle because of policy errors made in the past, some of which remain to be addressed. In 2017, exactly a decade after the Kitty Hawk suggestion was informally floated, another opportunity came for India to become a primary partner of the US for fabricating and assembling 21st-century weapons systems that are comparable and in many respects superior to the rapid upgradation in defence capability of Pakistan’s “all-weather” ally, the People’s Republic of China. This time, the pro-Pakistan lobby within the Pentagon, weakened by serial revelations of the linkages between GHQ Rawalpindi and terror, narcotics and hawala networks across the region, has been unable to prevent an assertive and confident US administration under Donald J. Trump from publicly offering to make India a co-producer of key weapons platforms, beginning with the F-21 and moving on to the F-35. Co-production in India would make such platforms far more cost competitive than their nearest competitors. Much of what would get produced in India will be exported to third countries. Among the initial platforms which could move to India would be those US defence production units now active in Turkey, which would lose them once Russian S-400 systems become operational on Turkish territory.
IN THRALL TO NEHRUVIAN FANTASIES
In an attempted replay of past policy errors, Lutyens Zone policymakers still in thrall to Nehruvian fantasies rather than realistic assessments of the future are seeking to push the Government of India towards an error that will have even greater consequences for the nation than the 1960 decision by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to reject Chinese premier Zhou En-lai’s offer to accept the status quo then prevailing on the Sino-Indian border as the official demarcating line separating China from India. Such an agreement would have led to a resolution of the border dispute between India and China on the lines later carried out by Beijing in the case of Myanmar and Russia. That opportunity was lost, as fantasists in key slots (including the Intelligence Bureau) briefed Nehru that India could get back by stealth mixed with diplomacy the Aksai Chin region that had been occupied by the Chinese military since 1953. They succeeded in making the Prime Minister initiate a strategy of clawing back territory from China by stealth, bit by bit. This came to be known as the “Forward Policy” and ended in the 1962 war with China and a border dispute that is still far from getting settled, despite regular meetings of numerous pairs of Special Representatives of the two sides over the years. By the 1980s, it was clear to policymakers that Nehru had squandered a platinum opportunity by rejecting Zhou’s proposal for settling the Sino-Indian border dispute through formalization of the status quo. Soon after Jiang Zemin became President of China in 1989, and additionally with the assumption of office as President of the US by the India-phobic and Sino-centric Bill Clinton in 1993, Beijing walked away from the Mao Zedong-Deng Xiaoping formula for settling the border dispute with India by hardening its terms to include the impossible (for India) condition that large parts of Arunachal Pradesh, including Tawang, be handed over to China before the border got formalized, a stance that has continued since then.
Nearly sixty years have gone by after Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s refusal to accept the Mao Zedong proposal brought to Delhi by Premier Zhou Enlai, a decision urged on the Prime Minister by those within the Lutyens Zone who put external interests first in their actions while incessantly chattering about national interest. There is now an intense effort at replicating the 1960 policy disaster in 2019 by elements within the Lutyens Zone. These worthies, who have much influence in a government that relies very heavily on the bureaucracy, are indifferent to the geopolitical changes which have occurred just in the first two decades of this century, and to the need to adjust policy so as to meet the needs that have arisen as a consequence of such shifts. They are working to persuade Prime Minister Narendra Modi to follow in the path of Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan in going ahead with the purchase and commissioning of the Russian S-400 system in India, at a cost of $5 billion and counting. Even more than GHQ Rawalpindi and Moscow, it will be Beijing that would be overjoyed at such a decision, for the entry of the S-400 into India’s already overweight inventory of Russian-made defence systems and materiel would torpedo what for the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Military Commission and the People’s Liberation Army is a prime worry, which is that India and the US could enter into a strong security alliance, the way India and Russia did in 1971 with the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation. This was signed just before the liberation of Bangladesh by a joint force comprising the Indian armed forces and the Mukti Bahini. That treaty prevented both the US and China from doing more than making faux provocative moves, such as Henry Kissinger’s brainwave of sending the US Seventh Fleet into the Bay of Bengal in an effort to frighten Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The USSR promptly sent in its Sixth Fleet, and Kissinger’s force retreated from the waters it had entered without further ado. As for China, despite increasingly desperate calls by General A.M. Yahya Khan to make good on US-backed Chinese promises to intervene in the event of a conflict between Pakistan and India, awareness that the Sino-Soviet border was vulnerable held Beijing back. Wise counsel prevailed within the Chinese Communist Party leadership, just as it had in 1962, when Chinese forces withdrew from the Indian territory that the PLA had occupied as a consequence of the border conflict with India rather than stay. The induction of S-400 systems into the Indian defence grid would lock Delhi into critical reliance on Moscow for its defence for at least a generation more to come. This would foreclose the option of forming a close security relationship with the US (a linkage that would be de facto if not de jure) that would have the same deterrent effect on India’s foes as the Indo-Soviet treaty had during the 1971 war.
RISKS IN GOING TURKEY’S WAY
In both Dubai and London, as much as the officials in Moscow and generals in Rawalpindi, there are arms dealers working away at ensuring that the S-400 deal gets operationalised as soon as possible, and a flurry of press reports from Delhi and Moscow indicates that they are close to success. While the Trump administration may not openly go ballistic about the deal, they would silently mothball existing plans to re-locate major weapons platforms to India and to “open the store” for transfer of US high technology items to India. Given the ubiquity of Indian minds within the research establishments of the US, such transfers would be a natural progression in relations. A visibly close security relationship between India and the US would have immediate—and positive—repercussions on not just security but the economy, while a rift with Washington over a matter that is as much of a deal-breaker as an S-400 purchase would increase the risk of India going Turkey’s way. The economy there since Erdogan began his tirade against Washington has tanked, with the Turkish lira in free fall and unemployment rising. Sanctions and the final expulsion of Turkey from NATO are inevitable, now that Ankara has gone ahead with a $2.5 billion purchase of S-400 systems. These will cripple the Turkish economy and lead to a steep fall in public support for Erdogan. It is not accidental that the two countries that have recently have had their GSP concessions revoked by the US are Turkey and India. One has already taken delivery of the S-400, while the other seems on track to follow Ankara’s example. The lingering effects of the policies and personnel left over from the UPA era in North Block have resulted in sluggish growth that needs to be reversed before permanent damage gets done to the economic future of India. Close US-India security ties would have an effect across the economic spectrum, given the reality of the US still being the world’s premier economic and financial force. President Trump is as strong-willed as Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and as capable of facing down his bureaucracy. Hence, bureaucratic doors would be forced open by a friendly White House to ensure that major defence platforms get located in India, along with the attendant benefits in terms of global investor perception of a close security and defence relationship between Washington and Delhi. While in public the reaction to the proposed locking in of India to Russia in matters of critical defence infrastructure for yet another generation has been muted from both the executive as well as the legislative branches in the US, in private warnings have been delivered by Cabinet-level officials close to the White House that the S-400 purchase would be an insurmountable obstacle to the close security and defence ties that are being sought by the White House with South Block. In 1960, a Sino-Indian border settlement was torpedoed by faux patriots who talked of the need to “take back every square inch of territory” even while being aware that this was not possible. Unfortunately, Prime Minister Nehru believed their fantasies, and refused to heed those who urged him to go ahead with the opportunity for a border settlement based on the status quo that was proffered by Premier Zhou, a move that could have changed the future trajectory of relations between the two most populous countries on the planet. Now the same genre of mock-patriot voices are talking of “strategic autonomy” and “national pride” in demanding that the S-400 deal go ahead, despite its effect on future cooperation between the US and India. Ironically, it is precisely because of the influence of just such elements in the Lutyens Zone that in practice, India has very little “strategic autonomy”, given its 83% dependence on external suppliers for critical defence equipment. This contrasts with China, which has indigenised more than 80% of its own critical defence requirements over the past fifteen years.
UNPRECEDENTED GEOPOLITICAL OPPORTUNITY MAY BE LOST
This is not to say that Delhi needs to act the way Tokyo or London do and follow the US lead in every particular. Despite frowns from US National Security Advisor John Bolton, oil from Iran should be bought through barter and rupee payments in the interests of protecting access to Central Asia and Afghanistan through Chabahar. In matters of trade that involve sensitive items such as generic drugs and other medical necessities, India should remain resolute in resisting pressure from the US Trade Representative on behalf of price-gouging pharma billionaires, as also on preventing NGOs with dodgy agendas from seeking to sow chaos in the country the way they have in so many others, especially once Hillary Clinton took over as Secretary of State in 2009. Next-door neighbour China should be encouraged to invest in infrastructure in India, including by building a road from Shanghai to Thiruvananthapuram. If Huawei offers the most cost-effective and quickest way of ensuring 5G coverage across India, the company should be allowed to do so, while an eye can be kept to ensure that security violations do not occur. But on the matter of teaming up in a partnership that ensures future control of outer space, the oceans, hi-technology and virtual space, it is inevitable that India and the US be close security partners. This is the geopolitical opportunity that has been presented to Prime Minister Narendra Modi by President Trump, and which would be stillborn were the S-400 system to get installed in India, in a repeat of the 1960 opportunity for a Sino-Indian border settlement that was turned down by Prime Minister Nehru. Going ahead with the S-400 purchase from Russia would in effect be a turning down of the US move towards a security alliance with India as close as was the case between the USSR and India during the 1971 war. The Russian Federation is not the USSR. Today Moscow is the closest security and defence partner of China, which in turn is the closest defence and security partner of Pakistan, a country whose military still seeks a meltdown of stability in India. After its Afghanistan experience, the US is no friend of Pakistan, nor is it an ally of China. Changing times bring new opportunities. The difference between losers and winners is that the former miss such chances, while the latter take possession of them. Of course on a much bigger scale, the US can ensure that India becomes as important a platform for defence equipment as China has made sure in the case of Pakistan. Not just Moscow but Beijing and Islamabad will be watching whether Prime Minister Modi will follow the example of President Erdogan in the matter of purchase of the S-400. None of the three capitals would like to see the comprehensive Indo-Pacific US-India security alliance that such a transaction by India would effectively send into the deep freeze.