The tendency of seemingly being everything to everyone at once, has been called the ‘Jaishankar strategy’. That essentially means that India will decide on its position on specific issues rather than by bandwagoning with any country or grouping. Many decry this strategy as unsustainable, since in a rapidly souring US-China or US-Russia relationship, India will have to decide one way or another.
With new reports on China increasing its presence in the Galwan area, rather than disengaging, there is now little expectation that conflict is avoidable. New Delhi has made its position amply clear with Foreign Minister Jaishankar’s statement calling for “corrective steps” by Beijing, even while leaving the door open for restoration of peace and tranquillity. His Chinese counterpart, however, has the opposite view, which is that Indian troops crossed the Line of Actual Control in a deliberately provocative action. Worse, at a media briefing, the Foreign Ministry spokesperson observed that “China always owns sovereignty over the Galwan Valley area”. This takes forward a similar claim by the PLA spokesperson on 15 June. Ongoing talks at senior Army level notwithstanding, the door to a peaceful reset seems to have closed for the moment.
Even as violence along the border was rising, a People’s Daily report noted a “rare” occurrence. Three US aircraft carriers with their accompanying battle groups were headed for the Indo-Pacific. The USS Theodore Roosevelt set sail from Guam on or about 4 June. The USS Ronald Reagan is already in the area, while the USS Nimitz deployed in place of another carrier. Another carrier group, the USS Dwight Eisenhower passed the Arabian Sea on 14 June, and seems to remain in the north, near the Straits. That’s a real concentration of naval might, underlining the often overlooked fact that the US still remains “numero uno” in terms of power projection. The PLA mouthpiece linked this to US anger on Covid-19, to the Hong Kong protests, and the South China Sea, even while nastily observing that all three carriers had been hit by the virus, and would probably be again. While official papers did not connect any of this to India, the Global Times issued a dire warning noting that propping up India as a counter to China in the Indo-Pacific was bound to fail.
The India-US bonhomie on the renamed “Indo-Pacific” has irritated Beijing no end. An increasing proximity to the US is seen as one of the (many) reasons that China has created the Galwan controversy. As the Ministry of External Affairs’ (dated) summary of bilateral relations brings out, the relationship does cover almost every area of interest, with some 50 Joint Working Groups taking this forward. In terms of defence in particular, there are some huge milestones crossed under the present government, which builds on the 2015 Framework for the India-US Defence Relationship, which is the foundation for all other activities thereafter, including joint exercises, intelligence sharing, technology trade and procurement among other things. Notably, an accompanying “Strategic Vision” document, specifically names the South China Sea as an area of maritime cooperation. What Indian policy planners hoped to gain by such an open commitment is unclear. Succeeding documents studiously avoided a repeat, until the visit of President Donald Trump when it reappeared in the Joint Statement, indicating some very serious “give and take”. The same caution was evident early on in the acceptance of the “Quad”—an informal grouping that includes the US, India, Australia and Japan. The group would have remained a chat room except for the fact that the architecture with each is now identical in a 2+2 format (Defence and Foreign Office).
Alongside all this, came a quick signing of the key “foundational agreements” with the US for communications interoperability (COMCASA) and for logistics (LEMOA), which went through after North Block had literally blocked it for years. Both agreements were tweaked out of boiler plate style to suit Indian apprehensions. Work has begun on signing the final agreement for exchange of geospatial information (BECA). In layman’s language, what it means is that India can now receive and provide diverse types of intel information to US counterparts, and communicate in real time. This last is the most vital when it comes to operations. An aircraft or ship that can’t “talk” to its foreign counterpart may as well stay at home. Add to that the critical designation of India as a “Major Defence Partner”—again a unique title—has allowed the quick supply of critical equipment. Apart from a series of attack helicopters, early warning aircraft and heavy lift aircraft are from the US (and Israel), even as other platforms remain of Russian origin. In other words, the main areas where a sustained defence cooperation has panned out is with the Navy, in terms of its ability to patrol the Indian Ocean from the Malacca Straits to the Gulf of Aden—thus freeing US ships from the task; and in heavy lift for the Air Force in terms of a capability to quickly move from theatre to theatre. This is bolstered by a series of military exercises including the first tri-service one late last year. But here’s the difference. While US documents—like the National Security Strategy—have clearly noted India as a major partner, Delhi has chosen to play the field by enthusiastically attending forums like the China dominated Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and the BRICS, even while stressing that its activity in the Indo Pacific or the Quad was aimed at peaceful trade and connectivity, tagged with the mantra of “Centrality of ASEAN” (Association of South East Asian Nations).
This tendency of seemingly being everything to everyone at once, has been called the “Jaishankar strategy”. That essentially means that India will decide on its position on specific issues rather than by bandwagoning with any country or grouping. Many decry this strategy as unsustainable, since in a rapidly souring US-China or US-Russia relationship, India will have to decide one way or another. That time seems to have come. But here’s the critical aspect. We have no treaty or agreement with the US that obliges Washington to come to our aid in times of stress. The US is bound by Treaty to defend a quarter of humanity, including Europe, the Philippines (bilateral), South East Asia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, and the Americas. If countries with less formal arrangements are included, the list goes up to 69. We are in neither class. What is surprising is this. Critics of this policy don’t seem to support US bases here either, which arguably is the only next operational step required to bind us to Washington. Indeed, even a mutual defence agreement with the US would be decried by nearly everyone across the spectrum, particularly an apoplectic Left. It would lose us our friends like Russia, and draw a new red line across the world. In no time at all we would be the new front for Cold War II. In all this, it is worth remembering that there are no “freebies” in international relations. A commitment to the defence of India would come with a heavy price.
Now consider the present President of the United States. A new book by former National Security Advisor John Bolton, reveals that Trump asked China for help in winning the next election, not to mention approving detention camps for Uighurs. This may or may not be true, but the point is this. Any political leader puts his own career and the interests of his country first. Trump perhaps leans considerably more than his predecessors towards the first, but the principle remains. When it comes to defending your very own, therefore, a little help from your friends is a great thing. But you can’t count on it for your survival.
And finally, about those carriers. The shift of forces to the Indo-Pacific is a policy that was decided on in the Obama years. In began to be operationalised in mid 2019, with the US pull-out from Afghanistan also part of this changed focus. What you need from the US in defence is not a Treaty. It’s learning to keep your eye on the ball at all times, from one government to another, and then allotting available resources to achieve that objective. It’s called defence policy. For that, however, you first need a Ministry that understands defence. At present, you only have a Ministry. Meanwhile, it’s nice to have those aircraft carriers there. Anything that makes China uncomfortable right now, is a bonus point.
Tara Kartha is formerly Director, National Security Council Secretariat, and former Senior Fellow, United States Institute of Peace, Washington DC. Presently she is a Distinguished Fellow at IPCS Delhi. She tweets at @kartha_tara