India has given the world a favourable balance of power for a free and open Indo-Pacific. India’s capability has a reassuring effect on other regional democracies, such as Japan and Australia, that do not wish to be tributaries of Communist China.
The visit of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on 28 July 2021 is the latest in the ongoing series of high-level consultations between the world’s two most powerful democracies. I have never seen this level of coordination of policies and priorities between the two countries. The body language of the two ministers, who have been friends for many years, suggests mutual respect and a strong personal equation. The major issues as the two ministers said at their joint press conference were, apart from all that human rights stuff:
1) Afghanistan, where the US has had almost 25,000 of its troops killed or wounded in 20 years, and expended treasure worth over one trillion dollars (according to US sources). Chaos could unleash forces in Central Asia with the potential to destabilize the region and beyond because if the Taliban recapture power, the biggest risk to its neighbours will be terrorism (we have not forgotten the hijacking of our plane to Kandahar in 1999). At the July 2021 Dushanbe meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization foreign ministers, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar said “the future of Afghanistan cannot be its past”. If there is an ongoing peace process, then it should lead to peace not to further conflict. Millions of refugees will pour across the border into Pakistan despite the border fence.
2) China, whose belligerence in our region grows and its virus continues to ravage our planet as we battle new and even more infectious strains. During her just concluded visit to Beijing, US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said that Washington did not seek conflict with China, but Beijing accused the US of suppressing its “imaginary enemy” China and urged Washington to remove sanctions and tariffs. Foreign Minister Wang Yi said it was up to the US to “make the right choice” and warned that China would not accept the United States taking a “superior” position in the relationship, soon after China unveiled sanctions on former US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and others in response to recent US sanctions on Chinese officials in Hong Kong. In India-US discussions we can talk of shared values, in China-US talks, or China’s talks with any other nation that it has a problem with, Beijing always blames the other side.
3) The Quad, with both sides emphasizing its non-military cooperative aspects. When Secretary Blinken talked of shared values, especially democracy, human rights, freedom etc., and said that America sees itself reflected in India, I wanted to say cynically that it has taken America very long to understand that. The US no longer hyphenates India with Pakistan. The relationship is increasingly one of equal partners. Perceptions change. In the 1990s, India was the go-to nation for IT issues. Now it leads the world in manufacture of pharmaceuticals. In 2021, India is a world leader in fighting climate change and terrorism and the virus. It is right up there in harnessing clean energy, especially solar. So, which country does India have of similar values to define our brave new world? America. Which country does America have of similar values to define our brave new world? India. Both peoples want the freedom of choice and have made the choice of freedom.
As with the war against the virus, there are hopeful signs in Afghanistan. The Afghan forces are regrouping, retaking districts and counterattacking. As President Ashraf Ghani said: the Taliban may have won a few battles, we shall win the war. And they will, because the people of Afghanistan detest the murderous Taliban, whose inhuman ideology has not changed.
The USA emerged as the world’s hyper power in the 20th century, with the greatest scientific and military and economic power and remains so. The USSR challenged US preeminence for 70 years but sank without a bullet being fired. We started hearing of concepts like manifest destiny and American exceptionalism.
11 September 2001, however horrible, brought a touch of the real ugly world to Americans relishing their awesome power. It understood the danger of Islamic terrorism, something we had been suffering since the late 1980s. America hit back with intense fury and devastated several countries to avenge 9/11 (not including Saudi Arabia from where the terrorists came nor Pakistan that trained them). It threatened to bomb Pakistan into the stone age unless Pakistan betrayed the Taliban.
And just as it was getting its rhythm back, another fellow came along and offered a world with Chinese characteristics as an alternative model to the American dream. China began to flex its muscles and bully everybody. The USA got angry and scared. Since it was too expensive to be the sole Rambo of the world, America needed friends with a demonstrated capability to stand up to China, not just bluster or whimper. And in June 2020, we kicked China’s butt in Galwan without anyone’s assistance. The myth of the mighty PLA was shattered, seriously damaging China’s self-proclaimed image of supreme strength. Even China’s shoe-polisher Pakistan was rattled. America sat up and noticed our military strength. A phone call between the newly elected US President within weeks of his swearing-in in January 2021 and the Prime Minister of India, as well as several calls and meetings between top officials within a few weeks set the tone.
Yet we should be clear that both Republicans and Democrats love only themselves. America has not hesitated to sabotage, obstruct, and harm us. We were in UNSC when the Korean War started, and the US had to take it to the General Assembly to launch it in gross violation of the UN Charter. Our opposition to the Vietnam War is well remembered. An angry America held up food supplies during the year of our drought (feeding us ship to mouth, each shipload requiring approval by the President) when our land lay cracked and gaping. Jimmy Carter invented human rights and produced the Iran-Iraq war as a corollary. He pressed us to sign the NPT. Bill Clinton, angry that his intelligence fellows knew nothing about our May 1998 tests, warned that “we will come down on those guys like a ton of bricks”, although during the 1999 Kargil War he tried to be helpful by pushing Pakistan to withdraw. Barack Obama committed the unbelievable gaffe of lecturing us about human rights during a visit to India even as he was boasting about his nation’s defining partnership with that shining beacon of human rights, the People’s Republic of China.
In 2021, the Quad, that scares China, links India, the second-largest Asian country, and a solid power, with strong democracies.
The Vladimir Putin-Joe Biden summit in Geneva showed that Putin is willing to improve relations with the US (and the European Union) if his red lines are respected. Iran continues to be interested in settling the nuclear issue. The reinvigorated relationship between India and America had to happen, it is the inexorable march of history.
2,400 years ago, a thinker named Chanakya had wisely said that there can be no friendship without self-interest. Every relationship is transactional. The major challenges for our virus damaged world include artificial intelligence, free trade, manufacturing, healthcare, climate change, terrorism (in 2019 of 163 countries surveyed with 99.7% of global population, 120 faced terrorist attacks) and the attack on democracy. India and the USA are on the same side in all.
How can we not be close friends?
Relationships between nations as among humans are based on goals and perceptions. When values are shared, friendship blooms. Having traversed a rocky trail, the best definition of the new US-Indian relationship is the catchline of the old Virginia Slims advertisement of the 1970s: You’ve come a long way, baby! And for those enlightened Americans who prefer free and democratic India over repressive and murderous China, I respond with another catchline from a mid-1990s Indian Pepsi advertisement: Yehi hai right choice baby!
In the half century after the Second war, the US sought alliances wherever it could, to contain the communist threat. We preferred nonalignment. Our relationship remained in stasis. America saw us as Soviet sidekicks, we saw the USA as a big bully. The 1971 attempt to coerce India (even though we had never been a security threat to the USA) is still remembered. The collapse of the USSR in 1991 saw a reassessment on both sides of their relationship, as major perceived irritants were removed—US mollycoddling of Pakistan and India’s soft corner for the USSR.
Through the course of history, an external trigger induces cataclysmic changes. Ping-Pong’s boasts about the supreme power of China has engendered a growing hubris about China’s self-perception as the main driver of global development and an indispensable factor in world peace and prosperity, even claiming that it is “the only splendid civilisation in human history with an uninterrupted record of more than five thousand years” (it used to be 3,000 years till a former Chinese leader visiting Egypt was told that the pyramids were built 5,000 years ago and promptly extended China’s antiquity by 2,000).
The Cope India 04 bilateral India-US air exercises in February 2004 marked a new chapter in US-India defence relations, with Indian pilots winning more than 90% of the mock air engagements (again in 2005). A senior US Air Force officer had then said: “I pity the pilot who has to face the IAF…because he isn’t going home.” Power respects power. In the free world, India and America are two powerful militaries that know how to fight. The June 2021 combined India-USA naval and air force exercises should have PingPong overdose on sedatives. If China’s military were indeed irresistible, it would have taken Taiwan and parts of Vietnam long ago.
The pandemic, while stoking Chinese aggression, from the East and South China Seas to eastern Ladakh, has provided others with opportunities to cooperate in maritime security, cyber-security, data flows, quality infrastructure and healthcare. The Indo-Pacific is being redefined, ironically, by China’s fictional territorial claims, and a divide-and-rule strategy. If the dumb Chinese leadership thought that a change of guard in the White House would be manna from heaven, they should have been rudely shocked.
Joe Biden stressed that his “goal would be to expose China’s abusive practices—stealing intellectual property, dumping products, illegal subsidies to corporations” and forcing ‘tech transfers” from US companies to their Chinese counterparts. Read between the lines. The best viable alternative to China is India.
Antony Blinken recalled during the 2020 Presidential campaign (and again in New Delhi in July 2021) that President Joe Biden saw India-US as “natural partners” and had said in 2006: “My dream is that in 2020, the two closest nations in the world will be India and the United States”.
In 2005 Washington and Delhi initiated a framework for civil nuclear cooperation and established a New Framework for the U.S.-India Defense Relationship, and ever since, the frequency, breadth, and number of overall exchanges between the two governments have increased dramatically.
The world has made a strategic bet. In an era of evident confrontation with a rogue China, India will play a major role in shaping the future trajectory of our planet. I am convinced that the world will win this bet.
It is in the United States’ interest to have a very strong India to contain China.
India has given the world a favorable balance of power for a free and open Indo-Pacific. India’s capability has a reassuring effect on other regional democracies, such as Japan and Australia, that do not wish to be tributaries of Communist China. During President Trump’s February 2020 visit, the India-US relationship was declared a Global Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. China was clearly the elephant in the room, when President Trump contrasted the Indian system with an unnamed country that “seeks power through coercion, intimidation and aggression”. The divorce (decoupling) with China has started, but will be long and messy.
To redeem China’s image, a Chinese travel agency started offering an 8-day trip to Shanghai and Beijing from USA (including flights, hotels and tours) for USD 299, fully refundable, for travel in 2021-2022! There have been few takers so far! China suffers from severe TDS, Trust Deficiency Syndrome.
In the eponymous Hollywood film, General George Patton, pulverizes Rommel’s feared Panzers in an epic tank battle in Tunisia and gloats: “Rommel, you magnificent bast****, I read your book”. Like George Patton, the world has read, understood, and rejected China’s book. And read, understood and accepted India’s book.