US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun's India visit to set up the stage for upcoming 2+2 talks capped off an extraordinary fortnight that brought clarity on the trajectory of India-US ties, the motivations that are motoring it and the constraints that linger.
Beigun's three-day visit " during the course of which he met foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla, EAM S Jaishankar and NSA Ajit Doval, "reviewed the entire gamut" of bilateral engagements, "exchanged views on a number of regional and global issues of mutual interest" and also took part in a Track 1.5 dialogue " was interesting also for the way the "elephant in the room" was addressed. It has never been clearer how China, through its bullying of India, is catalyzing remarkably quickly a demonstrable evolution in US-India ties.
Before we chronicle the evolving policy prerogatives of India and the US, it's worth noting the larger context in which these changes are taking place.
China's position along the LAC in eastern Ladakh, where it remains in illegal occupation of territories that India considers as its own, has been progressively hardening. Despite several rounds of military-diplomatic talks, it is showing no inclination to deescalate, disengage and roll back troops.
What's more, even as the border crisis that resulted in first combat deaths between both sides in 45 years lies unresolved with talks apparently going nowhere, China has used the interim period since April " when PLA's stealth encroachment first came to light " to build roads, bridges, optical fibre network, solar-heated huts and deploy a huge number of troops, arms and armaments along the LAC.
According to a report in Hindustan Times, "the PLA has drawn optical fibre for secure communication at contested Gogra-Hot Springs, used heavy-lift cranes to drop solar-heated containers as accommodation for forward troops on north bank of Pangong Tso and has even built a hospital in the depth area" to cater to soldiers who may suffer high-altitude sickness.
To add to this encroachment, subsequent fortification of positions and creation of new "facts on the ground", China has steadily upped the rhetoric to try and force India to accept the fait accompli. Here, China's attempt has been to shift the base of discourse through obfuscation and maximalist claims so that during negotiations the median of discussion is set at a position advantageous to China. The Chinese strategy is twofold. Entrench its position on Indian soil by creating new facts on the ground and shift the narrative so that it becomes gradually difficult for India to demand a restoration of status quo ante.
For instance, after the Rajnath Singh-Wei Fenghe talks in Russia in the first week of September, the Chinese defence ministry said "the cause and truth of the current tension on the China-India border are very clear, and the responsibility lies entirely with the Indian side" while adding that "not an inch of China's territory can be lost." General Wei further stated that "two sides should bear in mind the overall interests of China-India relations and regional peace and stability, make joint efforts to meet each other halfway¦"
This revisionist posture is worth noting. Even though PLA troops are squatting on Indian territory, China wants India "to meet it halfway", so that Chinese encroachments are frozen into a redrawing of the LAC.
In a statement to Hindustan Times on 29 September, while again blaming India for the Galwan Valley deaths and ongoing tension, Chinese foreign ministry raised the spectre of 1959 LAC to redefine the border. "China-India border LAC is very clear, that is the LAC on November 7, 1959. China announced it in the 1950s, and the international community including India are also clear about it."
Before this unequivocal statement, China had only once referred to the 1959 claim line. At a press conference in August 2017 during the Doklam standoff, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying had stated: "the Chinese side urges the Indian side to abide by the relevant agreements and treaties between the two sides, faithfully follow the 1959 LAC and safeguard peace and stability in the border areas of the two countries."
China's reviving of the 1959 claim line, a position India has consistently and categorically rejected, indicated that China was seeking to justify its infiltration, as this columnist had noted in Firstpost.
Alongside, China also started questioning India's sovereignty over Ladakh. On 29 September, foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said: "China doesn't recognize the so-called 'Ladakh Union Territory' illegally set up by India and opposes infrastructure building aimed at military contention in disputed border areas."
On Tuesday, a day after the seventh round of India-China senior commanders' meeting that resulted in yet another joint statement but little progress, China needled India again on Ladakh. Zhao Lijian of Chinese foreign ministry told reporters in Beijing: "China doesn't recognize the so-called 'Ladakh Union Territory' illegally set up by India or the 'Arunachal Pradesh', and opposes infrastructure building aimed at military contention in disputed border areas."
Is China's pincer attack of redrawing LAC on ground and airing of maximalist rhetoric to back up its territorial aggression a viable strategy? The recent discussion on Indian media has revolved around China's comments on Ladakh and 1959 claim line. And the latest joint statement to emerge after military commander talks calls discussions "positive, constructive and had enhanced understanding of each other's positions," states that "both sides agreed to maintain dialogue and communication through military and diplomatic channels, and arrive at a mutually acceptable solution for disengagement as early as possible" but makes no mention of India's key demand of restoration of status quo ante.
China's move to place vast amounts of troops along the LAC and block India from visiting its traditional patrolling points has steadily constricted India's choices to the extent that it must choose between either kinetic action to evict the PLA, remain engaged in a costly stalemate without a deadline or cop the damage inviting domestic pressure and more future adventurism from China.
In other words, India's options are few and bad. It is evident that China is staking its claim to be the top dog in the Asian power hierarchy, and from that position of dominance, it sees no reason why it should roll back the territorial gains in the Himalayas. It does not consider India as its peer and believes New Delhi has no leverage to force its hand. If India is forced to accept the new LAC, it would be a geopolitical setback that brings down New Delhi's stature a notch or two in the region.
It has been suggested that China's gains of a few square miles of barren land is a strategic miscalculation and a steep price for the animosity it has generated in India. Chinese scholars such as Yun Sun of Stimson Center, however, believes that China never considered India as trustworthy, never took New Delhi's claims of strategic autonomy seriously and the strategic community in China look upon India as a "de facto" ally of the US. Its calculations and actions, hence, have been accordingly tailored.
Former Indian foreign secretary Shyam Saran, too, believes that China is looking at the Sino-Indian relationship through "the prism of the more confrontational relationship it has today with the US" and through the Ladakh crisis, Beijing is "telling the US, this (India) is a country which cannot even take care of its borders, and you are thinking of this country as a major component of your security relationship in this region. It is also, in a sense, sending a message to India, that if there is a confrontation with China, don't think the US or your other friends can come and support you in any way," as quoted in Indian Express.
China's containment of India, its balancing strategies and its consistent undermining of India's sovereignty and interests have generated considerable frustration in India. This is the reason why the call for external balancing efforts, more specifically, adopting some sort of a coalition with the United States or US-led platforms has grown. It is not as if that India's constraints vis-Ã -vis China were unknown before April 2020, but the Galwan deaths and China's territorial aggression have underlined anew the failure of India's China policy that has largely been about managing the relationship or centred around appeasement with an exaggerated sense of respect towards Chinese sensitivities and concerns that remain unreciprocated.
The need for greater security cooperation with the US has been debated threadbare in strategic circles given India's fastidious ideological commitment towards non-alignment (or strategic autonomy). Becoming a pawn in great power game is an internalised fear and also incompatible with India's view of its own self as a great power-in-waiting.
As External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar said in July, India was "never part of an alliance system and will never be." Or, as IAF chief RKS Bhadauria said recently, "India must fight wars on its own and cannot count on others."
But the issue here is that an alliance need not be a dirty word in India's security lexicon, nor a modern security partnership must necessarily be drafted on post-second World War model of mutual defence treaties.
A few things must be clarified. Given the fundamentally adversarial nature of Sino-Indian relationship, the breadth, depth and scale of Chinese geopolitical, geo-economic and military threat, China's "hierarchical view of power" and New Delhi's lack of internal capabilities to deal with the threat to its territorial integrity necessitate a closer security partnership with the dominant superpower.
As JNU professor Rajesh Rajagopalan writes in The Print, "containing this behemoth is impossible without the US as part of the equation. The US is the only power in the world today that has more wealth, greater military power and global influence than China."
But that doesn't mean a mutual defence treaty that forces India to fight someone else's wars. Yusuf Unjhawala points out in ORF that "India's strategic autonomy will not be compromised and the alliances of the 21st century will not be the same as those of the 20th. The US prefers its partners to pay for and manage their own security, but collaborate in all possible ways " weapons sale, sharing civil and military technologies, diplomatic support, intelligence sharing, joint military exercises and logistics support. This suits India, which is averse to fighting someone else's wars but wants to assume greater responsibilities."
To suggest that India has never been part of an alliance system is also debatable. C Raja Mohan of Singapore University writes in Indian Express that "alliances figure prominently in India's ancient strategic wisdom embodied in the Mahabharata, the Panchatantra and the Arthashastra" and "contrary to conventional wisdom, India has experimented with alliances of different kinds," even after Independence when Jawaharlal Nehru sought US military support to cope with the Chinese aggression in 1962, or "Indira Gandhi signed a security cooperation agreement with the Soviet Union in 1971 to cope with the crisis in East Pakistan."
The mutual benefit to such an arrangement is evident. As Lt Gen (Retd) DS Hooda, former Northern Commander of Indian Army, writes in News18, "in countering China's ambitions, the US faces the difficulties of traversing the Pacific Ocean and therefore needs Asian partners like India. For India, US support could be crucial to prevent us from reaching a position where we are forced to deal with events on China's terms. Thus, there is mutual benefit for both India and the US to align more closely."
If doctrinal adherence to strategic autonomy is not compromised in a secure collaboration and if India's capabilities can be enhanced or better harnessed through issue-based coalitions with partners in Indo-Pacific geography, then strategic frameworks such as Quad that run on shared interests instead of binding agreements could go a long way in mitigating China's hegemonic ambitions.
It has been interesting to note how India's gingerly approach to Quad has given way to a more robust response. The fact that an in-person meeting of foreign ministers was held in Tokyo amid Sino-Indian border crisis and the pandemic that put a premium on travelling, and Jaishankar's pointed reference to this happenstance as "testimony to the importance that these consultations have gained" indicates the room that India has covered. And yet, except US Secretary of State Pompeo, none of the participants mentioned China by name even though Beijing's belligerence was fueling the strategic framework and remained topmost on the agenda.
In a recent interview to The Hindu, former Indian ambassador to China Ashok Kantha, who may qualify among Quad sceptics, was of the view that "we have been far too cautious when it comes to developing the Quad or when it comes to developing our own strategic linkages with the US by asking how China would react. A relationship with the US helps in our dealings with China, more so in a situation where the capability gap between India and China is increasing day by day. We have to work with like-minded countries, and that includes the US, Japan, Australia and many other countries."
Little wonder that the Donald Trump White House " that has of late mounted a concerted, all-of-administration pushback against China across strategic, political, ideological, technical, security, economic and virtually every domain, and considers India as the centrepiece of its Indo-Pacific policy " has picked up Kantha's comments to press home the need for Indo-US partnership to evolve and respond to new threats and "post-Cold War geopolitical realities."
Speaking at a think-tank event during his visit to Delhi, senior US official Biegun said he agreed with Kantha's view that India and the US "have been too cautious. Last week's important and successful Quad ministerial leaves the US confident that perhaps, just maybe, we can say that we are present at the creation of those strategic linkages to which Ambassador Kantha refers."
It is evident that the US envisages a tighter and more elaborate security partnership with India and considers New Delhi as more receptive towards such an arrangement now more than ever before. This approach wasn't sprung first during Biegun's India visit. In August, in an interview with former US envoy to India Richard Verma at the third India-US Leadership Summit
One, the US deputy secretary of state pointed out that US Indo-Pacific strategy would remain a non-starter "without India also standing side by side" because New Delhi "is the centerpiece of the strategy."
Two, Biegun had claimed that Washington is "very eager to help India¦ become and remain a world-class power in contributing net security rather than worrying about net security and how it affects their interests" and suggested that the US is "very willing" to provide India with "the best-in-class defense capabilities."
Three, Biegun highlighted the reciprocity in Quad framework which "has really helped India find a place in the larger Indo-Pacific theater" and is "also obviously in our interest to have India as a partner". He also said that India recognizes that it can't remain a "passive player" and is breaking out of "decades of neutrality and a well-informed caution to extend its interests into the world."
Four, Biegun had suggested "the Quad isn't exclusive¦ there's plenty of reason to bring other countries into this discussion" and floated the idea that "there is certainly an invitation there at some point to formalize a structure like this."
Five, on comparisons between NATO and Quad, Biegun had said: "Even NATO started with relatively modest expectations and a number of countries chose neutrality over NATO membership in post-World War II Europe. The original NATO only had 12 members relative to its 27 today. So you can start a little bit smaller and grow into your membership¦ although it only will happen if the other countries are as committed as the United States."
The Trump administration was clarifying the geopolitical imperatives of the Quad framework and laying down the roadblocks for policy discourse. In subsequent speeches and interviews, senior US officials such as Pompeo, Beigun and US NSA Robert O'Brien took it forward. However, mindful of India's touchiness about strategic autonomy, they were careful to stress that such a framework will be devoid of regulatory or contractual constraints and New Delhi will never be made to feel claustrophobic.
The US understands that for the Quad framework (or for that matter any minilateral or multilateral framework centred on Indo-Pacific that seeks to curb China's malignant actions) to succeed, India's participation is imperative. However, given India's colonial past, its geography, rough neighbourhood and concerns about the unsuitability of a maritime framework in tackling India's continental challenges, the US strategy must centre around building mutual trust, tailoring its message to Indian sensitivities and allowing India to proceed at its own pace.
Accordingly, we find US deputy secretary of state Biegun clarifying on Tuesday "that the security partnerships the US and our partners explore today do not necessarily need to follow the model of the last century of mutual defense treaties with a heavy in-country US troop presence¦
"India has a strong and proud tradition of strategic autonomy, and we respect that. We do not seek to change India's traditions. Rather we want to explore how to empower them and India's ability to defend its own sovereignty and democracy and to advance Indian interests across the Indo-Pacific region. As the US assesses own interests and how they intersect with India's, we have seen the conditions emerge for an organic and deeper partnership"not an alliance on the postwar model, but a fundamental alignment along shared security and geopolitical goals, shared interests, and shared values."
Among achievable goals, Biegun mentioned that "strengthening India's ability to defend itself and by promoting interoperability among our militaries through regular exercises and exchanges, common defense platforms, and co-development" are some of the issues that may be taken forward during the upcoming 2+2 ministerial.
Biegun's boss Pompeo, during a recent interview to Japan's Nikkei Asia newspaper, hoped that Quad could be institutionalized into a "true security framework" and had clarified that the definition of security framework includes "economic capacity and the rule of law, the ability to protect intellectual property, trade agreements, diplomatic relationships, all of the elements¦ It's not just military. It's much deeper."
In several recent interviews (see here and here) Pompeo referred to China stacking "60,000 soldiers against the Indians in the north", bullying democracies such as Australia and India and stating that "they absolutely need the US to be their ally and partner in this fight¦ And the US under President Trump's leadership has now built out a coalition that will push back against the threat and maintain good order, the rule of law, and the basic civic decency that comes from democracies controlling the world and not authoritarian regimes."
These assertions, coming as they are so adjacent to US Presidential polls that may well see a change of regime, nevertheless carry a signal of commitment. This is the US administrative machinery pushing back against claims of US being an unreliable and fickle ally. Biegun, in fact, did mention that "regardless of the outcome of our presidential election next month, the vital partnership between the US and India will continue and deepen over the decades to come."