Illustration: Soham Sen/ThePrint
Illustration: Soham Sen/ThePrint

The coming week begins with the arrival of US Secretaries of State and Defense, Mike Pompeo and Mark Esper, in New Delhi. Now, these 2+2 talks have been an ongoing process for some time. Whatever the struggles and niggles on trade, India-US strategic ties have grown phenomenally. So, what’s so special about next week?

It is the timing. This will be just a week before the US Presidential elections, and probably even the results. How do two of the most important members of the US Administration fly all the way to India, in times of the pandemic, for what could be just another episode in an ongoing 2+2 process?

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More importantly, why is India engaging them with aplomb when neither side knows who will win a week later? If at all, odds from all opinion polls now suggest that Donald Trump is more likely to lose than win. In usual times, the conservative Indian “system” would have preferred to wait.

But then, these are not usual times, and not merely because the Chinese are refusing to budge from their six-month dharna in Ladakh. That is a big concern for India, but not the topmost foreign and strategic policy priority for Washington.

What changes the picture, however, is the fact that China is now the most significant strategic concern in Washington, as in most of the world’s capitals, especially the democracies. That is all of Europe (including the United Kingdom), Japan, Australia and New Zealand.

The Arabs may not say so, but they watch in fright, and from close, the ties between Iran and China on the one hand. And then the enormously more organic linkage with Pakistan, which, in turn, is also tilting so decisively towards Turkey that its foreign minister attacked and demeaned Saudi Arabia in a public statement.


Also read: Border row, Chinese aggression expected to be discussed in upcoming India-US 2+2 dialogue


Xi’s China has unleashed waves of panic to its west, east and south. Just to the north, it may be OK at the regional level. Russia is now China’s only close and truly powerful ally. Sorry Pakistan, we exclude you from this category because your relationship with China is more dependence than alliance.

Russia is China’s pre-eminent supplier of energy, thereby helping it hedge the Malacca Strait risk. Military ties are also growing. Russia has the technology and an industrial base. China has the military that needs it and the money to buy it. As a result, we see a peculiar new military-industrial complex developing: Between China’s military and Russia’s industry.

Please note that the Indian Air Force (IAF) already has to presume that it operates in the Ladakh sector under the challenge of Russian-made S-400 and S-300 missiles. India’s S-400s won’t be operational before sometime in 2022.

It’s a complex new strategic reality. Between Pakistan and North Korea, the Chinese already had two unpredictable nuclear-armed protectorates and Putin’s Russia as an ally. India, Japan and Australia, the only balancing powers in the region, are being pushed around, Taiwan is intimidated, Hong Kong is “taken”, all members of the US-led Five Eyes Alliance are worried, and China’s will be the only major economy to grow in this globally shambolic year.

This makes it the number one bipartisan strategic concern in America. Probably the only thing Trump and Biden agree on — their fight being over who is going to be tougher on China.


Also read: India should remove Chinese firms Huawei, ZTE from 5G & other ICT networks, US official says


In Goswami Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas, an irate Lord Ram lays down an important principle in all relationships, whether among human beings or nations. “Bin bhay hote na preet (nobody loves you unless they fear you).” He might have said it then to justify exercising his own formidable strengths, but it also works in reverse.

For example, nobody would give up the pretence that this flurry of India-US contacts, the urgency with the Quad, and Australia’s return to the Malabar naval exercise are not all about China. But senior US officials such as Deputy Secretary of State Stephen E. Biegun, who was in India a week ago, are no longer shy of saying China is the “elephant in the room”.

It is that ‘bhay’, the fear of a rampant China, that is bringing these powers together, tossing all diplomatic reserve. In my more facetious moments, which are prolific, I would even describe the Quad as the ‘Cheen Peedit Samaj’. That is the reality. China has lit this fire on every cautious diplomat’s desk in these countries. That is why, after New Delhi, Pompeo goes to Colombo and Male. Yes, Male, Maldives. Days before the elections.

I read interesting views from Indian strategic scholars as we reflect on this change. C. Raja Mohan wrote in The Indian Express on 25 August how the notion of the much-vaunted strategic autonomy has now been redefined for India.

In the 1990s, as a unipolar world emerged after the Cold War, he says, strategic autonomy for India meant the freedom to define its strategic interests and policies independent of the dominant power, the US. It was particularly important because, whatever the difference between the two Clinton presidencies, his people still thought that India-Pakistan was the most dangerous place in the world, a nuclear flashpoint, and also fantasised that they could help resolve the Kashmir issue. This made India seek strategic balance by reigniting the old affair with Russia and reaching out to China.

Today, strategic autonomy has acquired a sharper definition: To ward off the Chinese challenge to India’s territorial integrity, sovereignty and regional stature. I also read the speech Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in 2018, where he asserted a very different, conventional definition of strategic autonomy. That India will plough its own furrow, and the big powers should avoid getting caught in another competition. This was an echo of the old South Block ‘Missionary Position’. He won’t be reading from the same text again today.

The second scholar is Dhruva Jaishankar, who now heads the think-tank ORF Centre in the US. In an interview to FirstPost, he says the era of ‘Talmudic Debates’ on India’s strategic autonomy is now over. Now you might quibble with him over his choice of the definition of an endless argument from the Jewish tradition instead of our Vedic one, shastrartha. But the message is quite clear. Supreme national interest drives strategic policies, not nostalgia and old hypocrisies.

When a Cold War rages, or a new one begins, as now, India can never be truly non-aligned. I say this with a deep breath because this might anger so many fans of Nehru and Indira. But I admire the two even more so because, whatever the pretence, they never shied away from choosing a side. It is just that Nehru chose America too late after 1962, when he was in steep decline. And his daughter preferred the Soviet Union. Under her, at least between 1969 and 1977 and then from 1980 to 1984, India was anything but non-aligned. She was an ally of Moscow because she was acting in the national interest.

That choice has been made again now. India has been moving in that direction for two decades, with the US matching that enthusiasm. There have been a few breaks, in India particularly after the nuclear deal, as the Congress high command seemed fatigued and the new defence minister, A.K. Antony, was so risk-averse in an old Cold Warrior sense that Exercise Malabar also lost its oomph.

Today, no such hesitations remain. A choice is made, in Washington and New Delhi. It is a full embrace. It is also bipartisan in both countries, especially in the US, where a change within a week is a real possibility. That is the reason this 2+2 is taking place even a week before the Americans vote.


Also read: Xi Jinping wants to be another Mao. He thinks conflict with India-US will boost his image


 

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37 COMMENTS

  1. When people talk about rise of extreme right-wing attitudes in India and US in the same breath, I remind them of a basic flaw. Fortunately for us, emotional impulses of masses can swing either way and after some time human beings can see reason. But that is in normal, rational societies. Although 3.7 mil jobs were lost in US before covid under Trump’s regime, he could make jobs the main agenda. And although he couldn’t create any jobs he could convince their public about jobs being stolen by non Americans. So essentially, livelihoods continued to be on agenda. And many Trump supporters see jobs as good reason to bear with his idiocy because livelihood issues are rational and more important to humans.
    What may be different between US and India is this: there the people are willing to embrace bigotry for the sake of jobs. Here our gullibles are willing to forego jobs to embrace bigotry.
    Consequently, the swing to rationality here may take longer. India will have to endure greater tragedies before it can get to its senses. China has no such issues because people’s will matters so little to them.

  2. Just a minor nitpick, Mr. Gupta.
    The actual verse in Ramcharitmanas is:
    विनय न मानत जलधि जड़, गए तीनि दिन बीति।
    बोले राम सकोप तब, भय बिनु होइ न प्रीति।।
    i.e. “Bhaya bin hoye naa preeti”

  3. China mongering sells these days. But Guptaji should note, whilst China may emerge as a superpower in economic and military terms, it may never be able to influence the world in political terms.. In other words, it has no soft power without which the influence is never total. Chinese food is an occasional choice, nobody wants to learn Mandarin as a language option, and perhaps people’s interest in their culture has more to do with curiosity and it’s entertainment value as opposed to being a serious pursuit. For this reason China will remain an emerging superpower, never a superpower.

    If we play it right India has the potential to unseat China over the next 30 to 40 years.

    • What you say about China is true : it will be an economic + military superpower, but it does not have soft power like the US had.

      Your last sentence ‘If we play it right India has the potential to unseat China over the next 30 to 40 years’ is wishful Hindu thinking.

      India wants to build a Vedic Hindu state, and have civil war with the Muslims to show off Hindu pride. In 30-40 years, the most likely scenario is break up. Many countries have broken up like Yugoslavia, Soviet Union etc. These countries were unnatural collection of competing and clashing ethnicities. India is the same. The Hindus do not know how to unite the different peoples, and in fact now, they are hell bent on disuniting Indians.

      • I thought you were referring to China. Your sense of history is poor. You move on from the main tenor of the article to “Hindus “. You have issues. India and its civilisation has withstood for millennia and it will not break up. That’s your wish as you seem to have a destructive mindset. Move on.

        • ‘India and its civilisation has withstood for millennia ‘

          It was a civilisation that was distributed over several states. India was a collection of ‘Hindu’ states before, it became a near single state under the Mughals and British. When power came to the Hindus, they made it 2 and 3 states.

          The India that remains can succeed only if it is run with an accommodating secular democracy. Since that is out of favour now, and the alternative proposed is state run according to Hindu-Hindi chauvinism, with fascist plans, the road points to a Yugoslavian style disintegration. Yugoslavia became 7 countries due to Serb fascism. The last Yugoslav ambassador when leaving India said that he did not know which country he was returning to, and India should maintain its secular democracy and not fall into the ethno nationalism that broke out in Yugoslavia after Tito’s death.

          Hence, I would say that India will be among countries that break up, it cannot manage its contradictions, its unwieldy population, and communal and casteist passions. Khushwant Singh had already written a book called ‘End of India’ in 2010, as he saw the Hindus embracing fascism.

          Your viewpoint is just emotional, it is not evidence based.

          • In adding a toxic dimension to the discussion, clearly, cognitive distortions are on display.
            Sorry to disappoint you; but India is not going to breakup. The recent shift in political focus may prove to be just a blip.

  4. A man’s record is available in his last 15 yrs. And instead of projecting what they have done in last 15 years or so to say in the words of Modi in last few years before which Nitish, DNA itself was doubtful, but since Modi has blessed him it is okay, they have done nothing. Vacant posts of Doctors, Nurses, and other health service workers, number of ICU in Hospitals will show the pathetic situation of Health services. Police shortage has made it all the more beneficial for Police itself that they only carryout those investigations and launch cases that are ordered by their political Bosses. Nitish and Modi, one must substitute with name Modi and not call it a BJP since Modi is the only man who works and others have no voice, they simply look up to him as to what comes out Modi”s mouth and others parrot it. Nitish was rediculing Tejaswi’s 10 lakh jobs that where the money is going to come from? And now they promise 19 Lakhs, Nitish must reply as to where he will get money from. Look at the records of Modi’s past promises from 2014 till now not only in Bihar but all over India and one will know that those promises have all been false. In UP 69 thousand teacher who are on the street since many years in 2017 Modi and Adityanath promised them regularization but till now they are on the street. Where is the special package for Bihar on the basis of which Nitish changed his loyalty and betrayed people of Bihar and now he is hankering. Nitish while Tejaswi was his deputy brought charges against him of corruption but where is the charges now? Bluff masters want to enjoy their life spend their life king size at the cost of people’s money and that is all.

    • Modi promised 15 lakhs, 1 crore jobs and doubling farmer’s incomes. But as his Sancho Panza explained, those were jumlas.

      Modi promised Hindutva and you got it – Patel statue, Hindu school syllabus, cow protection, beating up minorities for ghar wapsie, yoga, a skirmish with Pak., Babari masjid verdict in favour of Hindus, Article 370 etc.

      Hindus are by and large content with the second aspect, and they are not developed enough to think about the first.

  5. This is not the time for Donald Trump to send his top most man in foreign affairs to India, which Shaekhar has given no importance. Why it is not proper and only desirable that a Govt in India also in US should not have waited for a week plus a few days more particularly when it is expected that Joe Biden’s approach to whole issue of administration is very different from that of Trump. Sending such delegation to India is certainly meant to give impression to India origin voters in US who possibly have switched lock stock and barrel to Democrats for good reasons that an India Origin lady is the running mate as Vice Presidential Candidate and also due to change in Kashmir policy as also human rights it is most expected that it will be difficult for Modi Govt. to invite or receive such delegation just after a week particularly in view of stronger possibility of Trump losing the election. Shekhar must explain why before one year on Modi called for Indian origin in US at Boston to chant – Abki baar Trump Sarkar ‘ and organizing ‘Namaste Trump’ at Ahmedabad by Modi. And both these events are the part of Trump campaign among India origin US citizens there in US used by Trump. Shekhar you are such a wise journalist and have foresight and despite that you have simply ignored these electoral advantages that Trump and Modi are using these visits. Dont play Godi Media Shaekhar!

    • You are right, I did not think of it.

      But I realised SG is back to writing wishful nonsense as he does from time to time.

      India is not a priority in anyone’s minds. It is not a priority for Modi even – his priority is to win elections and for that doing something for India is not mandatory.

  6. A Very Good analysis from SG I have read in recent times. Glad to know that now even the US has some compulsions to seek India’s hand of friendship. India is in a good position in terms of geopolitics. It must boldly take side and knowing who its friends are. It must not miss the bus as Nehru did in the run up to 1962 debacle.

  7. Mr Gupta, it does matter. Blind bhakts have portrayed Modi government to be too close to Trump. Ab ki baar… and the ridiculous Howdy juggernaut.

    Biden and Kamala are not pleased.

  8. Trump or Biden?? Regardless, America’s European allies wonder whether they can rely on it! They are more worried about America, than they are of China! A Washington Post column titled “Europe Wonders if It Can Rely on U.S. Again, Whoever Wins” says “Treated with contempt by President Trump, who considers them rivals and deadbeats instead of allies, many European leaders look forward to the possibility of a Biden presidency. But they are painfully aware that four years of Mr. Trump have changed the world — and the United States — in ways that will not be easily reversed. Even if civility can be restored, a fundamental trust has been broken, and many European diplomats and experts believe that U.S. foreign policy is no longer bipartisan, so is no longer reliable. “The shining city on the hill is not as shining as it used to be,” Reinhard Bütikofer, a prominent German member of the European Parliament, put it bluntly. ……… the collapse of the Soviet Union meant that foreign policy, too, was subject to deepening political polarization in the United States. ……… There is an incredible decay in Europe of the sense of the United States as a leader,” accelerated and symbolized by mishandling of the coronavirus, said Jeremy Shapiro of the European Council on Foreign Relations. ……… The inconsistency of U.S. foreign policy has undermined American credibility, some warned. ……….. There is “an American decline in geopolitical weight,” said Francis Fukuyama of Stanford University. “The single fact that shapes the U.S. role in global politics is polarization, and this polarization will not disappear if Joe Biden is elected,” he said. “Americans simply don’t agree with one another on basic premises, even on how much America should be involved in global affairs and NATO.” ………. William J. Burns, a former senior American diplomat who now runs the Carnegie Endowment in Washington, thinks the damage is lasting, no matter who wins the election. “One of the more insidious effects of polarization is to make foreign policy a tool of partisan politics,” he said. “It’s done enduring damage to America’s reputation in the world for being able to keep its word.” For Mr. Burns of the Carnegie Endowment, American global hegemony is over. He sees little American appetite “for grand foreign-policy crusades” and says: “We cannot return to 1949 or 1992 — or even 2016. The world has changed, and the trans-Atlantic relationship must change with it.”” THERE IS ALSO A PREVALENT VIEW AMONG CHINESE INTELLECTUALS THAT AMERICA IS IN DECLINE.

    The Europeans, America’s allies, are not interested in America’s rivalry with China. “Europeans see American confrontation with China as one of the few bipartisan issues that are driving American foreign policy, and Europeans are reluctant to be made a pawn or a playing card in that rivalry, given that China is Europe’s second-largest trading partner behind the United States. Opinion polls show that most Europeans do not want to take sides in some battle between Washington and Beijing. “We don’t see the China challenge the same way and we’re not the peer competitor,” said Rem Korteweg of the Clingendael Institute. A Biden administration would first concentrate on domestic renewal in a country clobbered by the coronavirus, he said. It would seek a more collaborative partnership with Europe, supporting “a European security identity that doesn’t come at the expense of NATO.””

    It is more or less the same with the Quad countries. They all have economic interests with China. Chinese imports are helping Australia in its recession. Japal has lot of investments in China, and under pressure from business community to go carefully with China.. Japan’s new PM owes his job to a pro-Chinese politician. The US has its economy so integrated with China’s that a de-couling of the economies would be more hurtful to it than to China. ASEAN countries have lots of Chinese investments, have all signed up the RCEP trading agreement with China, Australia and Japan. Most, if not all ASEAN countries are also members of Chinese RBI initiative. Taiwan doesn’t even want diplomatic relations with the US, lest that should provoke China! In an October 17, 2020 column in Washington Post, it is reported that, “Last month, Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu told NPR that Taiwan did not seek to establish a formal diplomatic relationship with Washington, which would be a major boost for Taiwan’s international diplomacy but also highly provocative to Beijing.”

    Putin says the era of America and his own country Russia is over. China and Germany would be the new superpowers. “MOSCOW (Reuters) – The era when the United States and Russia decided the world’s most important questions is in the past, President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday, saying China and Germany were now heading for superpower status.”

    China’s is the only economy among major nations that is doing well, and helping other countries to pull out of recession. “Eswar Prasad, a Cornell University economist and former head of the IMF’s China division, said in an email that China will probably be the “key driver of global growth” in 2020 and 2021. The country is in the “remarkable position of being the only major economy that will register positive growth in 2020,” he said.”

    Pompeo & Esper’s visit to India is mentioned in Indian media, but there is no mention of it in American media! They would all disappear in mere 11 days, when Trump is defeated on November 3.

    In view of all this, India should rather maintain its strategic autonomy.

    • Agree with nearly all you have written.

      Even if Putin said so, Germany cannot be superpower. To be a superpower, you need (1) economic strength (2) military strength (3) large uniform population and (4) soft power.

      China will be a superpower as it has three of the attributes – it has economic and military strength, it has the population, but it does not have soft power. Germany has the economic strength, but it is not allowed to have military strength – Putin should know that as it was decided in the Potsdam conference of 1945, by the Soviet Union, Britain and the US, that Germany cannot militarise. Germany also does not have the population. Germany has to work within the EU. Russia of all countries will not allow Germany to rise as a military power due to what they did in the Soviet Union.

  9. Gupta is hardly shoving Hindi down the throat. Ramayana is common Indian link. He can quote from Ramcharitamanas, Ramavataram or any other regional Ramayana to make his point. The reason you are upset is because he quote Ramayana. it appears that you are Taqiyya and so want quote from Koran.

  10. SG is clutching at straws. For the US, the only concern is China’s economic power. The US and all the Quad do not share borders with China. India has a border dispute, China has the upper hand, and Modi has proved to be the proverbial Hindu coward surrendering land without a murmur. If China went to war with India, the US ad others are not going to impose sanctions on China – their own economies depend on China.

    There are only three superpowers : US, Russia and China. India is nowhere, although Hindus feel entitled to superpower status because they are 1 billion.

    SG says there is an alliance between China and Russia brewing. The alliance between two superpowers will be formidable. The US + a nobody like India is not an equal.

    The article shows that familiar wishful thinking of Hindus : their aspirations are beyond their ability. The economy has disappeared, they have given up on Covid, the Hindus are into persecution of minorities and sowing internal divisions, they have alienated all neighbours, so how can they stand up to China ? They cannot, so they hope to hold the US’s hands.

    SG resorts to the usual Hindu bashing of Pakistan ‘Xi’s China has unleashed waves of panic to its west, east and south. Just to the north, it may be OK at the regional level. Russia is now China’s only close and truly powerful ally. Sorry Pakistan, we exclude you from this category because your relationship with China is more dependence than alliance.’

    The condescension to Pakistan is always the only refuge for Hindus. They cannot stand up and compete with China, the only thing that is left is to say ‘we are better than Pakistan’, a country 1/7 the size. In reality, China + Pak is a strong combination against Indian because both share a border with India.

    In summary, against the US, Russia + China is a stronger combination than US + EU + India. And against India, China +Pak is a stronger combination than US + India.

    • You don’t have the wherewithal to purchase Tomatoes, Naan and Daal without Chinese and Arabic ‘charity’ and you wish to comment about India or the Hindus, Mr. Pakistani Muslim. For a country with 200m people what you have actually achieved besides creating Terror factories? Your two biggest moments in the last 50 years have been bi-furcation of your country (due to committing genocide on Bengali speaking Muslims and Hindus) and hosting Dimran’s ‘martyr’ Osama right next to your military HQ. You are in no position to speak about minorities in India, when they have multiplied 4 times since Independence while you have systematically destroyed your minorities including Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, non-Sunni muslims, as well as regional minorities like the Baluchis, Sindhis, Gilgit-Baltistan Shias besides trying to talibanize the Pathans.

      Why even talk about geopolitics or even Modi when your puppet PM (who was popularly called ‘Dimran’ in his county days) has a daily begging schedule and fantasying about an Islamic Caliphate led by his Aka Erdogan? Leave that to the big players, and ensure that in Feb 2021 your master China someone again manages to keep you away from falling into the Blacklist at FATF.

  11. “I say this with a deep breath because this might anger so many fans of Nehru and Indira.” These characters, especially the former, were a plague on India’s body politic. SG might say otherwise now, but he himself has always been a fan of these new nawabs of India. The day is not far when this malicious nehru clan will be kicked out of public life and India gets its true freedom. Every Indian must live in fear of return of the nehru clan – like the dark lord in the Harry Potter books – until it is vanquished. All these mediawallahs like SG, fake academics like Romila Thapar and manufactured intellectuals like Arundhati Roy are like the death-eaters in the Harry Potter books – servants of the dark lord doing their bit quietly and biding their time to bring back the dark lord. India beware!

  12. Joe Biden would be a more thoughtful President. When India thinks, Who would be better for us – not that President Trump has sent a billion tons of PL 480 wheat for us – it is useful to also ask, Who would be better for the world. America has an immense global leadership role which Trump was too transactional to comprehend. When America steps back, that leaves the world more unsettled, rudderless. 2. How far India should rely on Uncle Sam to keep us safe from the dragon is the other big issue for our diplomacy to consider. Baking in the assumption of China as a permanent foe, leaving no space for constructive engagement, is a high risk strategy. For that matter, it is not in America’s interest either to create the sort of face off which ultimately resulted in the collapse of the Soviet Union. China is now in a very different league.

  13. but quad and all these talks are more noise than substance. nothing concrete has come out of it. no actionable plan.

  14. Very good article. But the moot point is whether the US would protect India’s interests. Trump has amply displayed that he is unreliable. Biden is still an unknown entity for India. Embrace India must, but it should be an embrace with caution. Russia is still, notwithstanding its recent love affair with China, our best friend.

  15. Gupta! If you are that keen in shoving Hindi down people’s throats why don’t you write the whole article in Devanagari script Hindi and spare the English readers? Ridiculous Hindi imposition increasing day by day

    • Sharma it is Gupta’s own channel, not some public news platform where you can indulge your fantastical grievances about ‘Hindi imposition’; heck half the time even I don’t understand some of these so-called ‘Hindi speakers’ just like Bollywood songs for they are actually Urdu masquerading as Hindi. Maybe you should change your name too, for they are based off Sanskrit (from which Hindi is derived) which you seemingly cannot digest. Perhaps you should call yourself Adolf Stalin, “Please stop imposing your ‘Hindi’ name on us!”

    • If you really knew what imposition is, you are not commenting this. Also it’s like you don’t have slightest idea of how language works it always borrows words from each other and that is not imposition. Come out of whichever echo chamber you are spending time and *Get a life bro*

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