As a Swing State, India must go with the West this time

As a Swing State, India must go with the West this time

Shortly after India’s independence in 1947, the United States started wooing the country’s leadership. Almost simultaneously, the USSR began its overtures to Pakistan. The reasons were strategic. While the Americans wanted a trusted ally in the region they could engage with to stop communist expansion in Asia, the Russians wanted a connection to the Middle East.

However, India’s first Prime Minister fluffed the chance to become a close ally with the richest and most powerful country in the world. He spurned America’s offer of friendship and instead decided to go nonaligned, with soft corner for the USSR.

Nehru’s counterpart in Pakistan was Liaquat Ali Khan, a Mohajir who was way above his head in events he couldn’t begin to understand. Basically, like most Pakistanis he was both ignorant and arrogant. Khan believed Pakistanis were the only true Muslims in the world and therefore Muslims worldwide must anoint Pakistan as the leader of the Islamic crescent. Lacking the confidence that would come naturally to, say, an Egyptian, Turk or Syrian leader, Khan refused to even visit Russia. He feared that even shaking hands with the “godless” communists would lower Pakistan’s esteem in the Muslim world. He needn’t have worried on that account because Pakistan had none.

The end result was the Pakistani Prime Minister accepted the invitation of the Americans. The shallow and envious Nehru took the red carpet treatment given to Khan in Washington DC as a huge snub and decided to throw in India’s lot with the USSR. Such are the egos and equations that shaped India’s relationship with the West.

This is not to say that the West was – or is – a paragon of virtue. In fact, the West was just as evil as the communist bloc. But as a democracy, India was in wrong camp – the camp of dictators, tyrants and communist despots. It was an odd place to be for a country that is the land of noble rulers like King Shibi (who offered his own flesh to an eagle to prevent it from eating a dove) and King Yuddhishtra (who refused to enter heaven without his faithful dog). And yet Nehru had dragged India into such despicable company.

Thanks to this twisted world view adopted by Nehru, and later by his daughter Indira Gandhi, the relationship between India and the West hit rock bottom. The Nehru Gandhi family’s hypocrisy was glaring because while they were chummy with the biggest despots in the world, they were sending their own children to study in the West. The dynasty’s corruption and socialist policies ran the economy into the ground so much that India was constantly begging for foodgrains and loan in Washington and Paris.

Turning the corner

How times have changed. The US is no more an adversary as it was during the Cold War, when it is believed US President Richard Nixon contemplated nuclear bombing Indian cities to prevent the Indian Army from liberating Bangladesh.

Except for the issue created by the American Christian fundamentalists, India and the US are friendly allies today. In fact, in a 2012 Pew survey of 21 nations, Indians seemed most favourably disposed towards the US with only 12 per cent saying they had an unfavourable opinion of the US.

After the US amended its Arms Export Control Act to expedite arms trade and technology transfers between the two countries, there has been a flurry of activity in India’s defence sector, which is contributing to Make in India and a more technologically advanced indigenous defence industry. This is of course in parallel with other critical joint defence ventures with Russia, France and Japan, but the cooperation with the US involves a strategic dimension.

India and the US have also signed the COMCASA agreement which allows live datalink between Indian and the US defence forces. This has huge implications for joint ties because it shows that the armed forces of both sides implicitly trust each.

And that’s not all – both sides have also operationalised the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) and the Helicopter Operations from Ships other Than Aircraft Carriers (HOSTAC) programme. The India Strategic Trade Authorisation Tier 1 status enables free flow of advanced technology from the US. Clearly, there is no other military with which India has such wide ranging strategic engagement.

An example of the strategic angle is how the Japanese, Indian and US Navies jointly track the movement of Chinese submarines. The military satellites, aviation assets and warships of the three countries play tag as these Chinese vessels pass through the South China, exit the Straits of Malacca chokepoint and enter the Bay of Bengal and on to the Bay of Bengal. Chinese warships are tailed, watched and spied on by these three navies 24/7.

Unlike India’s military focussed ties with Russia, the US-India relationship is multi-dimensional. As well as strategic, it spans the economic sphere plus there is the Indian diaspora estimated at more than three million. India’s information technology success story is primary due to Indian software workers and entrepreneurs who trained and worked in the US. India’s IT services exports to the US alone were an estimated $63.51 billion in 2018. In contrast, in the same year India’s total annual exports to Russia amounted to just $3.23 billion.

Clearly, India and the US have come a long way from the trauma and blunders of the Cold War decades. Today, the US needs India to contain China and New Delhi realises that without a multi-pronged thrust, the dragon will grow into a hulking threat across the Himalayas. Beijing has lost none of its expansionist appetite and continues to hanker after bite sized territories from far smaller neighbours such as Vietnam and the Philippines. Against India, Beijing has propped up the jehadi neighbour next door, providing it with weapons and cash.

In February when Indian Air Force warplanes entered Pakistani air space and bombed the terrorist camps in Balakot in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, the US looked the other way. It was a virtual thumbs up to India’s hegemony in the region. You could almost hear Donald Trump say, “Why didn’t they take out Kahuta also!” In an earlier era, there would have been competitive rounds of condemnation by the State Department, White House and other Beltway flunkies.

Managing the S-400 fallout

One area where India-US ties have hit a major roadblock is the S-400 system. India needs it for its air defence and has inked a $5.4 billion deal with Russia for five batteries to be delivered by 2021. However, the US wants to India to cancel the deal and buy US air defence missiles.

With the US pressuring India to walk out of the deal, what should New Delhi do? First up, it is incontestable that India requires the powerful missile defence system to strengthen its antiquated air defence network. The five batteries of the S-400 are interim weapons as India’s own long-range air defence systems are in the development stage.

However, no weapon, no matter how powerful and capable, can be allowed to impact ties. India must not make the S-400 a cause celebre. This is the mistake that the puffed up Recep Erdogan is making. The Turkish President is literally prepared to bail out of NATO – a military alliance that it has been part of for over six decades – due to American pressure to cancel his own S-400 deal with Russia.

In Turkey’s case, the US has a legitimate case that Russian military advisors – who will accompany the S-400 batteries and stay on for months if not years – could scoop up data on the performance of the American stealth fighter, the F-35. However, there won’t be an F-35 in a 1,000 km radius from India’s land borders where the five S-400 regiments will be stationed. This indicates that at least in India’s case the US pressure is aimed at denying market space to Russia.

The US has reportedly offered the Patriot surface-to-air missile defence system and the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system if India kills the S-400 deal. However, the Patriot has been overhyped and its effectiveness is limited as a number of Middle Eastern allies have found out. The ease with which Houthi rebels lob missiles at Saudi Arabian cities is not only an indictment of the poor combat capabilities of the Saudi military but also the inability of the US supplied Patriots to stop these missiles from raining down.

Offer THAAD technology

Since the US doesn’t have an equivalent system to offer, scrapping the deal will leave India with a hole in its air defences. In this backdrop, when Indians sit across the table from American emissaries, they should get their pound of flesh.

One of the reason why Russia, China and North Korea are squirming of late is the US plans to install THAAD in South Korea. Clearly, if this wasn’t a game changer, the three countries wouldn’t be accusing the US of ratcheting up the arms race. But instead of buying THAAD batteries, India should acquire the system’s technology so that it can be grafted on to its own missile defence systems. As the DRDO’s anti-satellite (ASAT) test proved recently, India has an advanced missile development programme, and the infusion of American technology will give Indian defence manufacturing agencies the ability to make a quantum leap.

Necessity is the mother of invention, and India has been its biggest proponent. It survived decades of a virtual technology apartheid which was erected specifically by the West to stop India’s rise as a military and nuclear power. However, as a former ISRO chairman said, because of decades-long Western sanctions, India literally reinvented the wheel, and the result is that today it is able to produce everything inhouse – from the smallest gasket to the largest rocket.

The loss of the S-400 could thus become a blessing in disguise for India. Since India is buying five batteries outright for $5.4 billion – and there is no technology transfer involved – buying THAAD technology for perhaps half the amount could give India an indigenous version of the S-400 that it could one day export to friendly nations.

Consequences for India

The Russians are emotional people and there will certainly be a blowback. They have exhibited vindictive behaviour on at least two occasions. In early 2011 when India scratched the MiG-35 from the MMRCA competition, the Russians cancelled naval exercises India without informing the Indian Navy. When the Indian Navy’s three most modern destroyers, INS Delhi, INS Ranvir and INS Ranvijay, sailed into the Russian port of Vladivostok for joint exercises, the Russian ships were nowhere to be seen. This is as big a snub as it gets. You don’t invite your friends halfway around the world and tell them to go fishing in the Pacific.

But what literally rubbished Russia’s reputation in India was the Gorshkov deal. The Russians had initially quoted around $750 million to refurbish the old Soviet aircraft carrier for the Indian Navy. But then they jacked up the price to nearly $3 billion and when the Indian side balked the Russians issued a threat: “Fine, we’ll keep the boat, and we have your money too.”

So India can expect a few Russian walkouts from ongoing programmes – the indigenous aircraft carrier which is in the final stages, BrahMos Corp and nuclear submarines. However, enough indigenisation has been achieved for India to go solo from here.

For far too long, India has acted like the pious and chaste Sati and Savitri. While virtually every country in the world reversed engineered – a more accurate word is stole – Russian classics like the AK-47 rifle, India alone refused to do so. In 2007 when New Delhi finally decided to set up a plant to make copies of the AK-47, its Russian designer Mikhail Kalashnikov arrived in India and persuaded the government to cancel the project. The net result was that India continued to import hundreds of thousands of rifles for its armed forces at huge cost.

Again, India was the only country that did not poach Russian military and aerospace scientists when the Soviet Union crumbled in 1991. Smart countries like South Korea absorbed hundreds of Russian scientists who propelled the country to the tech stratosphere.

Clearly, geopolitics and diplomacy are not the place to practise chastity and piety – it is a place where nations use guile, deception and Vish Kanyas – the Indian equivalent of honey traps. The point is that if Russia walks out of ongoing projects, India must hire Russian freelancers to work on unfinished projects. It is Chanakya Niti that wins wars; Gandhigiri will ensure only bifurcation and trifurcation.

Pakistan factor

Many observers fear that Russia could spite India by ramping up ties with Pakistan. But that is already happening. Russian state media such as RT – or Russia Today – routinely broadcasts highly negative news about India while showing glowing accounts of Pakistan. It’s like the Cold War flipped.

At any rate Pakistan’s ability to buy Russian weapons is severely limited by the parlous state of its economy. Even if Russia offers Islamabad a few advanced S-300s or similar tier-2 weapons free of cost, Moscow will have to face the embarrassment of its systems being knocked out by India in the opening hours of war. The prime example is Israel which attacks Syria almost on a weekly basis, destroying the country’s latest Russian supplied weapons.

Know your worth

It is quite apt that India is often portrayed as an elephant, for an elephant often forgets its size. Indians, especially their political leaders, often forget that India is a country that can change the course of history if it so wishes. For decades, India remained confined to the South Asian binary, instead of breaking out like a true leader as much smaller Japan and South Korea have done.

With the demise of Pax Americana, policy wonks Richard Fontaine and Daniel M. Kliman describe India as a “global swing state”. Such a state possesses a large and growing economy, occupies a central position in a region or stands at the hinge of multiple regions. In an interview to the Seattle-based National Bureau of Asian Research, they say alliances with swing states can “deliver a geopolitical pay-off” because the choices these nations make may “decisively influence the course of world affairs”.

Both the US and Russia are no doubt aware of this new reality. If they choose to ignore it, the loss is theirs alone.

Featured Image: National Review

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Rakesh Krishnan Simha

Rakesh is a globally cited defence analyst. His articles have been quoted extensively by national and international defence journals and in books on diplomacy, counter-terrorism, warfare, and development of the global south.