When Russian president Vladimir Putin arrives in New Delhi early next month, he will get more than a fist-bump from Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He will get a bear hug.
India is resetting its geopolitical ties with global powers. From a policy of strategic autonomy, India is moving towards a nuanced policy of strategic self-interest.
Globally there are shifting sands. The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and the military withdrawal of the United States from South Asia have opened up new possibilities and new alignments.
India has traditionally downplayed its geostrategic strengths. That era could be over. India’s economy is the fifth largest in the world, ahead of Britain and not far behind Germany and Japan. Only the US and China will have larger economies than India in 2030.
Putin’s visit coincides with the delivery of the S-400 air defence system, the first of five on order. China has already deployed two S-400s in Tibet and Xinjiang. The S-400 is a formidable weapon. Deployed by India as a deterrent against China along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the S-400 will transform the balance of power between Beijing and New Delhi.
Who else will be concerned by the arrival of the S-400 in India? Washington has long used sugar-coated threats to stop India from acquiring the S-400. It has kept the sword of Damocles in the form of the 2017 legislation, Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), hanging over India’s head.
The threat hasn’t worked. The US needs India to help police the Indo-Pacific theatre against China. It can’t afford to alienate New Delhi. The Quad would fall apart in the face of sanctions.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi knows this. Hence his cheerful go-ahead not only for the five S-400s worth $5.4 billion (Rs 41,000 crore) which will make India impervious to air and missile attacks from China and Pakistan but also for renewal of a military-technical agreement with Russia right through 2021-31.
Washington will have to swallow this bitter pill. It rails against interoperability problems with Russian defence equipment. It complains about classified US military technology being leaked to the Russians when both US and Russian weaponry are being used in war drills.
India though has friends in US Congress. Several have written to US president Joe Biden to grant India a waiver on CAATSA for the S-400. India is meanwhile buying 30 Predator drones from the US for $3 billion (Rs 22,500 crore) at Rs 750 crore per drone — a veritable killing machine.
The bigger question is India’s new policy of strategic self-interest. The US has followed this policy with ruthless efficiency since the end of World War II. It paid not the slightest attention to strictures by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) on conducting an illegal war on Iraq in 2003 for non-existent weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). It continues to mollycoddle Pakistan over terrorism against India. It backstabbed a close NATO ally, France, over AUKUS.
For Washington, strategic self-interest has long been its defining characteristic.
So, what should India do? Strategic self-interest means playing up to your strengths and exploiting weaknesses in others. The key is to spot these vulnerabilities and leverage them to your benefit.
America’s principal global rival is China. Beijing presents a larger threat to Washington’s global military and economic supremacy than the former Soviet Union ever did. Washington was blindsided for decades into helping China’s economic surge. The Nixon-Kissinger wooing of China persuaded the US, fixated on the Cold War with the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact powers, to allow China access to its technology.
Beijing quietly, unobtrusively, deceptively, used the opportunity to engage from the 1980s onwards in industrial-scale theft of US intellectual property. In 1980, China’s GDP was $191 billion. US GDP in 1980 was nearly 15 times larger at $2.86 trillion. Today China’s GDP is $16 trillion. US GDP is $22 trillion. The gap could close in less than a decade.
Simultaneously, China has reverse-engineered US military technology. By the 2040s its navy will pose a formidable challenge to the US Navy in the arc from the South China Sea to the Gulf of Aden.
There is now real concern in Washington at China’s resurgence. AUKUS was a knee-jerk reaction to China’s rise. The increased importance Washington is attaching to the Quad is part of a more calibrated strategy to thwart China.
India must play its cards well. America needs it as a principal partner in the Indo-Pacific. It wants access to India’s large, underserviced consumer market. India must leverage these strengths by seeking greater access to US military and commercial technology.
China has, by turns, tried to woo and threaten India. Its message: Don’t get too close for comfort to America. If you do, there will be costs to pay. At Ahmedabad in 2014, Wuhan in 2018 and Mahabalipuram in 2019, Chinese President Xi Jinping tried to extract India from America’s embrace with deceptive charm.
Modi was unimpressed. Doka La had preceded the Wuhan summit and Ladakh followed the Mahabalipuram summit. In China’s playbook if cajoling doesn’t work, resort to force. But Xi miscalculated India’s resolve. Nineteen months after China struck in Ladakh, it has gained little but lost a lot in prestige.
For Beijing, losing face is intolerable. Smaller countries in the South China Sea with whom Beijing has disputes are watching events in Ladakh closely. They have noted with quiet satisfaction China’s frustration at not being able to break the military stand-off along the LAC. This is not quite the display of superpower intimidation China thought India would succumb to when the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) began its transgressions in April 2020.
In Afghanistan meanwhile things haven’t gone according to Pakistan’s choreography. The Taliban remain as brutal as they always were. More than three months after Pakistan’s proxies took over Afghanistan by force, they have neither a functioning government nor international recognition.
Even Pakistan has lacked the gumption to recognise the interim Taliban government, though it is moving heaven and earth to get China, Turkey and Qatar to join it in giving the Taliban a semblance of legitimacy.
In a sign that India’s policy of strategic self-interest is gaining traction in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), New Delhi is positioning itself as a key player in the region. The NSA-level Security Dialogue on Afghanistan was only the beginning of a more assertive regional policy.
With Putin arriving in Delhi next month, Modi must advance India’s strategic self-interest by leveraging its geography, economy, military and markets to balance its relationship with the US and Russia.
China and Pakistan — one a protector of terrorists, the other a sponsor of terrorism — will not be pleased at India’s new assertiveness. China’s vulnerabilities over Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang should receive greater attention from New Delhi.
Being nice with China has not paid since the 1950s. It did not pay in Ahmedabad, Wuhan or Mahabalipuram. A more robust, clinically assertive policy will better serve India’s national interest in a rapidly evolving world order.
The writer is editor, author and publisher. Views expressed here are personal.