The global significance of Trump’s India visit

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The blossoming of the U.S.-India strategic partnership has become an important diplomatic asset for both countries, which explains U.S. President Donald Trump’s just-completed stand-alone trip to India. Mr. Trump’s visit, like that of his predecessor Barack Obama five years ago, may not have yielded any major agreement, but it has set the direction toward greater U.S.-India collaboration in the face of a growing China-Russia alliance.

Mr. Trump, who was accompanied by his wife, daughter, son-in-law and a high-powered official delegation, summed up his trip as “unforgettable, extraordinary and productive.”

However, Hindu-Muslim rioting in an outlying, working-class Delhi area cast an unflattering spotlight on sectarian tensions in India during Mr. Trump’s second day in the world’s largest democracy. Even before Mr. Trump set foot on Indian soil, sections of the American media lampooned him – from claiming he was going to India for big crowds because he “relishes spectacle” to wondering how the steak-loving President, who supposedly had never been seen to “eat a vegetable,” would survive in India with its beef-free menu.

The communal violence, triggered after a Hindu politician issued an ultimatum for an end to Muslim protesters’ blockade of the suburb’s main highway, occurred principally over two days and left nearly three dozen dead. The blockade, which also forced the shutdown of local subway stations, appeared timed to coincide with Mr. Trump’s visit to highlight opposition to India’s recent amendment of a decades-old citizenship law. The amendment offers a fast-track to citizenship for members of all religious minorities who fled persecution in three neighbouring countries where Islam is the state religion: Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The rioting, restricted to the blockade-hit neighbourhood (which is in Delhi state, but not part of New Delhi), came in handy to those seeking to obscure the gains from Mr. Trump’s visit. “New Delhi Streets Turn Into Battleground As Trump Visits,” ran the hyperbolic headline in The New York Times, whose relentless attacks on Mr. Trump surpass its perennial India bashing.

Mr. Trump’s unaffected tour was packed with colour and pageantry, including a visit with his family to the monument to love, the Taj Mahal. Mr. Trump, in fact, kicked off his whirlwind tour with the largest rally any U.S. president has addressed in recent memory.

The huge campaign-style rally at the world’s largest cricket stadium in Ahmedabad – Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home base – was attended by some 125,000 people, with countless thousands more lining Mr. Trump’s motorcade route from the airport to the newly constructed stadium.

After the royal pomp and pageantry lavished on him from Ahmedabad to New Delhi, Mr. Trump exulted, “Nobody else that came here got the kind of reception we got.”

The trip was not without substance. It yielded a US$3.4-billion military helicopter contract, the latest in a string of major U.S. arms sales to India in recent years. The United States has become India’s largest weapons supplier, with the two countries also holding more frequent joint military exercises. As Mr. Trump put it before leaving India, “I believe the U.S. should be India’s premier defence partner and that’s the way it’s working out.”

The two sides announced they have almost finalized a limited trade agreement, which will be ready for signature after legal vetting. The agreement is to serve as “phase one” of a comprehensive trade pact.

Under Mr. Trump, the U.S. has become an increasingly important source of crude oil and petroleum products for India, the world’s third-largest oil consumer after the U.S. and China. Mr. Modi has agreed to further ramp up imports of U.S. oil and gas to help cut India’s large trade surplus with the United States.

India is important for the U.S. because of its massive market and strategic location. It is the only resident power in the western part of the Indo-Pacific region that can countervail China’s military and economic moves. For New Delhi, a robust relationship with the U.S. is pivotal to advancing long-term interests. Despite bilateral differences over the Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran challenges, the U.S.-India partnership, as Mr. Trump noted, “has never been as good as it is now.”

Mr. Trump’s personal diplomacy with Mr. Modi has stood out. Both are right-of-centre nationalists who have faced similar criticisms, including accusations of being blinkered demagogues, pursuing divisive policies and choosing populism over constitutionalism.

Indeed, each has become an increasingly polarizing figure at home. Citizens either love or loathe them. And like the Washington establishment’s antipathy to Mr. Trump, the privileged New Delhi elite has never accepted Mr. Modi.

Mr. Trump’s critics at home say that, under his leadership, the world no longer respects the U.S. or the American president. Mr. Trump’s adulation-filled India visit showed otherwise. Mr. Modi’s domestic critics claim he is isolating India and making it less tolerant. Mr. Trump’s solo visit to India – and the praise he lavished on India’s tolerance and freedom and on Mr. Modi’s commitment to religious freedom – showed otherwise.

During the visit, Mr. Trump and Mr. Modi consciously eschewed saying anything that could give a handle to each other’s domestic critics. For example, asked about the amended citizenship law, Mr. Trump said it was India’s internal matter.

The two, however, heaped praise on each other. Mr. Trump called Mr. Modi a “great leader,” saying he is “a very, very strong person, very tough” and “he’ll take care of” the terrorism problem facing India. Mr. Modi, for his part, called Mr. Trump a “true friend of India.”

The eventful visit will be remembered for Mr. Trump’s famous words at the mega-rally that were greeted with thunderous applause: “America loves India, America respects India and America will always be faithful and loyal friends to the Indian people.”

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of the award-winning Water: Asia’s New Battleground.

Can India really count on Trump?

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Brahma Chellaney, Open Magazine

US President Donald Trump’s India visit, with his wife Melania, is significant for several reasons, including the fact that this is his first overseas trip since his acquittal earlier this month in the impeachment trial. Like his host, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Trump has become a lightning rod in his country’s political churn. The hyper-partisan domestic politics in the US and India has been plumbing new depths, poisoning the discourse in both countries.

To be sure, the US and India are not the only democracies weighed down by a spike in polarization or by incivility in political discourse. Partisanship has become more intense than ever in a number of other democracies. 

However, bitter partisanship and a national divide stand out in the US and India. Nothing illustrated this better than the vote in the US House of Representatives to impeach Trump along party lines, without the support of a single Republican member. Impeachment should never have proceeded without broad, bipartisan support. Even Trump’s Senate acquittal was essentially along party lines.

Trump and Modi, despite their very different backgrounds, have a lot in common politically. Each has become an increasingly polarizing figure at home. Citizens either love or loathe them. Like the Washington establishment’s antipathy to Trump, the privileged New Delhi elite has never accepted Modi. This explains why Modi’s re-election in a landslide victory nine months ago has only helped to solidify the polarization in the country.

In fact, Trump and Modi are accused by their critics at home of behaving like authoritarian strongmen. The truth is that American and Indian democracies are robust enough to deter authoritarian creep. Modi’s critics, for example, only underscore India’s robust freedoms by hurling — without fear of reprisal — all sorts of accusations at him, including that he is striking “a historic blow” to Indian democracy and turning India into a “Hindu Pakistan”.

In both the US and India, the widening schism between the pro- and anti-Trump/Modi forces — who, segregated in their own ideological silos, inhabit increasingly separate realities about virtually everything — is strengthening divisive politics. This, in turn, has made politics increasingly vitriolic.

Against this background, is it any surprise that Trump decided, even before the Senate acquittal, to meet his friend Modi in India, including in the latter’s home base of Ahmedabad? Trump’s visit to the world’s largest democracy was overdue, given that he has already been to the other major Asian countries, such as China and Japan. His India visit, significantly, is a solo trip.

Trump shares with Modi a love for big audiences and theatrics. This is why Modi decided to honour Trump at an event to be attended by some 110,000 people at the world’s biggest cricket stadium in Ahmedabad. Last September, Modi and Trump had walked hand-in-hand at a rock-concert-like event, called “Howdy, Modi”, at the NRG Stadium in Houston.

When Trump joined Modi’s public rally in Houston, which was attended by 59,000 Indian-Americans and a number of American congressmen and senators, it underscored the growing closeness of the US-India relationship. Now the Ahmedabad event and Trump’s meetings in New Delhi, as the White House has said, will “further strengthen the US-India strategic partnership and highlight the strong and enduring bonds between the American and Indian people”.

With Trump’s focus on getting re-elected in November, his India visit will also endear him to the increasingly influential and wealthy Indian-Americans, who now number about 4 million, or 1.3% of the total US population. They not only matter in some of the swing states for the presidential election, but also are important political donors.

The rationale for closer ties

The strengthening American ties with democratic India have assumed greater geopolitical importance for Washington, given that US policies in this century have counterproductively fostered a partnership between the world’s largest nuclear power, Russia, and the world’s second-largest economy, China. But during the Cold War years, US President Richard Nixon’s administration, seeking to avoid confronting Russia and China simultaneously, forged strategic cooperation with the weaker party, China, in order to balance the stronger Soviet Union. China’s co-option played an important role in the West’s ultimate triumph in the Cold War. Today, however, US policy has helped build a growing Sino-Russian nexus.

According to the last US national security strategy report, America welcomes “India’s emergence as a leading global power and stronger strategic and defence partner”. India is pivotal to the Trump administration’s strategy of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” region, a concept originally authored by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. India occupies a critical position in the western part of the Indo-Pacific: It has a coastline of 7,500 kilometres, with more than 1,380 islands and over two million square kilometres of Exclusive Economic Zone.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, during his New Delhi visit last June, said: “We must understand that not only is the US important to India but India is very important to the US”.  India meshes well with Trump’s export plan to create large numbers of well-paid American jobs. As Trump told the Houston rally, “We are working to expand American exports to India, one of the world’s fastest-growing markets”.

Moreover, the US and India are natural allies in countering the growing global scourge of jihadist terrorism. At Modi’s Houston rally, Trump said: “Today, we honour all of the brave American and Indian military service members who work together to safeguard our freedom.  We stand proudly in defence of liberty, and we are committed to protecting innocent civilians from the threat of radical Islamic terrorism”.

In the way Modi casts himself as India’s “chowdikar” (protector) safeguarding the country’s frontiers from terrorists and other subversives, Trump has prioritized border defences to keep out those that “threaten our security”. As Trump declared at the Houston rally, to the delight of Indians, “Border security is vital to the US.  Border Security is vital to India. We understand that”.

Considering such a congruent interest, US-India counterterrorism cooperation ought to be robust, mutually beneficial and mutually reinforcing, while America’s relationship with Pakistan by now should have come apart. However, while US-India counterterrorism cooperation is growing, the Trump administration has helped secure an International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout for cash-strapped Pakistan and opposed that country’s inclusion on the blacklist of the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force (FATF).

Trump has also drawn a perverse equivalence between the terrorism-exporting Pakistan and its victim India. Indeed, according to the White House, Trump, at his meeting with Modi in New York last autumn, privately “encouraged Prime Minister Modi to improve relations with Pakistan”, and then publicly said, “Those are two nuclear countries. They’ve got to work it out”. Geopolitically, Pakistan remains important for America’s regional interests, including in relation to Afghanistan, Iran and India.

Consider a more fundamental factor: Whereas the US significantly aided China’s economic rise from the 1970s by co-opting Beijing into its anti-Soviet strategy, Washington today has no such compelling geostrategic motivation to assist India’s rise. The US does not feel as threatened by Sino-Russian cooperation as it did from the Soviet-Chinese partnership during the Cold War, largely because Russia now appears in irreversible decline. Indeed, the more Russia has moved closer to China, the more it has eroded its influence, as in Central Asia.

India is important for the US because of its large and rapidly growing market and its strategic location in the Indo-Pacific. It is the only resident power in the western part of the Indo-Pacific that can countervail China’s military and economic moves.

The phrase “Indo-Pacific”, as then US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson alluded to, was intended to emphasize that the US and India are “bookends” in that region. Recently, however, the Trump administration has redefined the Indo-Pacific as a region extending to the Persian Gulf, in keeping with its fixation on Iran. This is one reason why its “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy has still to gain traction.

The US views an economically booming India as good for American businesses. Trump in New Delhi will meet with top executives of Indian companies that are major investors in the US. For example, Mahindra and Mahindra has announced it is investing $1 billion in the US, while the Tata Group is one of the largest multinationals operating from American soil. Today, the transactional elements in the US-Indian partnership, unfortunately, have become more conspicuous than the geostrategic dimensions.

Trump, a friend of India?

Trump’s foreign policy has centred on a strange mix of avowed isolationism, impulsive interventionism and tough negotiations even with friends. Trump’s unilateralism and transactional approach have reflected a belief that the US can pursue hard-edged negotiations with friends without imperilling its broader strategic interests. This approach has rattled many of America’s longstanding allies.

In India, however, Trump still enjoys a high positive rating. He may have privately mocked Modi’s English pronunciation but has developed a personal rapport with him.

Successive US administrations, in fact, have been good at massaging India’s collective ego, with statements like “the growing partnership between the world’s oldest democracy and largest democracy”. Pompeo, for example, declared, “Modi hai to sab mumkin hai”. Pompeo’s praise of US-India ties, however, has failed to obscure the differences and disputes resulting from the Trump administration’s unilateral actions and demands.

Despite his bonhomie with Modi, Trump, for example, has waged a mini-trade war against India, although in the shadow of the much larger US-China trade war. He has raised duties on 14.3% of India’s exports to the US and imposed a restrictive visa policy to squeeze the huge Indian information-technology industry. In March 2018, he increased tariffs on steel and aluminium from India.

Indeed, no sooner had Modi’s second term started in May 2019 than Trump announced the termination of India’s preferential access to the US market by expelling the country from the Generalized System of Preferences. Soon thereafter, the office of the United States Trade Representative warned of a Section 301 investigation against India if trade differences were not sorted out.

The array of US demands on India have ranged from lifting price controls on heart stents, knee implants and other medical devices to relaxing ­e-commerce rules. Unlike China, where homegrown players like Alibaba have cornered the e-commerce market, India has allowed Amazon and Walmart to establish a virtual duopoly over its e-commerce. Would the US, like India, permit two foreign companies to control its e-commerce?

Some US demands actually represent gross insensitivity. For example, the US has pressured India — where many citizens are vegetarian — to open its market to American cheese and other products from cows that have been raised on feed containing bovine and other animal by-products. This would offend the religious and cultural sensitivities of many Indians, especially Hindus who do not consume beef or its by-products. For India, the routine administration of antibiotics to healthy cows in the US also raises public-health concerns, including the possible spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Despite Modi’s unmistakably US-friendly foreign policy, the Trump administration has mounted pressure on India not just on trade but also on other flanks, including oil and defence. For example, not content with the US having emerged as the largest seller of arms to India, Washington has sought to lock that country as America’s exclusive arms client by using the threat of sanctions to deter it from buying major Russian weapons, including the S-400 air defence system.

The US said last July, after it terminated India’s sanctions waiver for importing Iranian oil, that it was “highly gratified” by New Delhi’s compliance with sanctions against Iran. It is really one-sided gratification. The US sanctions have driven up India’s oil-import bill by stopping it from buying crude from next-door Iran. In fact, the US has been supplanting Iran as an important source of crude oil and petroleum products for India, the world’s third-largest oil consumer after America and China. But the US oil and petroleum exports to India come at a higher price than from Iran.

A transportation corridor to Afghanistan that India is building via Iran, bypassing Pakistan, shows that New Delhi’s relationship with Tehran is more than just about oil. US policy, however, is pushing India out of Iran while letting China fill that space. China has deepened its ties with Tehran: It has continued to import Iranian oil through private companies and invest billions of dollars in Iran’s oil, gas and petrochemical sectors.

A US-India trade deal, however framed, is unlikely to help fully lift US pressure on India, whose economy is now growing at the slowest rate in years, with unemployment at a 45-year high. Some of Trump’s trade-related demands would help open the Indian market further to Chinese dumping, thereby widening India’s already-huge trade deficit with China. Indeed, lumping the world’s largest democracy with America’s main strategic competitor, Trump is pushing to terminate India’s and China’s developing-nation status at the World Trade Organization.

Meanwhile, Trump’s policy, by seeking to normalize US relations with Pakistan, has helped ease international pressure on that country to take concrete, verifiable actions to root out the 22 UN-designated terrorist entities that it harbours. Pakistan, for its part, has shown that there are no significant economic consequences for being on the FATF’s “grey” list. Just last summer it secured a large IMF bailout package with US backing. It has also received billions of dollars in emergency loans from China, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

The FATF admits that Pakistan has failed to meet the group’s major parameters against terror financing. Yet, with the US loath to exercise the leverage it has to reform a scofflaw Pakistan, that country has not been moved from the FATF’s “grey” to “black” list.

Modi, speaking at the UN General Assembly last September, warned against the politicization of international counterterrorism mechanisms. The global war on terror, however, has always been about geopolitics. Otherwise, why would the US align with Al Qaeda in Syria against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, or why would China seek to shield the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorists based in Pakistan?

Geopolitical factors, including Trump’s effort to strike a Faustian bargain with the Pakistan-backed Afghan Taliban, also explain why the US president, despite a Kashmir mediation offer being a red rag to India, has repeatedly offered to mediate that conflict. In fact, Trump has rewarded Pakistan with IMF and other aid and then offered to mediate the Kashmir conflict. Likewise, Trump first green-lighted Turkey’s military assault on America’s Kurdish allies and then offered to broker peace between the Turks and Kurds, saying “I hope we can mediate”.

Trump’s mediation offer has little to do with finding a way to resolve the Kashmir problem; it is more about making the US a stakeholder. As long as Indian policy seeks American assistance to rein in Pakistan, instead of tackling the problem directly, the US will strive to make itself a stakeholder in the India-Pakistan relationship.

Still, the US is a key partner for India

Despite bilateral differences on several important subjects, the US remains a key partner for India. Accelerating cooperation and collaboration with the US has been Modi’s signature foreign-policy initiative. Under Modi, India has been gravitating closer to the US in ways that do not undermine India’s longstanding partnership with Russia or provoke retribution from China.

The deepening cooperation has led to a series of bilateral agreements in recent years. In 2016, the US and India signed a logistics agreement on access to each other’s military base. A 2018 accord allows US and Indian forces to share encrypted communications. And a 2019 agreement permits each other’s private companies to transfer classified defence technologies.

Furthermore, the frequency and complexity of US-India military exercises have increased. Last November, the US military held its first joint exercises with all three of India’s military branches — the army, the navy and the air force.

To be sure, US-India military collaboration poses some challenges. The US has little experience in developing close military collaboration with countries that are not its treaty-based allies. All its major military partners are its allies in a patron-client framework. India, however, is its strategic partner (not an ally) that expects some degree of equality. Yet, in opposing India’s purchase of the S-400 surface-to-air missile system from Russia, the US has cited “military interoperability” issues, as if India were a NATO member or its formal ally like Turkey, which is also acquiring the S-400.

India’s long legacy of dependence on Russia for strategic weapons — ranging from a nuclear-powered submarine to an aircraft carrier — will change only through a robust Indo-US partnership, not through threats or sanctions. However, last year’s failure to pass an amendment in the US Congress to give India NATO-equivalent status under the US Arms Export Control Act (AECA) for the purposes of arms sales represents a setback for building a steady US-India military partnership.

Had it been enacted in its original form, the amendment (introduced by Congressman Brad Sherman and co-sponsored by several other representatives) would have provided India the same status as America’s NATO allies as well as Israel, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and Japan for AECA-related purposes in relation to arms exports. The original amendment sought to elevate India’s status under the AECA so as to facilitate US arms sales to India in a wider and more forward-looking and timely manner. That would have been in keeping with the imperative to bolster the Indo-US relationship in order to check China’s muscular moves in the Indian Ocean region.

India is ideologically compatible with, and strategically central, to US interests. For New Delhi, a robust relationship with the US is pivotal to long-term Indian interests. Yet, paradoxically, the two countries’ strategic interests diverge in India’s own neighbourhood. The farther one gets from India, the more congruent US and Indian interests become. But closer home to India, the two sides’ interests are divergent, including on how to deal with the Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran challenges.

Against this background, does anybody seriously think that if China staged a 1962-style surprise military attack on India, the Trump-led US will come to India’s aid or even side with India? As it did during the 2017 Doklam standoff, the US would probably chart a course of neutrality in that war.

Take another example: Pakistan used the US-supplied F-16s against India on February 27, 2019, in a cross-border aerial raid following the Indian Air Force’s daring airstrike on a Jaish-e-Mohammed camp in Balakot. Yet, the US chose to look the other way, despite admitting the “presence of US personnel that provide 24/7 end-use monitoring” on the F-16 fleet in Pakistan. Worse still, it rewarded Pakistan with $125 million worth of technical and logistics support services for the F-16s, saying the aid will not affect the “regional balance”.

The bottom line for India is that no friend, including the US, will truly assist it to end Pakistan’s terrorism. When terrorism is directed at just India, the American military will not seek to take out any of the US-designated “global terrorists” in Pakistan. For example, the US has done little more than put a $10 million bounty since 2012 on Lashkar-e-Taiba founder Hafiz Saeed, one of the top terrorist leaders in Pakistan. This is India’s battle to fight and win on its own.

More broadly, a US policy approach that seeks to weaponize tariffs, trade and dollar dominance will compel India to hedge its bets. As the chairman of the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Eliot L. Engel, warned last year, the Trump administration, by “attempting to coerce India into complying with US demands on a variety of issues”, has not only “introduced significant friction in our partnership with New Delhi” but also is alienating India.

Henry Kissinger once quipped that “it may be dangerous to be America’s enemybut to be America’s friend is fatal”. Trump is pursuing his foreign policy as if those words have the ring of truth. At the Houston rally, Trump claimed India has “never had a better friend” than him in the White House. Yet Trump’s transactional approach, which prioritizes short-term gains for the US even at the expense of long-term returns, could be reinforcing Indian scepticism about American reliability. The Modi government, clearly, values robust ties with the US, but such relations cannot be at the expense of India’s own interests.

Make no mistake: India has been a US foreign-policy bright spot. There is strong bipartisan support in Washington for a closer partnership with India. And as Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner has said, “The relationship between America and India is one with boundless potential”. It is important for both sides to focus on the relationship’s tremendous potential.

© Open Magazine, 2020.

The China Factor Behind India’s Pullout from RCEP

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The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership was set to become the world’s largest free trade agreement. But India’s withdrawal from it has thrown the negotiated trade bloc into imbalance and has underscored India’s qualms with China’s trade practices.

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Brahma Chellaney, China-US Focus 

The 16-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) was supposed to establish the world’s largest trading bloc, covering half of the global population. But India’s abrupt withdrawal from the RCEP has undercut that goal. The decision came soon after the latest “informal” summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, during which Xi acknowledged India’s China-related concerns over the RCEP and pledged to address them.

New Delhi’s entry into the RCEP would effectively create a China-India free trade agreement (FTA) via the backdoor, at a time when Chinese exports are already swamping the Indian market and questions are being raised domestically on Modi’s management of the economy.

The China factor was central to India’s pullout from the RCEP. India already has FTAs with 12 of the other 15 participating RCEP countries and is negotiating an FTA with Australia. Therefore, the main beneficiary of India’s entry into the RCEP would have been China.

Xi’s two “informal” summits with Modi since April 2018 have yielded little progress in the trade, border, and political issues dividing the world’s two most-populous countries. Indeed, at the second summit, held in the Indian coastal town of Mamallapuram in October, Xi sought to rope India into the RCEP in an effort to shield his country’s burgeoning trade surplus with New Delhi.

When the summit concluded, Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale said, “President Xi has assured us that India’s concerns over the RCEP will be duly discussed. Although both Modi and Xi emphasized on the importance of having a rules-based global trading system, the Indian prime minister clarified to China that a deal should be balanced and equitable. China said it has heard India’s concerns and has agreed that there are still issues that need addressing.”

At the summit, Modi agreed to starting bilateral talks between the Chinese vice premier and the Indian finance minister over India’s uneven trade relationship with China, which is weighted heavily in Beijing’s favor. China’s trade surplus with India has jumped from less than $2.5 billion a month in 2014 when Modi took office to more than $5 billion a month.

The Indian commitment to bilateral trade talks represented a diplomatic win for Beijing, allowing it to initiate what it is good at: endless negotiations, as its 38-year-long border talks with India illustrate. Ever since the talks to settle the border disputes began in 1981, China has taken India round and round the mulberry bush.

However, only three weeks after the Xi-Modi summit, India pulled out of the RCEP. And the bilateral trade talks that were agreed upon at the summit have yet to begin.

In November, the other 15 participating RCEP countries concluded text-based negotiations and sent the agreement to the legal team for cleanup. A joint statement following the conclusion of the negotiations in Bangkok said, “India has significant outstanding issues, which remain unresolved. All RCEP participating countries will work together to resolve these outstanding issues in a mutually satisfactory way. India’s final decision will depend on satisfactory resolution of these issues.”

It will not be easy to resolve India’s concerns. At a time of slowing Indian growth, India’s entry into the RCEP could exacerbate the country’s economic problems by opening the floodgates to the entry of cheap Chinese goods.

China, while exploiting India’s rule of law to engage in large-scale dumping and other unfair practices, keeps whole sectors of its economy off-limits to Indian businesses, including India’s $181-billion information technology industry. Beijing has also dragged its feet on dismantling regulatory barriers to the import of Indian agricultural and pharmaceutical products.

Modi, in the hope of spurring greater foreign direct investment (FDI) from China, removed it from the official list as a “country of concern” for India. However, instead of greater FDI, the step invited greater Chinese dumping.

China’s cumulative FDI in India remains a fraction of its yearly trade surplus with the country. In fact, in the list of countries with which China has the highest trade surpluses, India now ranks second behind America.

China’s surplus with the U.S., of course, is massive. But as a percentage of total bilateral trade or as a percentage of national gross domestic product (GDP), India’s trade deficit with China is greater than America’s. India’s trade deficit with China in 2018 accounted for 2.2% of its GDP.

China’s unfair trade practices are systematically undermining Indian manufacturing and competitiveness, with the result that Modi’s vaunted “Make in India” initiative has yet to seriously take off. Indeed, China’s annual trade surplus with India is significantly larger than India’s total defense spending, underscoring the extent to which India is underwriting Chinese hostility.

Against this background, India’s concerns are unlikely to be addressed in time for it to join the other participating countries at the RCEP signing ceremony in Hanoi next year.

Let’s be clear: unlike most other participating countries in the RCEP, India is not an export-driven economy. Rather, like the U.S., it is an import-dependent economy whose growth is largely driven by domestic consumption.

The U.S. and India have big trade deficits in goods with the rest of the world. Through bilateral or trilateral trade deals, they can leverage outsiders’ access to their huge markets to help shape trade norms and practices. This is already the approach of U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration.

Make no mistake – India needs to become more competitive in its own right because no barrier can be high enough to protect it from China’s trade prowess. But it also true that India cannot become more competitive without curbing China’s dumping and other rapacious trade practices.

An RCEP without India could create an imbalance within that trading bloc, just as Japan, Australia, and the ASEAN states have feared. It now seems likely that China will dominate the world’s largest free trade arrangement.

America’s Debilitating Middle-East Obsession

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US President Donald Trump once seemed to recognize that, as long as the US remains mired in endless wars in the Middle East, it will be unable to address in a meaningful way the threat China poses. But that has not stopped him from perpetuating the cycle of self-defeating American interventionism in the Middle East.

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BRAHMA CHELLANEYProject Syndicate

“Great nations do not fight endless wars,” US President Donald Trump declared in his 2019 State of the Union speech. He had a point: military entanglements in the Middle East have contributed to the relative decline of American power and facilitated China’s muscular rise. And yet, less than a year after that speech, Trump ordered the assassination of Iran’s most powerful military commander, General Qassem Suleimani, bringing the United States to the precipice of yet another war. Such is the power of America’s addiction to interfering in the chronically volatile Middle East.

The US no longer has vital interests at stake in the Middle East. Shale oil and gas have made the US energy independent, so safeguarding Middle Eastern oil supplies is no longer a strategic imperative. In fact, the US has been supplanting Iran as an important source of crude oil and petroleum products for India, the world’s third-largest oil consumer after America and China. Moreover, Israel, which has become the region’s leading military power (and its only nuclear-armed state), no longer depends on vigilant US protection.

The US does, however, have a vital interest in resisting China’s efforts to challenge international norms, including through territorial and maritime revisionism. That is why Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, promised a “pivot to Asia” early in his presidency.

But Obama failed to follow through on his plans to shift America’s foreign-policy focus from the Middle East. On the contrary, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate staged military campaigns everywhere from Syria and Iraq to Somalia and Yemen. In Libya, his administration sowed chaos by overthrowing strongman Muammar el-Qaddafi in 2011. In Egypt, Obama hailed President Hosni Mubarak’s 2011 ouster.

Yet in 2013, when the military toppled Mubarak’s democratically elected successor, Mohamed Morsi, Obama opted for non-intervention, refusing to acknowledge it as a coup, and suspended US aid only briefly. This reflected the Obama administration’s habit of selective non-intervention – the approach that encouraged China, America’s main long-term rival, to become more aggressive in pursuit of its claims in the South China Sea, including building and militarizing seven artificial islands.

Trump was supposed to change this. He has repeatedly derided US military interventions in the Middle East as a colossal waste of money, claiming the US has spent $7 trillion since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. (Brown University’s Costs of War Project puts the figure at $6.4 trillion.) “We have nothing – nothing except death and destruction. It’s a horrible thing,” Trump said in 2018.

Furthermore, the Trump administration’s national-security strategy recognizes China as a “strategic competitor” – a label that it subsequently replaced with the far blunter “enemy.” And it has laid out a strategy for curbing Chinese aggression and creating a “free and open” Indo-Pacific region stretching “from Bollywood to Hollywood.”

Yet, as is so often the case, Trump’s actions have directly contradicted his words. Despite his anti-war rhetoric, Trump appointed war-mongering aides like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has been described as a “hawk brimming with bravado and ambition,” and former National Security Adviser John Bolton, who in 2015 wrote an op-ed called “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran.”

Perhaps it should be no surprise, then, that Trump has pursued a needlessly antagonistic approach to Iran. The escalation began early in his presidency, when he withdrew the US from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal (which Iran had not violated), re-imposed sanctions, and pressured America’s allies to follow suit. Furthermore, since last May, Trump has deployed 16,500 additional troops to the Middle East and sent an aircraft-carrier strike group to the Persian Gulf, instead of the South China Sea. The assassination of Suleimani was part of this pattern.

Like virtually all of America’s past interventions in the Middle East, its Iran policy has been spectacularly counterproductive. Iran has announced that it will disregard the nuclear agreement’s uranium-enrichment limits. Trump’s sanctions have increased the oil-import bill of US allies like India and deepened Iran’s ties with China, which has continued to import Iranian oil through private companies and invest billions of dollars in Iran’s oil, gas, and petrochemical sectors.

Beyond Iran, Trump has failed to extricate the US from Afghanistan, Syria, or Yemen. His administration has continued to support the Saudi-led bombing campaign against Yemen’s Houthi rebels with US military raids and sorties. As a result, Yemen is enduring the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Trump did order troops to leave Syria last October, but with so little strategic planning that the Kurds – America’s most loyal ally in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) – were left exposed to an attack from Turkey. This, together with his effort to strike a  (which is responsible for the world’s deadliest terrorist attacks), threatens to reverse his sole achievement in the Middle East: dramatically diminishing ISIS’s territorial holdings.

Making matters worse, after ordering the Syrian drawdown, Trump approved a military mission to secure the country’s oil fields. The enduring oil fixation also led Trump last April to endorse Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar, just as Haftar began laying siege to the capital, Tripoli.

The Trump administration is unlikely to change course any time soon. In fact, it has now redefined the Indo-Pacific region as extending “from California to Kilimanjaro,” thus specifically including the Persian Gulf. With this change, the Trump administration is attempting to uphold the pretense that its interventions in the Middle East serve US foreign-policy goals, even when they undermine those goals.

As long as the US remains mired in “endless wars” in the Middle East, it will be unable to address in a meaningful way the threat China poses. Trump was supposed to know this. And yet, his administration’s commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific seems likely to , while the cycle of self-defeating American interventionism in the Middle East appears set to continue.

Brahma ChellaneyBrahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, is the author of nine books, including Asian Juggernaut; Water: Asia’s New Battleground; and Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.

© Project Syndicate, 2019.

Why India-Japan ties matter more than ever

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

Whereas India-China and Japan-China ties are unlikely to become non-adversarial in the near future, the forthcoming summit between prime ministers Shinzo Abe and Narendra Modi will cement the Japan-India relationship as Asia’s fastest growing relationship, and open the path to a military logistics pact to allow access to each other’s bases. Indeed, the deepening relationship between Asia’s richest democracy and the world’s largest democracy serves the goal of forestalling the emergence of a Sino-centric Asia.

Recently, the Indian and Japanese foreign and defence ministers held their first joint meeting in a so-called “two plus two” format. India has set up such a “two plus two” dialogue with all the other Quad members. The Quad offers a promising platform for strategic maritime cooperation and coordination. But there is no guarantee that it will fulfil that promise.

The India-Japan entente is a central pillar of the U.S.-led strategy for a “free and open Indo-Pacific” — a concept authored by Abe. Today, Japan and India serve as the linchpins for establishing a rules-based Indo-Pacific order. However, US President Donald Trump’s “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy, like his predecessor’s pivot to Asia, hasn’t been translated into a clear policy approach with any real strategic heft. It is thus important for Japan and India to contribute their bit.

The evolving paradigm shift in Washington’s China policy, however, has put pressure on Chinese President Xi Jinping to improve his country’s relations with India and Japan. Xi is expected to visit Japan in the spring. Xi’s informal summit with Modi in October yielded few tangible results. But India’s commitment at Mamallapuram to enter into bilateral talks over its lopsided trade relationship with China represented a diplomatic win for Beijing. It allows China to initiate what it is good at — endless negotiations, as its 38-year-long border talks with India illustrate.

In fact, Xi, seeking to shield his country’s burgeoning trade surplus with India, sought at Mamallapuram to rope India into the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). India already has free trade agreements (FTAs) with 12 of the other 15 RCEP member-states, and is negotiating an FTA with Australia. In this light, India’s entry into the RCEP would have effectively established a China-India FTA via the backdoor.

India’s recent withdrawal from the RCEP, like the earlier US pullout from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), has created a dilemma for Japan. While Japan took the lead to establish the TPP without the US, Tokyo does not want the RCEP negotiations to conclude without India, because it would build a China-led trading bloc. This suggests Japan may not join the RCEP without India reversing its withdrawal.

Taking advantage of its considerable assets — the world’s third-largest economy, substantial high-tech skills, and a military freed of some legal and constitutional constraints — Japan is boosting its geopolitical clout. Japan’s world-class navy has already begun operating far beyond the country’s waters in order to establish its position in the region. Abe has explained why Japan and India are natural allies, “A strong India benefits Japan, and a strong Japan benefits India.”

Against this background, the Modi-Abe summit will witness the Indian and Japanese militaries clinching a logistics sharing agreement, formally known as the Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement (ACSA). A logistics sharing accord has become imperative for the two militaries, given the number of joint manoeuvres they hold, including three-way exercises involving the US navy in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific.

The plain fact is that Japan and India, in the absence of any historical baggage or major strategic disagreement, share largely complementary strategic interests. In fact, Japan has the distinction of being the only foreign power that has been allowed to undertake infrastructure and other projects in India’s sensitive northeast (bordering Myanmar, Tibet, Bhutan and Bangladesh), as well as in the Andaman and Nicobar islands.

If Japan and India continue to add concrete security content to their relationship, their strategic partnership could potentially be a game changer in Asia. The emphasis on boosting trade and investment must be balanced with greater strategic collaboration. Their first joint fighter aircraft exercise will be held in the new year in Japan.

The Abe-Modi summit offers an opportunity to discuss how the Tokyo-New Delhi duet can contribute to the larger effort to build strategic equilibrium, power stability and maritime security in the Indo-Pacific. Besides deepening defence and maritime security cooperation, Japan and India must collaborate on infrastructure and other projects in third countries, including Myanmar, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, and in Africa, to help enhance strategic connectivity in the Indo-Pacific.

India and Japan have forged a special relationship, which is set to strengthen and deepen in the coming years. At a time of global geopolitical flux, the two are among the important countries that have taken up the baton to champion freedom, international norms and rules, inclusivity, and free and fair trade.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

The End of Sri Lankan Democracy?

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At a time of growing international skepticism toward China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the Rajapaksa family’s potential return to power is welcome news for Chinese President Xi Jinping. But it is bad news for practically everyone else.

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BRAHMA CHELLANEYProject Syndicate

COLOMBO – One of Asia’s oldest democracies may be in jeopardy. Sri Lanka’s presidential election next month, is expected to bring to power another member of the Rajapaksa family, whose affinity for authoritarianism, violence, and corruption is well known. While Sri Lanka’s democracy survived the last test – an attempted constitutional coup by outgoing President Maithripala Sirisena a year ago – it may not survive a Gotabaya Rajapaksa presidency.

Gotabaya, as he is popularly known, is the current frontrunner and previously served as Sri Lanka’s defense chief under his older brother Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sirisena’s predecessor. Mahinda’s decade-long tenure, which ended in 2015, was characterized by brazen nepotism, with the four Rajapaksa brothers controlling many government ministries and about 80% of total public spending. And by steadily expanding presidential powers, Mahinda created a quasi-dictatorship known for human-rights abuses and accused of war crimes.

Moreover, Mahinda’s pro-China foreign policy allowed for the swift expansion of Chinese influence in Sri Lanka – and rapid growth in Sri Lankan debt to China. It was the debt incurred during the last Rajapaksa presidency that forced Sirisena in 2017 to  the Indian Ocean’s most strategic port, Hambantota, along with 6,070 hectares (15,000 acres) of nearby land, on a 99-year lease. This Hong Kong-style concession was modeled on the United Kingdom’s nineteenth-century colonial imposition on China.

There is little reason to doubt that Gotabaya would revive his brother’s corrosive legacy. Simply by becoming president, he could gain immunity from two lawsuits pending in US federal court over war crimes allegedly committed while he was Sri Lanka’s defense chief. (With Parliament’s restoration of presidential term limits prohibiting Mahinda from running again, Gotabaya renounced his US citizenship to become eligible to contest the election.)

Mahinda oversaw the end of Sri Lanka’s brutal 25-year civil war in 2009. But he was no agent of peace. During the war’s final years, thousands of people – from aid workers and Tamil civilians to the Rajapaksa family’s political opponents – disappeared or were tortured. And the final military offensive against the Tamil Tiger rebels was, according to the United Nations, a “grave assault on the entire regime of international law,” with as many as 40,000 civilians killed. According to the wartime military commander, Sarath Fonseka, Gotabaya ordered the summary execution of rebel leaders as they surrendered.

Despite the horrors they inflicted on Sri Lanka’s mostly Hindu Tamil minority, the Rajapaksa brothers became heroes to many among the country’s largely Buddhist Sinhalese majority. That emboldened Mahinda to step up efforts to fashion a mono-ethnic identity for a multiethnic country.

Renewing this approach, as Gotabaya is sure to do, will hardly ease the sectarian divide that triggered the civil war, let alone more recent tensions between the Sinhalese and Sri Lanka’s Muslims. Those tensions increased sharply in April, when Islamist militants carried out a series of bombings on  that killed 253 people and wounded hundreds more.

Not only was this one of the deadliest terrorist attacks in history; it was also the first major Islamist militant attack that Sri Lanka, where Muslims constitute one-tenth of the population, had ever experienced. But that doesn’t mean it was unforeseeable.

In fact, Sirisena admitted that defense and police officials had received an Indian intelligence report warning of an imminent attack and identifying the plotters, but that he had not seen it. Nor did Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe – the target of Sirisena’s attempted coup last October – receive the warning. (Sirisena abruptly fired Wickremesinghe and swore in none other than Mahinda Rajapaksa, before dissolving parliament to avoid a challenge. His actions were reversed when the Supreme Court ruled them unconstitutional.)

The Rajapaksas have already used the Islamist bombings to fan the flame of Sinhalese nationalism. And Gotabaya has promised his supporters that, if elected, he will strengthen the intelligence services and reintroduce surveillance of citizens, in order to crush Islamist extremism. The prospect of an alleged war criminal still wedded to extrajudicial methods becoming president rightly terrifies minority groups, the media, and civil-liberties advocates.

Yet there is more worrisome news. Gotayaba’s camp has also confirmed that, as president, he plans to “restore relations” with China. Given Sri Lanka’s strategic location near the world’s busiest sea-lanes, the implications of this pledge extend well beyond the island. Indeed, Sri Lanka could play a pivotal role in the struggle for maritime primacy between China and Indo-Pacific democratic powers (India, the United States, Japan, and Australia). China’s “string of pearls” strategy has been encircling India by securing strategic military and commercial facilities along major Indian Ocean shipping lanes. The Hambantota port, which Chinese President Xi Jinping described as  to his Maritime Silk Road project, is a particularly valuable pearl.

At a time of growing international skepticism toward Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative, the Rajapaksa family’s potential return to power in Sri Lanka is welcome news for China, which hopes to turn the country into a military outpost. But it is bad news for practically everyone else. A Gotabaya presidency would block already-delayed justice to victims of his brother’s regime, deepen ethnic and religious fault lines, and help China gain strategic supremacy in the Indo-Pacific. Sri Lankan democracy appears more vulnerable than ever.

Brahma ChellaneyBrahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, is the author of nine books, including Asian Juggernaut; Water: Asia’s New Battleground; and Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.

© Project Syndicate, 2019.

The Curse of Geography

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Brahma Chellaney, Open Magazine

Soon after visiting Russia, Prime Minister Narendra Modi undertook a US tour, the highlight of which was a spectacular public rally in Houston attended by 59,000 Indian-Americans, US President Donald Trump and a number of members of the US Congress. Now, shortly after Communist China turned 70, Modi is getting ready to host Chinese President Xi Jinping for an informal summit. Before long, Modi will also receive Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

These visits underline the complexity of India’s foreign-policy challenges and the imperative to advance the country’s interests at a time of greater geopolitical flux globally. The flux is being highlighted by several developments, including the US-China trade war, which is setting in motion a gradual “decoupling” of the world’s top two economies; the worsening relations between America’s main allies in East Asia, Japan and South Korea; Hong Kong’s defiant, pro-democracy movement; and the strengthening Sino-Pakistan strategic nexus. China, meanwhile, still pursues aggression in the South China Sea, as exemplified by its ongoing coercion against Vietnamese oil and gas activities within Vietnam’s own exclusive economic zone.

If Hong Kong’s mass movement loses to Chinese authoritarianism, the implications will not be limited to that city. Indeed, it could embolden Beijing’s designs against Taiwan and its territorial revisionism against India, Japan, Vietnam and others.

Against this backdrop, Modi’s foreign policy will likely continue to be guided by a non-doctrinaire vision. India, a founder leader of the nonaligned movement, now makes little mention of nonalignment. Shorn of ideology, Indian foreign policy has sought to revitalize the country’s economic and military security, while avoiding having to overtly choose one power over another as a dominant partner. India believes in friendship without dependence.

At the core of India’s foreign-policy and security challenges, however, is the reality that the country is located arguably in the world’s most troubled neighbourhood. India confronts a “tyranny of geography” — that is, serious external threats from virtually all directions. To some extent, it is a self-inflicted tyranny. India’s security concerns in the region partially stem from the failures of its past policies.

The increasingly unstable neighbourhood, however, is not of India’s making. The instability and volatility not only make it more difficult to promote regional cooperation and integration, but also heighten the spillover effects for India, threatening the country’s internal security.

Looking ahead, India can expect no respite in pressure from China, whose October 1 grand parade commemorating 70 years of Communist Party rule was a reminder that it has emerged as the world’s longest-surviving, strongest and largest autocracy. This is a country increasingly oriented to the primacy of the Communist Party. Indeed, attempts to bend reality to the illusions and disinformation that the state propagates risk turning China into a modern-day Potemkin state.

China’s occupation of Tibet in 1950-51 represented the most far-reaching geopolitical development for India’s security in modern history. It gave China borders with India, Bhutan and Nepal for the first time, and opened the path to a Sino-Pakistan strategic axis. The impact has been exacerbated by serial Indian blunders.

Today, Tibet remains at the centre of the India-China divide, fuelling territorial disputes, diplomatic tensions and riparian feuds. The more India has aligned its Tibet stance with China’s position, including recognizing that sprawling region as part of China, the more Beijing has upped the ante against New Delhi. Tellingly, Beijing began calling Arunachal Pradesh “South Tibet” only after the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2003 formally recognized Tibet as part of China.

As Asia’s geographical hub, China is especially vulnerable to the same geopolitical game it plays against India or Japan — strategic containment. A grand strategy among other powers to manage a muscular China could aim to put discreet checks on the exercise of Chinese power by establishing counterbalancing coalitions around that country’s periphery. However, Trump, with his unilateralist and protectionist priorities, has still to provide strategic heft to his policy of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” — a concept authored by Abe.

With India’s vulnerability to terrorist attacks linked to its location next to the Afghanistan-Pakistan (“Af-Pak”) belt, the Indian government has little choice but to prepare for a long-term battle against the forces of Islamic extremism and terrorism. In fact, to India’s west, lies “an arc of crises stretching from Jordan to Pakistan”, to quote the title of one of the workshops at the 2008 World Policy Conference at Evian, France. Historically, invaders and plunderers came into the subcontinent from India’s west.

Pakistan’s present nexus with terrorist groups arose under two military dictators: Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, who died in a mysterious plane crash in 1988, and Pervez Musharraf, who fled overseas in 2008 under threat of impeachement and was subsequently charged with involvement in the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in 2007 — a milestone in Pakistan’s slide into chaos. Pakistan is now a classical example of a praetorian state where the military dominates the core political institutions and processes and calls the shots in strategic policies.

Pakistan’s military generals rarely trust their civilian proxies. Indeed, the army chief and the head of the rogue Inter-Services Intelligence agency accompanied Prime Minister Imran “Taliban” Khan when he visited Washington in July. Khan’s jihad-extolling, warmongering address to the United Nations General Assembly last month showed the depths to which the Pakistani state has sunk. In fact, this newest puppet of the Pakistani military has, in the name of Allah, publicly declared a jihad on India, including on what he calls a “fascist” Modi government.

India since independence has taken a cautious and reactive approach to strategic threats and challenges, despite facing repeated aggressions. Over the past three decades in particular, India’s external security environment has worsened and regional clout eroded. Yet the country has shied away from hard decisions.

An important break from this pattern was the Modi government’s decision in August to rejig the constitutional status of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) — an action that received Parliament’s imprimatur with overwhelming support. J&K’s special powers and privileges were revoked, Ladakh was carved out as a separate entity, and the misogynist Article 35A repealed — all in one fell swoop.

Three decades of a Pakistan-backed Islamist insurrection in the Kashmir Valley forced the government to change the status quo. Pakistan, carved out of India by the British as the first Islamic state of the post-colonial era, has emerged as the fountainhead of Islamic extremism and terrorism – or, as former US defence secretary James Mattis says in his new book, the world’s “most dangerous” country. A secular, democratic India can never allow an Islamic emirate in the Kashmir Valley because that would mean a second terrorism-exporting Pakistan on its borders.

Pakistan and China together hold 55 per cent of J&K but neither grants any autonomy to its portion of the region. Indeed, Beijing has never allowed foreign media into its J&K portion, which it has turned into a vast cantonment. Yet, Pakistan and China have hypocritically protested against New Delhi’s action in stripping the Indian part of J&K of its special constitutional powers.

Even if the Indian J&K’s special autonomous status had continued, India would still have faced the Sino-Pakistan pincer movement in that region. Indeed, the special status came to be seen by Pakistan and China as Indian acceptance that just the Indian portion of J&K is a disputed territory, thus encouraging the two partners to up the ante against New Delhi.

The plain fact is that India is uniquely wedged between two nuclear-armed allies that defy basic international norms. The China-Pakistan axis represents a dangerous combination of an ascendant communist power and an aggressive Islamist neighbour, with both staking claims to swathes of Indian-administered territory.

New Delhi may have managed reasonably well the international fallout from its J&K action, with only Turkey, Malaysia, Pakistan and China (the new Quad) openly slamming India for the move. India, however, continues to get bad international press, in part because the anti-elite Modi government has failed to grasp the importance of the media in the 21st century. The Prime Minister’s Office does not have even a spokesperson. Distortion of facts thus is allowed to go unchallenged.

Commentaries in the Western press have harped on alleged Indian repression and human-rights abuses in the Kashmir Valley, with some writers claiming to see the rise of an “authoritarian” India under Modi, as if the present Indian government has abridged fundamental rights of Indians or undermined judicial independence and press freedom. Such negative and damaging portrayal is beginning to take its toll on India’s international image. It is past time for the government to wake up to the vital importance of public relations and media handling.

Add to the picture the fact that India has become increasingly polarized and divided. Indians either love or loathe Modi.

A dynamic diplomacy and sound national security management need strong, bipartisan policies. But India’s British-style parliamentary democracy has fostered a fractious polity. Britain’s own Brexit mess highlights that the British-type parliamentary system is rife with serious inefficiencies. In India, building bipartisanship has long been tough but more so now due to greater political polarization and rancour.

Domestic critics, for example, claim that Modi has a presidential (or autocratic) style of governance. The truth, however, is that India since independence has been largely led by prime ministers who have acted more like presidents — from Jawaharlal Nehru and his daughter, Indira Gandhi, to Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the first Bharatiya Janata Party prime minister who made the country a nuclear-weapons state by overtly conducting nuclear tests. Only weak, fractious governments in India have been different.

MODI’S RETURN TO POWER in a landslide election victory earlier this year reflected the desire of Indians for a dynamic, assertive leadership that reinvents India as a more secure, confident and competitive country. In contrast to his first term, which failed to dispel India’s image as a soft state, Modi’s second term raises hope that India would not recoil from taking hard decisions. His government’s most pressing challenges relate to national security and economic growth.

At a time when the yawning power gap between India and China has widened, New Delhi has to avert a destabilizing military imbalance with Beijing. It also needs to more effectively tackle a scofflaw Pakistan. India must reinvigorate its foreign policy to reverse its waning influence in its own backyard, including in countries long symbiotically tied to it, such as Nepal and Sri Lanka.

More broadly, some see India as a key “swing state” in the emerging geopolitical order. India, however, is already swinging in one direction, thanks to China’s territorial revisionism and muscular foreign policy.

A multi-aligned India under Modi is tilting towards the other major democracies, as the Australia-India-Japan-US Quad grouping underscores. India is now a “major defence partner” of the US, with which it holds more military exercises than with any other country. The US has also emerged as India’s largest arms supplier.

As the Houston rally attested, the Cold War-era India-Russia camaraderie has been replaced by India-US bonhomie. It is highly unusual for an American president to take the stage at a foreign leader’s rally on American soil. But Trump shares with Modi a love for big audiences and theatrics.

Still, India can scarcely depend on an unpredictable Trump administration, whose transactional approach to foreign policy is troubling all US allies and strategic partners. Therefore, India is wisely shoring up its partnerships with all key players. In fact, Indian and American interests diverge in India’s own neighbourhood.

For example, despite last month’s collapse of a tentative US deal with the Afghan Taliban, Trump is courting Pakistan, even though it provides safe havens to the Taliban and is home to 25 United Nations-designated terrorist entities. A Kashmir mediation offer is a red rag to India. Yet Trump has repeatedly offered to mediate that conflict.

Meanwhile, Washington, not content with having emerged as the largest seller of arms to India, is seeking to lock New Delhi as its exclusive arms client by using the threat of sanctions to deter it from buying major Russian weapons, including the S-400 air defence system. Furthermore, US pressure has driven up India’s oil import bill by stopping it from buying crude at concessional rates from Iran or Venezuela. The US seeks to supplant Iran as a major oil supplier to India. But it has been selling India crude at a higher price than Iran.

Washington said recently that it is “highly gratified” by India’s full compliance with US sanctions against Iran. The soaring crude prices after the loss of nearly 6% of global oil output in recent drone strikes in Saudi Arabia, however, has served as a reminder to New Delhi of the costs of halting all Iranian oil imports. To punish New Delhi for abiding by US sanctions, Iran is threatening to replace India with China as the developer of its Chabahar port, a project that is central to an Indian transportation corridor to Afghanistan.

That Pakistan-bypassing corridor shows that India’s relationship with Iran is more than just about oil. US sanctions, however, are aiding China while undermining Indian interests. Under a new accord with Tehran, China will invest $280 billion in Iran’s oil, gas and petrochemical sectors, deploy at least 5,000 troops to protect its projects there, and import oil at discounted prices.

Against this background, India must carefully balance closer cooperation with major players in a way that advances its own economic and security interests. India, for example, relies on Russian spare parts for its Russian-made military hardware. More importantly, Russia has transferred to India offensive weapons that the US does not export, such as an aircraft carrier and a nuclear-powered submarine. So ties to Moscow remain important.

In fact, the China factor has always been central to India’s strategic ties with Moscow. In 1971, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi skillfully engineered Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan by entering into a friendship treaty with Moscow. The treaty, with a mutual-security assistance clause, helped deter China from opening a second front against India. As the declassified Richard Nixon-Henry Kissinger transcripts attested, this duo sought to egg on China to attack India when Indian forces intervened to end the East Pakistan genocide (in which up to 3 million people were killed and nearly 400,000 women were raped, with almost 10 million fleeing to India).

Modi’s recent visit to Vladivostok underscored that Russia, with its strategic capabilities and vantage position in Eurasia, remains a key country for India’s geopolitical interests. Russia shares India’s objective for a stable power balance on a continent that China seeks to dominate.

Against this background, India will likely continue to chart an independent course. After all, cautious pragmatism drives Modi’s foreign policy. A multi-aligned India pursuing omnidirectional cooperation for mutual benefit with key players will be better positioned to advance its security and economic interests.

Regionally, with the tyranny of geography putting greater pressure on its external and internal security, India needs to develop more innovative approaches to diplomacy and national defence. Only through more vigorous defence and foreign policies can India hope to ameliorate its regional-security situation, freeing it to play a larger global role. Otherwise, it will continue to be weighed down by its region.

To be sure, India has been imbibing greater realism as its quixotic founding philosophy centred on non-violence assumes a largely rhetorical meaning. Yet India remains intrinsically reactive, instead of being proactive. The compulsions of electoral politics make it difficult for those in power to take a long-term view that does not confound tactics with strategy. Yet, without proactive diplomacy and national defence, India will continue to punch far below its weight.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books.

© Open Magazine, 2019.