Even though President Joe Biden was sworn in as scheduled, following the high voltage drama on Capitol Hill – the insurrection by large crowds, the storming of America’s temples of democracy and Trump’s impeachment – President Biden cannot easily escape the shadow of his predecessor, especially as he looks at the world map, once his national security team is sworn in, after all the delays.
And once he has addressed the damage to America’s ties with friends and allies, he will need to look at China more carefully now than he did, when he was Vice President under President Barack Obama. It is clearly a different world – and not just because of the havoc played by Covid-19 – but as the US and China are clearly poised for global rivalry, perhaps for a long, long time to come. To that extent, Mr Biden’s biggest challenge would be to contain the rise of China, but it’s a juggernaut that’ll be hard to contain.
As a parting shot, Mr Trump’s NSA, Robert O’Brien had declassified the Trump administration’s policy for Asia, titled: “United States Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific”. The document had been used as a source of “strategic guidance” for the US’ actions since 2018. Clearly, the purpose of doing this was to put Mr Biden’s government in a corner, since there are now two areas where there is consensus amongst almost anybody who matters in the US, and that is, the challenge that China poses and the opportunities that India offers, to the US. And this document is about all this and some more.
And though there is little mention of the specific military strategies that China would deploy to assert its regional dominance – in the declassified US document – there is an explicit reference to Beijing’s “proliferation of its digital surveillance, information controls, and influence operations [that] will damage US efforts to promote our values and national interests in the Indo-Pacific region and, increasingly, in the Western hemisphere and at home.” That China would use every available means to achieve its ‘Vision for 2050’, even as Communist China turns a hundred years old in 2021, is a given. How it would do that, is what the world- particularly the US – must prepare for.
The strategy document says that the US should ‘build an international consensus against China’s industrial policies and unfair trading practices that are damaging the global trading system’, but that appears increasingly difficult with America’s western allies in the European Union signing a trade deal with China before the swearing-in of Mr Biden. The US must therefore either go it alone against China or with its ‘Quad’ partners: Australia, Japan and India.
This would appear the best grouping for the US to hinge their ‘Indo-Pacific policies’, because Australia – that helped put this strategy document together – is now at loggerheads with China, while Japan and China have had a long-standing rivalry, and India is faced with the ‘dragon at its door’ and preparing for the worst-case scenarios if push comes to shove over the boundary disputes. No wonder the document states that India has a central role to play in the region.
Thus the US wants to push for a significant increase in military, diplomatic and intelligence support to India, which is seen by Washington as the main regional counterweight to China. More so, as many of China’s strategic goals in its border areas are driven by aims to capture, control and divert common water resources, over and above its expansionist mindset. Interestingly, this document was written in 2017-18, and a good two years before China made its advances into Ladakh.
It is another matter that India’s policy planners failed to read China’s mind. All that we heard was that the ‘spirit of Wuhan’ and ‘the Chennai meeting’ would help us tide over any challenge that China would present! Thus, when news of intrusions did become public, our policymakers were scrambling for answers just like South Block was during the Kargil intrusions. Since then, India’s Army has firmed up on the disputed frontlines, but what is lost will perhaps be so, forever, just like the Chinese occupation of Aksai Chin. Nobody can offer a cogent plan beyond their claims that diplomacy will find a solution like Krishna Menon did in the 1960s!
However, the US has a plan. But it wants India to choose sides. As the outgoing US ambassador to India, Kenneth Juster, said, “New Delhi might like to keep options open, but it would ultimately need to make its choices”. He was referring to the long-standing relationship between India and Russia, and India’s dependence on Russian weapon systems. This irks the Americans.
But India’s challenge is to keep the Russians on its side, more so as Moscow and Beijing have drawn closer together in recent years.
Russia or China
Russia and China jointly produce several weapon platforms for land, sea and air warfare; and China buys 14% of Russian’s exports, India a mere 1.7%. China supplies Russia with 22% of its imports, while India with 1.6%. But India’s purchases of Russian military platforms – like the $ 5.4 billion worth S-400 air defence systems despite American warnings against it – and the recent fast-tracked purchases of Sukhoi-30 MKI and MiG-29 fighters, when the Chinese built up forces to grab territory along the LAC in Ladakh. Thus, by keeping the Russian arms industry oiled, India keeps them away from a full bear hug with the Chinese.
Simultaneously, however, New Delhi has kept Washington pleased too, as it engages the US in ‘arms diplomacy’. Over the past decade, the US has become the largest arms supplier to India, despite complaints of American aircraft manufacturers over India’s choice of Rafale fighters instead of a US-made F-series fighter jet. India has since 2008, bought US made C-130J and C-17 military transport aircraft, P-81 maritime patrol aircraft, CH-47 Chinook heavy-lift helicopters (heptrs) and the AH-64 Apache attack helicopters (heptrs).
And apart from these, India has also purchased the US-made Harpoon anti-ship missiles and the MH-60 Seahawk maritime heptrs, and will soon finalise a 30 Drones deal for either the MQ-9 Reaper or the Predator-B drones. All this has added up to sales of over US$ 20 billion worth military equipment, and even more likely to follow.
Here lies the challenge: should India stick out its neck in the high seas to assist the US against China, if Washington expects India to counter Chinese territorial expansion on the Himalayas on its own? This is a decision that Mr Biden’s advisers must address without delay, otherwise, India would have to shop elsewhere.
It is well known that military technology sales – either in a Govt to Govt deal through the FMS route, or even if it is sold by the manufacturer – needs the approval of the US government as military technology are the ‘crown jewels’ of the countries that manufacture them. But what is now needed is for the US to part with important know-how – as the Russians have done in the past – to allow India to attain self-sufficiency in defence manufacturing.
Since the declassified document states that the “US should be India’s preferred partner on security issues. The two could cooperate to preserve maritime security and counter Chinese influence in South and Southeast Asia and other regions of mutual concern.”
Here lies the challenge: should India stick out its neck in the high seas to assist the US against China, if Washington expects India to counter Chinese territorial expansion on the Himalayas on its own? This is a decision that Mr Biden’s advisers must address without delay, otherwise, India would have to shop elsewhere and the American objective of having India to ‘act as a counterbalance to China’ would remain a work in progress. Here lies Mr Biden’s big challenge; and even a bigger opportunity to counter China, with India fully on his side.
–The story earlier appeared on timesnownews.com