If the US is a declining power and China’s rise inevitable in the Indo-Pacific; if Russia regards itself as a global power and is determined to bury the US-dominated rules-based order; if the defeat of the US and NATO in the Ukraine war has become a fait accompli; if Canada was encouraged by the US to fret and fume over alleged Indian involvement in Nijjar’s killing; if Israel’s bloodbath in Gaza is actually genocide — well, India’s policymakers haven’t heard any of this. That is the message coming out of the US-Indian 2+2 foreign and defence ministers meeting in New Delhi on November 10.
The big picture is that after audaciously claiming the mantle of leadership of the Global South as recently as in September, in a span of over two months, India is gliding over to the American camp as the US’ indispensable ally, even aspiring to be a “global defence hub”, with the help of the Pentagon.
Some takeaways of the 2+2 meeting:
- Sharing technology relating to “maritime challenges, including in the undersea domain”;
- Co-development and co-production of ground mobility systems;
- India to undertake US aircraft maintenance and mid-voyage repair of US naval vessels;
- US investment in India’s maintenance, repair and overhaul of US aircraft and UAVs;
- Finalisation of a Security of Supply Arrangement, which would deepen the integration of defence industrial ecosystems and strengthen supply chain resilience;
- Creation of new liaison positions between the two armed forces further to India’s full membership of the multinational Combined Maritime Forces, headquartered in Bahrain;
- Maximisation of the scope of the Logistics and Exchange Memorandum Agreement, and identify steps to enhance the reach of the US naval vessels to Indian bases.
No doubt, the above is only the tip of the iceberg, while this extraordinary transition in Indian policies will largely remain behind closed-doors. The US seems supremely confident that India is ready to enter into an exclusive alliance, something that New Delhi never sought with any big power. What is the offer that the Biden Administration has made to India that the latter cannot refuse?
Clearly, such a massive shift in India’s military policies needs to be correlated with the fundamental postulates of foreign policy. But call it “bipartisan consensus” or whatever, India’s main Opposition party apparently doesn’t care. This is not surprising. The shift is actually about a nascent India-US alliance to counter China — and that is a policy front where it is difficult to choose between Tweedledum and Tweedledee.
Russia and China understand that Indian foreign policy is transitioning, but they pretend not to notice. At any rate, their capacity to leverage Indian policies has dramatically shrunk — Moscow’s in particular.
India is not ecstatic about growing multipolarity. It is a beneficiary of the “rules-based order” and feels far more comfortable with a bipolar world in which the US is pre-eminent, developing its national power with China’s hegemonic instincts in check. Today, India’s willingness to align with the US is more evident than ever before. The animus against China’s rise was palpable at the 2+2 meeting. India has cast away any residual pretensions and is shifting toward an openly adversarial relationship with China. The Quad has become an important locomotive. To be sure, a Chinese response can be expected.
This is possible because Delhi feels reasonably assured that Washington’s Indo-Pacific focus remains intact under the Biden administration, despite growing engagement with China ― Xi Jinping’s first trip to the US in five years, and a summit meeting with President Biden to make the Sino-American relationship more predictable.
The three regional issues that figured prominently at the 2+2 were Afghanistan, Ukraine and the Palestine-Israel conflict. The Joint Statement devoted a separate paragraph subtitled Afghanistan, which implicitly accused the Taliban of not adhering to their “commitment to prevent any group or individual from using the territory of Afghanistan to threaten the security of any country.” It pointedly recalls UNSC Resolution 2593 (2021), which specifically “demands that Afghan territory not be used to threaten or attack any country or to shelter or train terrorists, or to plan or finance terrorist attacks.”
Delhi is making a radical departure from its attempts to constructively engage with the Taliban rulers. One reason could be intelligence inputs to the effect that Afghanistan is once again becoming a revolving door for international terrorist groups.
Also, both the US and India are exasperated about the Taliban’s growing proximity with China and the spectre of Afghanistan turning into a hub of the Belt and Road Initiative. Beijing’s plan to build a road connecting Afghanistan via Wakhan Corridor is a game-changer in geo-strategy. The security of Xinjiang is a matter of incessant interest to Delhi.
The 2+2 joint statement signals a renewed US-Indian convergence on Afghanistan. How far this would translate into proactive moves is a moot point. Notably, the US and its allies are also exploiting Russia’s preoccupations with the conflict in Ukraine to double down on their post-Cold War strategy to roll back Russian influence in Afghanistan. Moscow senses that it is losing ground in its backyard.
On Ukraine and the Palestine-Israel conflict, the US and Indian sides have harmonised their positions. Delhi is shedding its strategic ambivalence and moving towards the US position. This comes out in what the joint statement says, and what it doesn’t. On Ukraine, Russia’s attritional war has “consequences predominantly affecting the global South.” This apart, Moscow can learn to live with the 2+2 formulation on the Ukraine war.
As regards the West Asian situation, the joint statement voices vehement support for Israel’s fight against “terrorism”. Here, again, India refuses to call out Hamas. Nor is India endorsing Israel’s war on Hamas, leave alone pre-judge its chances of success. Most important, the joint statement omits any reference to Israel’s so-called “right to self-defence”, a mantra that is constantly on Biden’s lips.
India cannot possibly call the Gaza war an act of “self defence” when Israel has unleashed such a brutal military operation against hapless civilians and razed Gaza City to the ground. It’s reminiscent of the joint British-American aerial bombing attack on Dresden during World War II, which killed over 25,000 German people on the night of March 9-10, 1945.
Perhaps all these diplomatic peregrinations through the Valley of Death could be better understood against the backdrop of the intense back-channel dealings involving the Hamas leadership in regional capitals, in which the Biden administration would have high stakes and is a participant.
M.K. Bhadrakumar is a retired diplomat.
This piece, excerpted from Indianpunchline.com was first published on The India Cable – a premium newsletter from The Wire & Galileo Ideas – and has been updated and republished here. To subscribe to The India Cable, click here.