No Free Lunches: The Significance of a 'Warning' From China and the US Defence Secretary's Visit

This is the moment of reckoning for India, especially Modi, who is the singular force behind India’s statecraft and diplomacy. Both the US and China want its support.

China has accomplished deterrence in the western Pacific region against the US military as well as the land border with India four years ahead of the People’s Liberation Army’s  centennial 2027 timeline. And it is on track to achieve deterrence across two oceans: the western Pacific and the Indian ocean, perhaps, once again ahead of its self-assigned deadline of 2035.

This would imply its full military modernisation for combat in the Asia-Pacific theatre. With focus now on its blue-water navy for deterrence in the Indian Ocean region, China will be closely watching India’s defence and military partnership with the US. In this context, US defence secretary Llyod Austin’s recent India visit assumes significance.

Coming to its deterrence in the western Pacific region, in October 2020, PLA expert Li Jie wrote, ‘By 2027, the Chinese military will have the ability to effectively deal with threats brought by the hegemonism and power politics in western Pacific region, including issues related to Taiwan question and the South China Sea (SCS), as well as border tensions between China and India.’

The evidence of this was on full display at the recently concluded Shangri la dialogue in Singapore. Despite a request by Washington, China refused a meeting between US defence secretary Lloyd Austin and its defence minister, Gen. Li Shangfu, to discuss military guardrails on the side-lines of the dialogue. It made it clear that it will meet the US only as an equal, implying that the US must lift the sanctions it imposed on Gen. Shangfu. Since 2018, the defence minister has been under US sanctions for buying Russian Su-35 and S-400 systems for the PLA.

The importance of this refusal for a meeting lies in its context. The PLA and the US military recently had two close encounters – in the air over the South China Sea and on the seas in the Taiwan Strait. Yet, instead of trying to defuse tensions with the US, China has dug its heels in, broadcasting a message to the western Pacific region that it was prepared for war with the US.

There was a message for India too, which was conveyed by PLA senior colonel Zhao Xiaozhuo. He said, ‘India will not pose a security threat to China because it is still incapable of challenging Beijing in defence manufacturing and modernisation of its military.’

At Shangri la, Austin’s speech was about strengthening the US’s Indo-Pacific deterrence – called integrated deterrence – by buttressing the capabilities of its military allies (Japan, Australia, South Korea, Thailand, Philippines), partners (Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam, and India), and Nato Plus nations. This requires every member nation to become a part of the US-led defence network for shared military assessments, intelligence, and operations backed by commonality of hardware and software, interoperability, familiarity with all combat theatres, and advanced exercises. The US wants its integrated deterrence strategy which will include critical and emerging technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI) to become operational before the PLA acquires deterrence across the two oceans to dominate the entire Indo-Pacific region.

Also read: Can India Become Vital to China’s Plans to Dismantle the US-Centred World Order?

In this, India is important for the US since it sits astride the Indian Ocean with a massive size military and is the biggest global arms importer. Interestingly, while unwilling to combat or compete with China, India wants to be counted by world leaders as its equal in a multipolar world. Conscious that India remains a reluctant military bulwark against the PLA, the Pentagon has taken four steps.

One, in 2016, it conferred the title of major defence partner on India, a first for the US, since India did not want to be a non-Nato ally which could be interpreted as a partner with combat obligations. This led to India purchasing US defence platforms worth US $ 20 billion.

Two, in 2018, the Pentagon re-named its Pacific Command as Indo-Pacific command (INDOPACOM) to give centrality to India in its regional strategy against China, and to suggest that Modi’s Act East policy had, in strategic terms, synchronised India’s area of interest with its area of influence which traditionally was limited to the Indian Ocean from the strait of Malacca to the strait of Hormuz. The inaugural India-ASEAN naval exercise held in May in the SCS should be seen in this context. Moreover, India will participate in an advanced naval exercise with Quad nations (the US, Japan, Australia, India) in August to be held off Australia’s east coast.

Three, once India signed the four military foundation agreements which qualified it to become a part of the US’s regional defence network, Washington encouraged India to expand its footprints with Quad nations for maritime domain awareness, with the US military for intelligence and assessments sharing, and for discussions on maritime cooperation in the undersea domain (300 feet below sea level), space and Artificial Intelligence (AI) to incentivise interoperability.

And four, the US has decided to draw a bilateral roadmap for the next level of interoperability by sharing some critical and emerging technologies with India. This explains Austin’s recent India visit where he shared the INDUS-X event plan as part of the Initiative on Critical and Emerging Technology (iCET) with India’s defence minister and national security advisor. To be launched by the US-India Business Council during the state visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi later this month, INDUS-X will connect the national security innovation ecosystems of the two nations for research, development, and production of dual-use critical and emerging technologies like cyber, 5G wireless, software networks, AI and so. The US aim for doing this is to bring India’s military capabilities to the level where it integrates with the US’s next level of integrated deterrence called Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2) strategy.

Also read: Biden White House Should ‘Harbour No Illusions’ of India’s Support Against China: Ashley Tellis

According to the US Joint Chief, Gen. Mark Miller, the JADC2 strategy requires all services to be networked to bring information into a single operating centre for all services. Thus, instead of fighting wars as army, air force, navy, the marines, and space forces, the US military would fight wars as a nation with allies and partners (including India) in INDOPACOM. The underlying idea of JADC2 would be to make data/information from all war domains available to every participant including allies and partners in their command-and-control centres.

The US’s real purpose is to prepare the Indian military for a combat role as a net security provider in the Indian Ocean region against China. However, the stated purpose is to help India develop its defence industrial base with infusion of technology, expertise, and best management practices. This sounds good to India since it (a) raises Prime Minister Modi’s global profile, and (b) helps India get new age technologies.

The flip side is that there are no free lunches. The US will not share its cutting-edge technologies with India, and it is known to shift goalposts. For example, for all the glee in India about the 2008 Indo-US civil nuclear deal without US interference in its strategic (nuclear) programme during the tenure of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (he too got a state visit to the US), the US was focussed on a single objective: non-proliferation. Similarly, the Pentagon will concentrate on preparing India to play a role in the US’s integrated deterrence. All this is being monitored by China.

Meanwhile, the other watched speech at Shangri La was by Gen. Shangfu. In sharp contrast to Austin who sought support for the US’s integrated deterrence, the Chinese defence minister spoke of inclusive and collective security under the United Nations through the Global Security Initiative (GSI) which is supported by Russia. The GSI has three attributes: mutual respect, peaceful coexistence, and win-win cooperation. The latter was first offered by Chinese President Xi Jinping to Modi at the 2018 Wuhan summit where the Indian Prime Minister accepted the China-India Plus (one nation) formula for win-win cooperation. The formula meant that India and China would together help developing smaller nations (like Nepal, Bhutan and so on) with connectivity for their prosperity. While Modi accepted Xi’s idea for peace in Doklam ahead of the 2019 general elections, India has no intention of implementing it since given its deep pockets and expertise in international infrastructure development, China would automatically assume leadership in South Asia.

Also read: Indulging in Bluster With China, the Modi Government Is Overplaying its Foreign Policy Hand

Today, there is one more reason why India cannot cooperate with China as it would lose the support of the US and western leaders, and this will dent Modi’s image as a global leader the West thinks it can do business with. Thus, despite India having signed the September 10, 2020, joint statement with China in Moscow under the rubric of Russia-India-China (RIC) umbrella for peace on the border and a new modus vivendi for cooperation, India, from China’s perspective, has once again reneged on its commitment.

Two visits by the Chinese foreign minister and one by its defence minister were recently made to India to urge India to move towards normalised bilateral relations without any result. The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit to be held in July in Delhi has been converted to virtual mode as Modi would not like to meet Xi at time when he is being feted in the US.

For sure, China does not want war with India since it would harm its peaceful rise narrative. Moreover, war will impede momentum of the deep changes in the global geopolitical and economic orders that China (with Russia’s support) is bringing about. India is an important member of SCO and BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) which are dynamic organisations and are at the heart of the big changes in the global orders.

This is the moment of reckoning for India, especially Modi who is the singular force behind India’s statecraft and diplomacy. Both the US and China want its support. It cannot be a balancer for long. What PLA senior colonel Zhao said at Shangri la on India’s military capabilities was not empty rhetoric. It was a veiled warning.

Pravin Sawhney tweets at @PravinSawhney. His latest book is The Last War: How AI Will Shape India’s Final Showdown with China.