Some 2-3 years back or so, I received an emailed letter from a Joint Secretary in MEA asking for what I thought India’s foreign policy priorities should be. It was perhaps a form letter sent out to others as well. I thought it was a bit late in the day for the Modi regime to ask for policy recommendations four years into its first term, and to me signaled an official acknowledgement that the earlier priorities — whatever they were — hadn’t worked. Nevertheless, I dutifully wrote back listing them with thumbnail justifications for each of them.
The list repeated the priorities I had, incidentally, put on a paper and handed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi in November 2014 the only time he had called me in for “consultation”. I was part of an odd assortment of analysts, MEA beat reporters, a television channel’s “strategic affairs expert”, an owner-cum-editor-in-chief, and such like. Each of us had 5-minutes and then were treated to the PM’s ideas about this and that but mainly his achievements in Gujarat. There were no official note-takers, no follow-up, and the whole thing was a waste of time.
In contrast was the session I had (along with one or two other analysts) with Dr. Manmohan Singh over breakfast in mid-September 2004 on the eve of his first visit to the US to attend the UN General Assembly meeting. It was a proper and meaty discussion with lot of exchanges and the prime minister asking questions. On the PM’s side of the table were arrayed, among others, the NSA, Mani Dixit, and his Personal Private Secretary, TKA Nair (ex-IAS, Punjab cadre), both busily taking notes. I remember urging the PM to speak to President George W. Bush when they met on the sidelines in Hotel Astoria in New York about the need for a fairer, more equitable, nuclear order, failing to realize which, to say, India would feel free to test again and do whatever else was necessary to beef up its nuclear security. I also suggested he reinforce this message to the US government by repeating it publicly while in that city.
Gratifyingly, Singh told Bush what I had suggested, and repeated these points in a speech delivered a day later at an NRI function on Long Island. Perhaps, alarmed by what Bush heard, Washington got to work and, in conjunction with the usual suspects at this end, quickly turned Manmohan Singh. By the time the PM next visited the US in July 2005 he had committed to the strategically disastrous civilian nuclear cooperation deal that furthered the US nuclear nonproliferation goals by, for all intents and purposes, prohibiting the resumption of nuclear tests by India. The deal was negotiated by the then Joint Secretary (Americas) in MEA — one Subrahmanyam Jaishankar. The relentless criticism by a few of us about the prospective deal during the time it was being negotiated in 2005-2008 was used by Jaishankar — so he let it be known — to temper the ask by the US negotiators. (Just how merciless and on-point the criticism was may be gauged from reading the op-eds and other writings in that period by the four of us — Drs PK Iyengar, former chairman Atomic Energy Commission, AN Prasad, former director BARC and head of the plutonium reprocessing unit, and A Gopalakrishnan, ex-chairman, Atomic Regulatory Commission, and myself compiled in a 2009 book ‘Strategic Sellout: Indo-American Nuclear Deal’). Considering Jaishankar gave away the store in the most one-sided deal imaginable, one wonders what he thinks he got from the Americans. And, of course, I wasn’t called for consultation by Manmohan Singh again.
To revert to the session with Modi at 7, Race Course Road, given the time constraints I only argued the importance of the country using its hard power strategically. And in the paper given to the PM, I listed what his foreign and military policy priorities should be, reprising in bullet points some of the themes featured in my writings and books, particularly ‘Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)’ published a year later in 2015. The priorities included restarting open-ended nuclear testing, treating China as primary threat, using the Taiwan and Tibet cards and equating Tibet and Kashmir as leverage against Beijing, nuclear missile arming Vietnam and other Southeast Asian nations as a belated coercive counter to China’s deliberate transfer of nuclear weapons and missiles to Pakistan, and accelerated development of Indian air and naval bases in the Indian Ocean and points east (Northern Mozambique, North & South Agalega Islands in Mauritius, Trincomalee in Sri Lanka, Seychelles, the former RAF base on Gan Island in the Maldives, Na Thrang ion the central Vietnamese coast, etc) and particularly of relations with Iran as India’s strategic linchpin pivoting on the Chahbahar port.
Six years into his tenure and a year into his second term as prime minister, Modi has flapped around endlessly on terrorism and Pakistan, supplicated the Trump Administration on the H1B visa issue in the process encouraging Indian IT talent to be siphoned off to the US, signed the ‘foundational accords’, and tried to win some goodwill by buying high-value US military hardware, only to be rebuffed by Washington. The H1B visa was closed and there is little else to show for Modi’s hug and bumble diplomatic efforts. And he has tried to cultivate the Chinese supremo Xi Jinping with worse results. India got kneecapped in Ladakh. Modi is obviously a glutton for punishment because he is still pursuing a conciliatory China policy propelled by his own, strangely pacific, instincts where China is concerned backed by his MEA minion S. Jaishankar’s wrong advice.
It is clear the Indian government historically has had no clue about how to deal with China, and the Modi regime is as befuddled, relying as all previous regimes have done on the China Study Group/Circle to give policy direction. The CSG comprises a changing bunch of usually bumptious and blundering mandarin-speaking Sinophiles from MEA, intelligence agencies, and the military who are strategic dupes — latter day versions of Richard Condon’s ‘Manchurian candidates’ beavering away to advance Chinese interests. Modi has, however, compounded his and CSG’s mistakes of going overboard with China with his equally feckless policy of alienating almost all nations in South Asia and in the extended region, especially Iran. The result is a collision of policy streams that is sinking the Indian national interest with China emerging as the short and long term tactical and strategic beneficiary. It is almost as if Delhi had been taking dictation from Beijing!
Iran, the supposed linchpin of India’s Afghanistan and Central Asia policy, feels so defriended by India, so isolated, and so threatened by the US, it has not only economically signed on with China but has agreed to be its stalking horse in the Gulf. In 2008, the then head of the Iranian Navy Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari remarked at the opening of the naval base at Bandar-e-Jask that Iran was “creating a new defense front in the region, thinking of a non-regional enemy.” Doubtless, the non-regional enemy was America. Iran has now alighted on a military partnership with China to neutralize it.
Soon to be finalized is Tehran’s 25-year agreement that New York Times reports, will in furtherance of the Belt & Road Initiative result in China investing $400 billion in Iranian infrastructure, including the development of free-trade zones in Maku in northwestern Iran, Abadan at the confluence of the Shatt al-Arab river and the Persian Gulf, and on Queshm, a Gulf island; the build-up of that country’s 5G telecommunications network, and help to create Iran’s own Global Positioning System and even an Iranian version of the cyber Chinese Great Wall to control domestic cyber space and to keep the US and Western countries from waging cyber offensives.
In exchange, an energy starved China will be permitted to daily offtake 8.5 million barrels of oil — the minimum necessary output for Iran to remain a viable oil producer and, more significantly, to use the Iranian base at Bandar-e-Jask for its naval operations. Considering the location of Jask on the Hormuz Strait at the mouth of the Gulf, the Iranian and Chinese navies between them will be able to dominate maritime traffic to and from the Gulf and pose no end of trouble for the US 5th Fleet out of Bahrain. It may compel the US to speedily relocate its forces in the region to Duqm on the coast of Oman, being developed as a modern US military base, as a more secure berthing for its warships and army and air force contingents onshore. The current Iran Navy chief Rear Admiral Hossein Khanzadi’s exulting to Xinhua, the Chinese news agency, in the wake of a recent trilateral Iranian-Russian-Chinese naval exercise that “the era of American invasions in the region is over” will have added weight once the Sino-Iranian deal is signed and PLAN deploys its ships at Bandar-e-Jask.
The presence of the Chinese Navy in Jask will be still more problematic for India. Perhaps, one of the reasons Beijing chose it for naval positioning was because it was bothered by the prospect of the Indian Navy active ex-Chahbahar 76 nautical miles up the coast on Gwadar’s flank. With Jask, 157 nautical miles to the west of Chahbahar, in hand, and combined with its base in Djibouti, PLAN will be able to shut the Indian Navy out of the Gulf, or at least to force it to remain inactive and to practice extreme caution with regard to Gwadar. This is a beautiful Chinese strategic counter-move.
The situation is far worse for India because Delhi, under US pressure, has decelerated its project to develop Chahbahar. So while India has committed $500 million to it the absence of any real buildup may result in Tehran asking India to vacate Chahbahar altogether. That would be a tragedy beyond comprehension for India’s strategic interests in the larger region. Nevertheless, it is a real possibility because with Delhi failing to firm up comprehensive economic links with Iran in the last decade when it desperately needed friends and counted on India to come through by signing up for long term oil supply, etc and because Delhi began tacking ever more fully to the American wind that may cease at any time, the Rouhani regime in Tehran apparently feels it has no incentive to be nice to India. So to add to India’s mounting foreign policy problems, Modi has now, in effect, gone and lost Iran to China.
But there seems to be no relief anywhere else, certainly not in eastern Ladakh where, like the government, the Indian army too appears more eager to jaw-jaw with the Chinese than to prepare to fight the PLA if the Chinese refuse to withdraw completely from the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control in Pangong Tso and the Depsang areas, leave alone occupy the heights on the eastern bank of the Shyok River on the Galwan to protect the DSDBO Road. The PLA, moreover, is so well ensconced on the lake and at these two sites, the military level meetings — the 4th round is ongoing as I write this and, like the previous rounds, will also be infructuous — are meant to reach a dead end. These are exercises to test India’s military tipping point.
In this context, the Xi government seems to be almost daring Prime Minister Modi to order military action to evict the Chinese military from Indian land but is confident the Indian PM won’t do so. Xi, for his own reasons, is probably itching to find out what the PLA is capable of because if India can be easily cowed as the evidence shows it can be, intimidating lesser states in Southeast Asia and on the South China Sea will be easier game, even with US aircraft carriers in the vicinity. In this context, the speed with which the Indian army has adhered to the vague disengagement protocol suggests it is pretty slack and unwilling to force the issue on the ground.
Pangong Tso, the Galwan and the Depsang are far away from Delhi and the PLA’s dawdling on Indian territory would be enough provocation for a tough-minded Indian army chief and theatre commander to say enough is enough and initiate rapid and forceful actions to kick the PLA out of these areas and even annex some Chinese claimed land. Alas, India has long lacked such army chiefs and theatre commanders who will force Delhi’s hand by starting hard and sustained action to deflate China’s military pretensions and strategic designs. It would do India’s reputation a lot of good. Except, the Indian armed services give every indication of doing nothing, chancing nothing, in the hope things will somehow work out, but they won’t unless it is to advantage China.
Indeed, the Modi government seems so frightened of Xi’s China, it couldn’t even muster the courage to slam Beijing at the UN Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva July 2 for illegally absorbing Hong Kong. This forum, by the way, is routinely used by Beijing to bash India on Kashmir. Instead the Indian Special Representative Rajiv Chander on Delhi’s instructions mumbled this: “Given the large Indian community that makes Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of China it’s home, India has been keeping a close watch on recent developments. We have heard several statements expressing concerns about these developments. We hope the relevant parties will take into account these views and address them properly, seriously and objectively.” He didn’t even name China! And some of us expect the Indian government and army to forcefully kick the Chinese out of Indian Ladakh?
The truth is the Indian government seems to have no backbone, no point where its humiliation tips over into anger and use of force against China. Even indirectly threatening China by nuclear missile arming Vietnam — the only country to induce respect and wariness in Beijing, is an option tremulous and weak-minded Indian governments in the last 35 years, including the present one run by Modi, have eschewed. India thus enjoys a special status with Asian states who once looked upon it as ‘security provider’ — as a country beneath contempt.
( Bharat Karnad is Professor Emeritus at the Center for Policy Research and author of ” Staggering Forward” , an authoritative account of Modi’s Foreign Policy)