India’s Massive Shift in Military Policy

After the meeting of U.S. and Indian foreign and defence ministers, Delhi is shedding its strategic ambivalence and joining Washington‘s adversarial stance on China

If the United States 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 U.S.-dominated rules-based order; if the defeat of the U.S. and NATO in the Ukraine war has become a fait accompli; if Canada was encouraged by the U.S. to fret and fume over alleged Indian involvement in the killing of the Canadian Sikh separatist leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar on Canadian soil; if Israel’s bloodbath in Gaza is actually genocide  — well, India’s policymakers haven’t heard any of this. 

That is the message from the U.S.-Indian 2+2 foreign and defence ministers meeting in New Delhi on Nov. 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 U.S.’ indispensable ally, even aspiring to be a “global defence hub” with Pentagon’s help. 

The following were some of the takeaways at 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 U.S. aircraft maintenance and mid-voyage repair of U.S. naval vessels; 
  • U.S. investment in India’s maintenance, repair, and overhaul of U.S. aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles; 
  • finalisation of a Security of Supply Arrangement, which will deepen the integration of defence industrial ecosystems and strengthening of 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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?

No Sign of Partisan Concern 

Clearly, such a massive shift in India’s military policies needs to be correlated with the fundamental postulates of foreign policy. That said, curiously, call it “bipartisan consensus” or whatever, India’s main opposition party apparently couldn’t care less about the shift. This is not surprising. The shift is actually about a nascent India-U.S. alliance to counter China — and that is a policy front where it is difficult to choose between Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

To be sure, both Russia and China understand that Indian foreign policy is transitioning. But they pretend not to notice and would hope it is an aberration. At any rate, neither Russia nor China can stop India in its tracks. Their capacity to leverage Indian policies has dramatically shrunk — Moscow’s in particular — in the contemporary security environment. 

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin in a press conference in Russia in 2019. Photo: Kremlin / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0.

The heart of the matter is that India is not ecstatic about the growing multipolarity in the world order. India is a beneficiary of the “rules-based order” and feels far more comfortable with a bipolar world order where multipolarity, if at all, remains a fringe phenomenon while the U.S.’ pre-eminence will continue to prevail for decades to come. 

Such a paradigm is perceived as advantageous for India to navigate its pathway toward checking China’s hegemonic instincts while also optimally developing its own comprehensive national power. It is an ambitious agenda which is risky too, as policies change in Washington as presidents come and go and American interests get redefined and priorities change.  

Animus Against China

Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Wuhan, China. 2018. Photo: MEAphotogallery / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Today, however, the Indian willingness to align with the U.S. 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 — when or in what form, time will tell. 

This is only possible because Delhi feels reasonably assured that Washington’s Indo-Pacific focus remains intact under the Biden administration despite growing engagement with China seen in the summit meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Biden in San Francisco with both sides hoping to make the Sino-American relationship more predictable.  

Focus on Afghanistan, Ukraine & Gaza 

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken meeting with their Indian counterparts, Defense Minster Rajnath Singh and Minister of External Affairs Dr. S. Jaishankar, at the 2+2 ministerial meeting in New Delhi on Nov. 10. Photo: DoD / Chad J. McNeeley.

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 with the sub-title Afghanistan, which implicitly accused the Taliban rulers 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.” 

The joint statement  went on to pointedly recall 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. 

A second possibility could be that the U.S. and India share a sense of  exasperation over 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 the Wakhan Corridor is a geo-strategic game changer. Anything that relates to the security of Xinjiang is of incessant interest to Delhi. 

The 2+2 joint statement signals a renewed U.S.-Indian convergence on Afghanistan. How far this would translate as proactive moves is a moot point. Notably, the U.S. 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. 

When it comes to Ukraine and the Palestine-Israel conflict, what emerges is that the U.S. and Indian sides have succeeded in harmonising their respective positions on these crucial regional conflicts. 

Delhi is shedding its strategic ambivalence and moving towards the U.S. position. This comes out in the strokes in the joint statement by what it says and what it doesn’t. Thus, 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.” But 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 “right to self-defence,” a mantra 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 — reminiscent of the joint British-American aerial bombing attack on the city of Dresden, the capital of Saxony, during World War II, which killed over 25,000 German people.

Main photo: U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin on the red carpet in New Delhi on Nov. 9 © DoD / Chad J. McNeeley.

Source: Consortium News.

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