With both the prime minister and his new external affairs minister, S. Jaishankar, tilting towards the United States, India’s status and stature in the world is all set to decline.
By Bharat Karnad
India has spent trillions of rupees since 1947 on education, social welfare programmes and defence. But, 70-odd years later, the country has the largest population in the world of ill-educated, unskilled, unemployable youth, certain health and socio-economic indices that are worse than those of some of the world’s poorest states, and a showy but short-legged and second-rate military dependent on imported armaments.
Yet look at India in macro terms using the somewhat dubious ‘purchasing power parity’ concept and it gets rated as a trillion-dollar economy. What explains this anomaly?
Tufts University political scientist Michael Beckley’s pioneering theory of international relations suggests that gross measures – such as population, GDP, defence budgets, size of armed forces, etc. – are less accurate in assessing the power of nations than “net” factors, such as how effectively national resources are converted into measurable and decisive political, economic and military capability and diplomatic leverage and clout.
In other words, it’s the outcomes that matter. By this standard, the more advanced countries of the West seem to be more efficient converters of their human and material resources into usable policy assets relative to India and other middling powers, or even China, which in this respect falls somewhere in between these two sets of states.
So analysing the outcomes of Narendra Modi’s foreign policy – which is a continuation of the Indian government’s approach and policy from the days of P.V. Narasimha Rao, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh – and of S. Jaishankar’s central role in crafting several crucial agreements in service of this policy, may be a good way of judging its success.
The distinctive feature of India’s external relations in the new century is the pronounced tilt towards the United States. Narasimha Rao worked to obtain a rapprochement in the 1990s, and Vajpayee agreed on the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership (NSSP). This culminated in 2008 with the civil nuclear cooperation deal with the US and, during Modi’s first term, in India signing two of the three “foundational accords” proposed by Washington – the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) and the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA). The third, Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) for sharing geo-spatial information, is awaiting signature.
Jaishankar helped negotiate the nuclear deal and thereafter in his various posts facilitated and relentlessly pushed the foundational accords through the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). Briefly, what are these various agreements about and what do they say about Modi’s and Jaishankar’s thinking?
Senior functionaries in the Manmohan Singh government, it may be recalled, ballyhooed the civil nuclear cooperation deal with the US as all gain and no pain. They declared that the deal had left India’s nuclear deterrent intact, protected its weapon-grade plutonium producing capacity and preserved the option to resume testing in the future, and that imports of the 1000 MW light water reactors from abroad would obtain for the country “20,000 MW by 2020”. Remember this endlessly repeated mantra of Manmohan Singh’s to justify the accord?
The US, on the other hand, made no bones about its intent at a minimum to “cap and freeze” India’s nuclear weapons technology at the fission weapons-level achieved with the 1998 Shakti series of tests, and to prevent it at any cost from advancing to the thermonuclear weapons threshold.
The US government, however, happily joined the Manmohan Singh government in touting the energy rationale, especially because Indian purchases of the AP 1000 Westinghouse light water reactors would also revive a moribund US nuclear industry. As to what was actually accomplished in the negotiations was made plain soon after the nuclear deal was sealed by the chief US negotiator, under secretary of state for political affairs Nicholas Burns.
“To strengthen the nonproliferation system for the future, it just [made] every bit of sense to bring India into it and to do that in such a way that doesn’t strengthen its military arsenal,” explained Nicholas Burns in a 2007 interview to the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. “It allows [India] to put 14 of [its] 22 power reactors under safeguards and all future breeder reactors [a reactor that produces energy and weapons grade plutonium]. And within 25 years, I think 90%-95% of the entire [Indian nuclear] establishment will be fully safeguarded. So the choice [was]: Should we isolate India for the next 35 years, or bring it in partially now and nearly totally in the future? I think that [was] an easy choice for us to make strategically.”
Because of the deal, not only is India’s nuclear arsenal frozen at the elementary fission weapon stage – no amount of computer simulation and component testing can rectify the design flaws in the failed thermonuclear weapon design tested in 1998, leave alone produce a credible hydrogen bomb or fusion weapon the Indian armed forces can have confidence in without additional nuclear testing. Except testing is prohibited on the pain of the US imposing sanctions and terminating the deal. Also voided is India’s capacity for surge production of fissile material with most of the heavy water-moderated natural uranium-fuelled CANDU reactors shoved into the UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards net.
With the “islanding”, or separation of Indian weapons directorate, from the rest of the work in Trombay, moreover, the earlier cross-pollinating milieu of scientists and engineers from any field getting involved in solving difficult weapons-related problems that often resulted in innovative solutions, is lost and, with the no-testing regime in place, the best and the brightest have gravitated away from weapons work.
To add insult to injury, even the power reactors India is in the process of buying from the US and France are a risk on two counts. Of the 12 low-enriched uranium fuelled light water reactors India is seeking to purchase, six each from the US and France, the American Westinghouse 1000 reactor has not been cleared by the US regulatory authority for safety reasons.
In addition, the smooth functioning of these imported reactors is ensured only so long as India refrains from conducting nuclear tests. Should India resume underground tests, the supply of foreign fuel will be instantly and permanently terminated, the electricity sourced from these power plants will peter off, and the industries dependent on them will progressively close down, with untold effects on the economy. Further, the tens of billions of dollars expended in acquiring these reactors will become dead investment.
This is the economic deterrent against India resuming tests. And, by way of closing all weapon options, the deal decrees that the spent fuel from the foreign reactors can only be reprocessed in a specially constructed, IAEA-safeguarded, reprocessing unit put up at this country’s cost.
All this is Jaishankar’s handiwork. Why the nuclear deal is hailed as a great diplomatic victory for India and Jaishankar as a diplomat par excellence is a mystery, considering he gave away the store. The first responsibility of an official negotiator is not to undermine the nation’s sovereignty or cede even the smallest ground in this respect, and to protect and further the national interest to the maximum, and here Jaishankar defaulted.
The normal thing to do if something minor is conceded is to get disproportionate benefits in return. It is the sort of bargain Chinese negotiators routinely manage when dealing with the US. But what did India get in return?
This giveaway mentality is even more conspicuous in the so-called ”foundational” accords – LEMOA, COMCASA and BECA – that Manmohan Singh agreed to mull over and which Jaishankar pushed as ambassador in Beijing (2009-13) and, more centrally, as ambassador in Washington (2013-15), and finally as foreign secretary when the Modi dispensation formally signed LEMOA in August 2016 and COMCASA in September 2018.
Ponder this: LEMOA allows US military forces to stage military actions in the region out of Indian air, naval and army bases and, hence, willy-nilly embroil India in the US’s wars, and COMCASA will permit US intelligence agencies seamlessly to penetrate the most secret Indian communications networks, including the nuclear command and control links.
BECA under consideration, concerned with the digital mapping of the country, potentially provides the US militarily useful digitised Indian target sets – information that Washington can at any time pass on to friendly states (such as Pakistan, and even China) in crisis and conflict to serve its larger strategic-cum-geopolitical purpose of maintaining the balance in South Asia – the overarching US aim since the 1950s.
On the flip side, it will reinforce India’s dependence on the US for the digitised information related to targets in adjoining states. Again, in agreeing to become a virtual regional sidekick of the US, what did India get? Absolutely nothing, other than endless promises of advanced military and technology collaboration, for example, that so far have turned out to be so much hot air.
These accords obligating India to render assistance are particularly egregious considering they are entirely redundant. The Indian government was always in a position to contingently assist the US armed forces on a case-by-case basis if Delhi considered it politic and the costs of doing so were deemed bearable. It would have amounted to tremendous diplomatic and political leverage. Thus, US Air Force planes from the far east theatre refuelled in Mumbai before flying on to Kuwait during the 1992 Operation Desert Storm. There was no LEMOA then.
Communications compatibility, likewise, could at any given time be established between the fighting platforms of the two countries without COMCASA by plugging into jerry-built technical interfaces, like the UNIX system, used in the earlier versions of the Malabar naval exercises.
Such arrangements would have protected the country’s freedom of action and political manoeuvre, the integrity of India’s communications system at-large and of the software driving it. Most significantly, the country’s standing as an independent player on the international scene would have been enhanced. But mindless compromises and one-sided agreements seriously hurtful of the national interest have characterised the Indian foreign policy in the new millennium and Jaishankar’s diplomatic oeuvre, as it were.
One of the reasons India invariably gets the short end of the stick in negotiations with the US as the nuclear deal, LEMOA and COMCASA reveal is because Indian diplomats, like civil servants, are generalists and have no legal training, nor are they backed up in a sustained manner by legal experts. It disadvantages them against their American counterparts who, if not lawyers themselves, are supported by teams of legal specialists who conduct negotiations with an eye on the minutiae of legal rights, responsibilities and obligations that nations undertake in treaties they sign.
No wonder, then, that the MEA teams, including the one Jaishankar led when shaping the nuclear deal, relied on draft agreements originally produced by the US State Department as working text for negotiation, a pattern repeated in reaching an understanding on LEMOA and COMCASA. Under the circumstances, no prize for guessing which nation’s interests got served.
Prime ministers may set the direction of foreign policy but it is the professional diplomats who finesse and flesh it out. It is another matter that the political goal of bettering relations with the US is sought to be reached by turning away from “strategic autonomy”. Rao’s motivation to rebalance India’s foreign policy by leaning less on Soviet Russia at a time when it was falling apart was sensible. Vajpayee’s NSSP was devised as a step function to improve relations with the US but also to develop leverages. But it was Manmohan Singh’s partiality, in his own words, for “short term [benefit] maximiser” policies, that really greased India’s slide into a subsidiary partner status that Jaishankar cemented via the nuclear deal and LEMOA and COMCASA.
Until a really strong-willed Indian leader with a powerful national vision, and someone not besotted by, or beholden to, the US in any way emerges on the scene, India’s quest for great power status will be futile.
But why is Modi so pro-US? Other than the aspirational reason to see India become as materially prosperous as the US, it is a socialisation issue. Influenced by his long apprenticeship with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and immersed in its socially conservative ethos and culture Modi, as detailed in my book Staggering Forward: Narendra Modi and India’s Global Ambition, is much influenced by the RSS norms lauding hierarchy with seniors and superiors given deference.
In the external realm this gets translated by Modi into deferring to his “superiors” – Trump and Xi Jinping and, by extension, India, to the US and China; his actions, perhaps, even conforming to some kind of international varna order and a social given. (Observe, in this respect, his interactions with Trump and Xi when he is fawning and eager to please, and contrast it with his meetings with African and other Third World leaders when his back straightens up, his chest is out, and he is correct and officious.)
In this setting, the need for the country to retain its historical role as a power balancer in the international system and using its potential tipping weight to lever substantial benefits to India from the US, China and Russia (which still has the military muscle to stop the other two cold) has been ignored. But Jaishankar’s policy formulation, like Modi’s, excels in small politics as one of his service-mates stated, of siding with one state to counter another for the nonce, with a series of such small balancing acts amounting to nothing, nor fitting into any grand strategy or larger game plan.
But some of these tactical moves are beginning to tax the patience and goodwill of India’s more steadfast friends, and there’s bound to be adverse reaction. India’s growing military closeness to the US and its seeming compliance with Washington’s demand that it cut its reliance on Russian arms has already stirred Russian President Vladimir Putin, called the “apostle of payback” by former US Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and ambassador to Moscow, into selling Kamov utility helicopters to Pakistan as a warning to Delhi. More lethal and technologically sophisticated military hardware at “friendship prices” could be headed Islamabad’s way in the future. Should Moscow get really punitive, India would face the nightmare of a Russia-China-Pakistan nexus.
Egged on by Jaishankar, the Modi government’s short-term, short-sighted, policies to placate the US and turn around and try and pacify Russia will succeed only if Moscow, used to giant meals, is content with breadcrumbs from the arms sales table. The sideline contracts, such as the one for Russian shipyards to build two Grigoryvich-class frigates for the Indian Navy, are unlikely to be enough recompense for Moscow, or make up for its loss of multi-billion dollar transactions for “big ticket” military items.
Should things get out of hand, Putin could tighten the tourniquet by ending India’s lease of high-value weapons platforms such as the Akula-II class nuclear powered attack submarines – the sort of fighting asset the US will not loan India for democratic love, liberal values, or money. By way of perspective, the US is unwilling even to transfer conventional submarine technology it no longer uses, what to speak of in-date and advanced military hardware.
None of this apparently concerns the Modi-Jaishankar duo. But the Indian armed forces have to worry about whether the government will be able to resist the US unloading the antiquated 1960s vintage F-16 fighter plane dressed up in the new F-21 combat aircraft guise, and the overpriced and unproven electro-magnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS) to equip aircraft carriers under construction in Kochi. EMALS is something the US Navy is leery of after testing it on the Gerald Ford-class nuclear-powered carriers and President Donald Trump has publicly rejected it. The Modi regime’s response to the US opposing its buy of the Russian S-400 air defence system reflects the confusion at the heart of its foreign policy.
India is being pressed by Washington to junk the S-400 contract signed with Moscow and to opt for the less effective, more costly and technologically inferior American counterpart – the medium range National Advanced Surface-to Air Missile System (NASAMS) or the fast reaction Patriot-3 missiles, instead. The offer of the NASAMS/Patriot-3 is on the one hand baited with the promise of the F-35 – the latest US combat aircraft that veteran American combat aircraft designers, such as Pierre Sprey, have damned as unable to fight or scoot out of trouble and, on the other hand, comes freighted with the threat of sanctions under the US Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act.
Presumably advised by Jaishankar, Modi is attempting simultaneously to placate both Russia and the US by proposing to also buy the redundant NASAM system. It is a solution that will at once send the defence procurement budget soaring, complicate the country’s air defence problem, put the country in a double bind by exposing it to disruption by two rival and competing suppliers at odds with each other, and fail to address the basic US fear of the S-400 radar getting insights into US-sourced combat aircraft.
The first two years of the Trump administration ought to have sobered up Modi, familiarised the MEA about the US president’s “art” of cutting deals, and convinced the Indian government to lower its sights where the US is concerned. None of this has happened.
While his first visit in June 2017 to the Trump White House – replete with Modi hugging a somewhat nonplussed US president – passed off without incident, the first bad signs appeared soon thereafter. The US withdrew from the Paris Climate Accord and Trump lambasted China and India as the main culprits for carbon emissions and atmospheric pollution. He threatened to charge India as a “currency manipulator” which would trigger its own set of economic sanctions, and slammed India’s tariff barriers against US goods, especially Harley-Davidson motorcycles, and American agricultural commodities.
More recently and to show he means business, Trump removed India from the Generalised System of Preferences permitting duty-free entry for Indian exports valued at $5.7 billion-$6.3 billion out of the total exports of some $55 billion to the US. Of course, Trump left some slack for the restoration of GSP as a bargaining card to finagle a slew of high-value military sales.
Accommodating the US on agricultural commodities would imperil the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s stock with the farmer community, which is in distress across the country, so that’s out. But the purchase of the seriously decrepit F-16, and of the F-35 as follow-on aircraft – which was what Lockheed Martin, the producer of these aircraft, first offered the Indian government nearly 15 years ago, may mollify Trump.
But on the matter closest to Modi – the H1B visa – Trump has slammed the doors on the Indian prime minister’s face. The US intake of Indian techies has been reduced, the processing time has been lengthened, and life has been made difficult for visa holders by eliminating work visas for spouses and the “family reunion” provision, the last liberally used by a generation of Indian professionals to bring their extended family members into the US as lawful immigrants.
Trump has almost incentivised foreign countries to be wary of the US. He has had no compunction in treating the US’s treaty allies and partners in Europe and Asia with the utmost disdain, admonishing, hectoring and insulting them in turn, calling their leaders names, pressuring them to reimburse the US for the costs of protecting them, and otherwise ordering them to toe the US line on everything, or else.
In the economic and trade spheres, Trump has been just as harsh towards friendly states, closing down the Trans-Pacific Partnership that was meant economically to compete with and constrain China, and forced a “fairer” US-Canada-Mexico [trade] Agreement down the throats of the US’s northern and southern neighbours, and then within hours of signing it nullified it by tweeting a message critical of it.
Modi, a believer literally in hands-on diplomacy, innocently thought that the hugs and embraces he bestowed on Trump would soften the US stance but discovered these had zero effect. With historical allies and partners suffering Trump’s lash, what chance does Modi reckon India has of being treated decently or getting reasonable deals?
Of course, Trump is transactional but his negotiating method is really quite simple and transparent, which Modi and Jaishankar haven’t got the hang of yet. He uses the US’s market clout, technological edge and diplomatic reach like a bludgeon. Trump does not give a fig for the niceties of diplomacy, for the usual diplomatic give and take, of compromise, of IOUs that can be encashed later – the stock-in trade of international relations.
As ex-US deputy secretary of state William Burns recently observed in an interview to New Yorker magazine, “In the Trump era, what’s happened is the [White House is] cavalierly disregarding that there are trade-offs at all and not even recognising them.” In other words, as far as Trump is concerned, success lies in taking a mile without giving an inch. There’s also no exchange of favours or concessions because for Trump each transaction is a singular, discrete event in itself with no connection to anything that preceded it or might follow it. Meaning, a foreign country accommodating the US in one forum or deal does not automatically merit Washington’s consideration in another transaction.
Acting as if unaware of this reality, Jaishankar apparently has a plan to tackle Trump and his administration – the primary reason why Modi brought him into the loop at an elevated position in the first place. Jaishankar’s supposedly bulging phonebook of contacts in the US government and in Washington at large is expected to do the trick.
It will be of no avail because the Washington Jaishankar knew a few years ago as ambassador is not the Washington he will be visiting as foreign minister. Most of his contacts are out of the picture – eased off their sinecures in a purge of the US State Department that saw 74 career ambassadors resigning in 2017 alone or being shoved out the door. Senior positions in the State Department have remained unfilled, and its budget has been slashed by 30%. William Burns has called it “diplomatic disarmament”.
The pattern of Trump’s involvement in policymaking is that, without doing any homework or reading policy briefs, he alights on some position or the other and expects that the country of his momentary interest will jump to it. Trump’s all take and no give negotiating strategy unfortunately dovetails with the Indian government’s method as evidenced in its record of being all give and no take. After all, where’s the problem for the US if India, rather than engaging in hard negotiations, gives away what Washington desires for free – to wit LEMOA and COMCASA?
Even on issues where the differences have predated Trump and Modi, such as over Russian arms, Venezuelan oil and Iran, India has chosen to give in. Particularly disturbing is the marked decrease in the inflow of oil from Iran to avoid US sanctions, when a more self-respecting and strategic-minded nation would have immediately coordinated efforts with the other major importers of Iranian oil (China and Japan) to explore setting up an alternative payment channel to the dollar system.
Such a move would have strengthened the country’s energy situation and propelled India’s strategy for Afghanistan and Central Asia pivoting on the Chabahar port. Located on the North Arabian Sea and outflanking the Pakistani and Chinese navies ex-Gwadar, and landward constructing rail and road corridors to link up with the Russian Northern Distribution Network, it would have consolidated Indian trade, market access and civil and military cooperation with Russia, Afghanistan and the Central Asian Republics. Such a plan would also constitute a massive leverage, ensuring good US behaviour.
Trump’s foreign policy decision-making for all practical purposes is restricted to himself, his whims and fancies and his Twitter handle, with the US secretary of state Mike Pompeo present there to realise his boss’s desires the best he can but, more often, to clean up after him. The only person Trump pays some slight heed to is national security adviser John Bolton. Except, the Indian embassy in Washington and the MEA have almost no ready access to him – NSA Ajit Doval’s getting through to his US opposite number during the Pulwama crisis was a one-off thing, covering up for Bolton’s contempt for India which took root, or so it is rumoured, at the UN when he was President George W. Bush’s ambassador. So, Jaishankar’s traditional diplomacy will draw a blank there.
The sure shot way of commanding Trump’s attention is by being disruptively combative – the method perfected by Kim Jong-Un of North Korea. It is one Modi has no stomach for and will never attempt. Trump’s initial threat against Kim was met with panache. He responded to the US leader’s threat of “raining down fire and fury” by calling him a “deranged dotard” and daring him to carry out a strike, revealing his own plans of firing nuclear missiles to take out the mid-Pacific US military island base of Guam.
A sobered up Trump quickly backtracked, and offered to meet. In the two summits – in Singapore in June 2018 and in Hanoi this year – Kim dismissed Trump’s call to denuclearise his country, demanding the US remove all its nuclear weapons from the region. It won Kim more than respect; “We are in love!” trilled Trump. All the hugging did not extract for Modi any similar reaction. The lesson to learn is that desirable outcomes are best reached by being immovable when the national interest is at stake.
Kim’s modus operandi is unlike Modi’s and, even more, Jaishankar’s. The Indian prime minister seems unwilling to accord primacy to India’s national interest above every other factor when transacting with the US. On this count, Jaishankar’s recent views and the manner in which he has dilated on foreign policy concepts that he has borrowed from others, do not inspire confidence. He has talked of “multi-alignment” proposed by Shashi Tharoor in his 2012 book Pax Indica without explaining just what he understands by it and how he expects to work it, given that the Indian policy during Modi’s watch has leaned so much to the US side. And he has referred to “issue-based coalitions” mooted in my 2015 book Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet), talking of it as an instrument for “positioning” the country and not, according to him, for “balancing” regional and international power. This last is passing strange and begs the question: Positioning being a static notion, how will limiting policy manoeuvre further the country’s interests?
Jaishankar’s attitude clashes with these concepts, in the main, because they presuppose India having a free hand and a foreign policy unencumbered by the need to play second fiddle to any country, or to conform to US aims and objectives in the Indo-Pacific. Having tilted over so much to the US side, Modi and Jaishankar may soon discover that Trump will compel them to bend backwards some more.
India is already a much reduced presence in the world. Absent the strategic will and vision for the country other than, in essence, turning it into an American camp follower, India, in the next five years, will find its status and stature shrinking fast. At the heart of Modi’s foreign policy is the big worrisome question: Does the prime minister actually believe that what is good for the US is good for India?
Bharat Karnad is Professor in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, and author most recently, of Staggering Forward: Narendra Modi and India’s Global Ambition, and runs the ‘Security Wise’ blog at www.bharatkarnad,com