A revelation was made on 11 April in New Delhi by General Kenneth S. Wilsbach, Commander, US Pacific Air Forces (COMPACAF) that they had discussed with New Delhi the shooting down of the Chinese spy balloon. He added that, for the first time ever two B-1 long range Bombers of the US Air Force would participate in the bilateral air force exercise, called ‘Cope India’ which started on this Monday. He underlined that Bombers are unique platforms having extremely long range and heavy payload. The idea was to initiate inter-operability and the process of two air forces working together.
Wilsbach also made the usual rhetorical assertions about free and open Indo-Pacific and the sovereignty of air spaces anywhere in the world. The increasing defence cooperation manifested in the statements made by Wilsbach may warm up the hearts of those believing that Americans would aid and defend the biggest democracy of the world; as Washington expects New Delhi to work as a countervailing force to Beijing. I am one among those who has been advocating a closer partnership between two democracies, one the biggest and the USA the ‘greatest’, going by the popular refrain. It is another matter that both democracies are coming under the scanner of independent democracy watchdogs. That is a discussion for another day.
The perception that America, the super power, will defend a rule-based order and individual democracies is endorsed by Howard W. French, a professor at the Columbia University and a long-time foreign correspondent. He analyses, “Why does US care more about Taiwan’s democracy than India’s”. While this is the title of his article, the sub-text is “The west’s urge to counter China should not meant ignoring democratic erosion among its own coalition members.”He then goes on to describe how Indian democracy is crumbling under Narendra Modi’s regime.
In order to support his arguments, French quotes RSS ideologues like Savarkar and the books written on them. Admittedly, the nature and content of India’s democracy is debatable like many others in the world. Harold French concedes that democracy in his country too nose-dived under Donald Trump.But that is not the issue. Democracy is a complex and a varied political system in understanding and practice, although it is currently the universal aspiration.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been claiming that India is the oldest home of democracy in the world. John Kean, a British academic argues in his book, “The Life and Death of Democracy” (2009) that the history of democracy needs to be democratised, meaning there are other traditions that have contributed to growth of democracy other than the European style, such as Syria –Mesopotamia, India and others.
However, the moot point in and Harold French’s contention is that the US is less concerned about India than Taiwan because of the democracy variable is incredible and unconvincing. The argument flies on the face of facts. In this column last week, I shared a predominant perception that the US foreign policy has really been self-serving in the name of pragmatism.
There is a plethora of evidence to show how the US has propped up patently anti-democratic regimes in its national interests. Taking the cue from Roosevelt’s maxim that the US has to ‘sometimes’ support warlords and dictators, it has been doing so ‘often times’. A partial list includes Fulgencio Batista of Cuba, AnastasioSomoza of Nicaragua, Ferdinand Marcos of Philippines, Mobute Sese Seko of Zaire, Augusto Pinochet of Chile, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi Reza (the former Shah of Iran and Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq of Pakistan.
In fact, the latest trend in American foreign policy is more surprising as it borders on self-contradiction. It would build up a kind of a Frankenstein and then fight to pull it down –supporting the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan who later became Talibans, the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussain against Iran and building China as an economic power to counter USSR.
The biggest contradiction the US is facing now is the threat from China not Russia. Targeting Russia is perhaps a misplaced strategy. Some would argue as I have said in the column mentioned above that US is feeding its national economic interests by letting the war on Ukraine continue. Therefore, US needs to undergo a radical shift in identifying its rivals and dealing with them. That is how India and US relations can be firmed up. That is also in the interest of both democracies.
Scanning the latest India-US bilateral relations, the US appointed a full Ambassador, Eric Garcetti, after a gap of two long years. Not a good sign for an important bilateralism. There would be several meetings this year between Joe Biden and Narendra Modi including in G-20 Summit, Quad, I2U2 and so on. Mr. Garcetti is known to be a close confidante of Biden and may push a fresh strategy emerging out of a new realisation indicated earlier on.
In fact, there are two main issues between the two countries. One, does the US want India to be a counterweight to China? If yes, a whole lot of policies in various sectors would have to follow. Quite a bit is happening in areas like critical and emerging technology, defence and industrial cooperation, cyber and maritime security, India-Pacific cooperation, under the Quad platform. But these are not enough. It has to be a complete partnership.
India’s economy is five times less than that of China. That has to be bridged. There have been talks about shifting the supply chains from China. India is the natural alternative in terms of its skill-base, demography, and size of the market. But is it happening? There has been critical support from the US in the past on green revolution making India food-sufficient, raising India as an IT super power. Indians’ success stories in the US trickle back to their home country, climate change collaborations, space technology and so on. Yet it is not enough to counter China from India’s platform. The US must realise it.
The second issue is that the US has inspired less trust in the past when it backed Pakistan to the hilt in the name of containing Taliban, whereas Islamabad was harbouring terrorists operating across the world including USA. Not to forget that Osama Bin Laden was given sanctuary in Pakistan; likewise, the US suddenly pulling out of Afghanistan leaving democratic forces in the lurch.
That said, the US has a genuine concern about India not severing its ties with Russia and not taking a vocal stand against the war in Ukraine. At the same time, Russia treats India and China as its allies. It may broker peace between the two countries, whether Moscow can prevail on Beijing is another matter. But New Delhi can still turn to Moscow vis-à-vis Beijing. Can it do so with Washington? Although India is always prepared to defend her sovereignty by herself, we are discussing friends and partners. Can the US give that assurance to New Delhi as it has done to Israel and Taiwan?
That assurance calls for many operative policies and concrete actions vis-à-vis China. Has the US begun to act on those? Answers to these questions will determine the future of India-US relations,which are interestingly and inevitably getting closer whether one likes or not. So let a conscious, frank and transparent dialogue begin! –INFA