Indian foreign policy—a bit colorless and dormant for a while—has been given a jolt by Chinese aggression with India quickly moving towards building strategic alliances. One by one, India has stitched up a number of pacts including the four foundation agreements with the US, fixing up the Malabar exercise (Australia has rejoined it), formalizing and publicizing the Quad, and signing the Mutual Logistics Services Agreements (MLSA) with Japan and Australia. Myanmar, Taiwan and Vietnam too are inching closer to India.
For long, India has been charting a non-aligned path and making an effort to keep everyone happy, parallelly aligning itself with communist China. This proximity to China has not helped the country either attain a global status or strengthen its position militarily. Instead, China became more arrogant and disdainful of India’s concerns. Its ‘wolf warrior’ diplomats and the media mouthpieces too have exhibited uncharacteristic belligerence towards India.
Moreover, aggressive moves by China on the border have put paid to India’s plans of taking on the expansionist neighbor alone. With all efforts of placating the Chinese—seven rounds of corps commander talks and two ministerial discussions in Moscow—coming to a naught, the Indian leadership realized that making the China go back from Indian territory in Ladakh may not be that simple or diplomatic. The eighth round of talks over disengagement and de-escalation is likely to happen soon.
Col Anil Bhat (Retd), who has served in the infantry and the armored corps, says: “The Indian Army’s fighting capability against PLA has already been amply proved, but with Chinese forces having many more men and machines than us, it makes a lot of sense for us to go in for alliances. India realized that we needed support in terms of technology and other military equipment to take on China. Even the World Wars were fought on the strength of alliances.”
He adds that many countries are applauding India for standing up to China on the border. “The world has seen what we have done on the border on two occasions by taking on the PLA and many countries have renewed efforts to woo India. The military agreements are good for India and the earlier three—General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) and Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA)—have provided us a lot of military support.”
With a number of countries chasing India, the Narendra Modi government has moved fast on stitching up alliances. On the heels of the Quad consultations in Tokyo with the US, Japan and Australia, India was fast on the feet to finalize the long-delayed Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) with the US.
The third India-US 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue that concluded recently is upbeat about the future military and defence alliances between the two nations. It also forges a partnership between the two democracies on improving people-to-people relations, cooperation on Covid-19 and improving trade ties. The ministerial meeting also seeks to keep an eye on China.
Highlighting the importance of the 2+2 and the direction India-US relations are taking, Dr Jagannath P. Panda, research fellow, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis (MPIDSA), writes in Asia Times: “Beijing’s ‘bullying’ behavior in its territorial disputes, its activities in the South and East China Seas, alleged abuses in Tibet and Xinjiang, bellicose posturing against Taiwan, actions in Hong Kong and a widespread campaign of disinformation undoubtedly set the tone for India-US deliberations—and a future trajectory of ties.”
The joint statement after the 2+2 gives an insight into the bilateral trajectory. “The Ministers affirmed their commitment to pursue increased cooperation between the Indian military and US Central Command and Africa Command… The U.S. appreciated India’s leadership in establishing an Information Fusion Centre for the Indian Ocean Region (IFC-IOR).” Now, the US will position a Liaison Officer from its Navy at the IFC-IOR and India will place a Liaison Officer at NAVCENT, Bahrain, besides assigning additional Liaison Officers.
The two democracies also look forward to convening the Military Cooperation Group (MCG) later this year to review bilateral military-to-military engagement in terms of joint exercises, training and expert exchanges.
November will see Australia rejoin the Malabar exercise which takes place in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea. Though the country had expressed its desire to join the trilateral maritime exercise with India, Japan and the US, India was reluctant to expand the group owning to noises by China. However, with increased Chinese muscle-flexing in the Indo-Pacific region—a geographical term popularized by Japan—India eventually pulled Australia in as more and more countries are looking to creating a free and open Indo-Pacific (FOIP).
India also dropped its inhibitions over the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD), better known as Quad, as China remained adamant about not withdrawing from Ladakh. The four Quad nations, also the ones to participate in the Malabar exercise, might even expand the grouping to include the South East Asian nations like South Korea, Vietnam and New Zealand. Besides ensuring that Chinese hegemony in blunted in the region, the four nations are in talks about maintaining supply chains, which are currently deeply embedded with China.
Vietnam, which had given a bloody nose to China after the latter invaded it in 1979, has invited India to participate in the ASEAN virtual summit in November 13-15. India has been improving its outreach to the ASEAN nations through its Act East Policy. The Quad Foreign Ministers had spoken about the centrality of ASEAN nations in the Quad grouping as well. In 2019, India had already shared its concerns with the powerful grouping over Chinese goods coming into India through the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, taking on China economically last year itself. India’s apprehensions about China then, now look prescient.
Taiwan has been talking about improving trade relations with India. To some extent India has warmed up to the tiny country, just 140 km to the east of big brother China. The two nations are looking at improving their trade and business relations, where Indian has much to gain by absorbing Taiwanese technology which can help replace Chinese companies.
Dr. Jabin T. Jacob, associate professor, Department of International Relations and Governance Studies, Shiv Nadar University, says: “Partnerships and alliances – two slightly different things – are necessary even if you are the most powerful nation in the world as the US has often discovered. The question for India really is of managing expectations. Without a formal military alliance with another country, it cannot really expect assistance in times of conflict, but the evidence also shows that somehow the US and Soviet Union/Russia have usually been willing to help India out. So India has done well so far in that department.”
Jacob adds that the bigger challenge, however, is to fix our internal problems so that we are not so heavily dependent on the goodwill of others in times of trouble. “We should ourselves be in a position to help others when required as well as be able to influence our partnerships. We must be able to go beyond talking a good line to actually backing talk with substantive action,” Jacob warns.
With so much happening around India, most of it a bulwark against China, India now has to rise to the occasion. While Beijing has not made any bones about how it views India, New Delhi still has to frame an appropriate foreign policy response on its rampaging northern neighbor. With support pouring in from all sides, India should seize the opportunity and firm up its mind on how to view China.