India’s American stakes

G-20 At Osaka

(Commentator, International Politics)

The much-hyped G-20 meeting at Osaka concluded once again with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi coming out in flying colours, as per media reports. In keeping with Modi methodology of governance, his government both at home and abroad looks good on paper. Many would argue that the imagery is in consonance with the reality on the ground. Be that as it may, a perception caught in contestation. Let us reflect on the power-packed meeting of G-20 comprising major economics of the world.
Arguably, G-20 meeting at Osaka received so much attention, not because what exactly happened in the meeting, but due to what was cooking in the run-up to the meeting. Governments and their diplomats were strategising skilfully for the bilaterals between their Heads. Mike Pompeo, Foreign Secretary of the United States flew to New Delhi to queer the pitch for a smooth exchange between Donald Trump and Narendra Modi. Feathers were ruffled at both ends because of the tariff tension between New Delhi and Washington.
Donald Trump, a ‘Transactional President’ has been grudging America’s trade deficit with several countries, including, India, and under his ‘America first’ policy, imposing tariffs to make up the deficit. We shall discuss in a bit India’s response to it under India’s America strategy.
On G-20, many governments, more so our energetic and hyper-active Prime Minister, not only seriously participated in the meeting, he engaged in bilateral, plurilateral (BRICS, RIC, JAI – Japan, America, India), and of course multi-lateral meetings. As usual, he charmed his way to several heads of government. Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison was so impressed that he said in Hindi, “Modi Achha Aadmi Hai” (Modi is a good man). Well, such effusive edification and utterances are no more than diplomatic niceties used as CBMs – Confidence Building Mechanisms. We need not be carried away with such hyperbolic statements by leaders.
What did India, led by Narendra Modi, do at Osaka, although a lot of stakes were placed on and Trump-Modi, and Trump-Xi-Jinping meetings in the fringe of G-20 last weekend. Modi’s speech covered women’s empowerment, digitisation, artificial intelligence, UN’s sustainable development goals, terrorism and climate change. He also pitched for a reformed multi-lateralism, energy security, disaster-resilient infrastructure, and ease of movement for skilled workers. These were on-going international issues, which may not raise heckles of many countries, except ‘terrorism’ which finger-points to particular countries.
As usual, Modi strongly spoke against terrorism, indirectly urging countries like Russia and China that their tacit support to Pakistan is causing bloodshed in India and elsewhere. At any rate, G-20 meeting was another opportunity for the major world leaders to meet collectively and on the side-lines to thrash out many issues in the interest of their people in particular, and the international community in general.
Obviously, the meeting between Trump and Chinese President Xi-Jinping was of crucial importance as trade disputes between China and the US were dominating the thinking of those present in Osaka. Usually, every meeting between leaders is followed by a thaw in tensions. So it happened between China and the US. Trump held back imposing more tariff over USD 300 billion already done. He said, they were open to further negotiations between Beijing and Washington. But, to be sure, this is temporary truce.
The rivalry is going to resurface sooner than later. There is a radical shift of US position on China. Washington has had the option of either confrontation or accommodation with Beijing. The previous Administrations of Bush and Obama opted for accommodation, but Trump and his team chose confrontation and challenging China’s world ambitions. With this fundamental strategic shift, the power play between Beijing and Washington will continue in one form or the other.
A point to note is the cessation of US-China trade war will benefit India, so observe some commentators. But, it sounds altruistic and untrue, for two reasons. One, the tension will not subside. Second, India would benefit from trade diversion from China. About 300 MNCs were contemplating shifting their base from China. In addition, the US seems to be building India as a countervailing power to China. That is where perhaps India’s national interest lies.
To explore the above hypothesis, India too has little alternative to coming closer to the US, both in trade and security terms.
Let us get the trade issue out of the way first. New Delhi needs to convince Washington that an economically stronger India is better in US scheme of things. Trump need not have transactional relation with all the countries, including his actual and potential allies. The security and trade need not be linked. A stronger power or person will have deficit with a weaker person on country. For instance, one would have transactional deficit with his maid, or laundryman, or other service providers. India has negative trade deficit with many African countries.
Trump will do well to realise that US need not have trade surpluses or parity with each country of the world. It was, however, encouraging to learn that Trump is thinking ‘something big’ happening with India. We may have not access to what is Trump and his Administration planning or sounding out to New Delhi. US may be wary of New Delhi’s non-aligned stance, a blast from the past, or a multi-alignment strategy, pleasing one and all, as perhaps, Modi may like to do. The US may be ‘bullying’ or coaxing India to ‘fall in line’, become their trusted and permanent ally like Japan, and South Korea.
What is New Delhi’s position? Honestly, it’s not clear. New Delhi is attempting to oblige both the power blocs — USA and China-Russia, or trying to separate Russia from China, and both Russia and China from Pakistan. Is either of the strategy plausible? Quite unlikely. China has surged ahead with BRI to gain primacy in Eurasian landmass and to oceans through the Maritime Silk Road. In both these, the Sino-Russian security and defence partnership is evident. Furthermore, given the proximity between Islamabad and Beijing, New Delhi entering this block is unlikely. So what are New Delhi’s options?
I have argued that New Delhi has avoidably been spending heavily on defence procurement to defend itself against Pakistan. In the event of a military confrontation with China, India is not adequately equipped however more it spends on defence purchase. So, is it not prudent both strategically and financially for New Delhi to hitch its defence to a bigger power like the US, like Japan and South Korea have done vis-a-vis China and North Korea respectively?
India’s reduced spending on defence will help its development and growth process. A security alliance with US will do New Delhi a world of good. It is time New Delhi replaces Russian platform with US supplies, or even better, India reduces spending on defence with American assurance for security cover in Indo-Pacific area.
I know, some nationalists, as well as non-aligned advocates will cry hoarse on New Delhi compromising its sovereignty. Well, it is another discussion if India was non-aligned in true sense of the term, as the concept itself was impractical. As for the nationalists, shall we not go for India’s national interest, its peace, security, growth and development? Let us think about it afresh? For a New India!—INFA