From a geopolitical perspective, India and the US essentially reaffirmed in the joint statement issued after the visit of President Trump — Vision and Principles for India-US Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership — what they have been saying through the past decade or so. It is an open secret that shared concerns over China’s rise is the leitmotif of the US-Indian strategic partnership.
The Modi-Trump joint statement is largely predicated on the belief in India that there has been a fundamental shift in the way the US is perceiving China lately. But the ‘pivot to Asia’ as such dates back to the Barack Obama presidency, which visualised China as a competitor. Obama used different methods, though. Instead of trade war, he forged the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement and opted for multilateralism to make China a ‘stakeholder’.
To be sure, we haven’t heard the last word on China from Trump, either. The US-China trade deal in January signalled that Trump realised belatedly that the US lacked the capacity to cripple China’s economy and that the tariff war also hurt the US economy. That is why India’s lurch toward ‘Quad’ becomes a strategic blunder. Surely, the government cannot be so naive as to estimate that Quad can be a game changer. If China were to be denied strategic depth, nothing less than an Asian NATO is needed to give it a credible attempt. But ASEAN is averse to any anti-China orientation and the EU will not rock their hugely important trade and investment ties with China.
Thus, Quad is useful only for the US to sell more weapons to India on the pretext of ‘interoperability’. This is the logic the US uses to sell massive quantities of weaponry to its NATO partners. And, why an enemy image of Russia is useful and necessary to rationalise the need of interoperability. Simply put, Quad will be incrementally used to interfere with India’s purchase of Russian weaponry and with India’s efforts to improve relations with China. Shouldn’t the raison d’etre of India’s arms purchases lie in our defence needs rather than in creating interoperability with the US armed forces?
At any rate, does such interoperability really help India to settle its differences and disputes with China? In fact, how does the military balance look like in the Asia-Pacific? During an open hearing last week at the US House subcommittee on strategic forces, Admiral Charles Richard, commander of the United States Strategic Command, admitted that existing American air defences were not designed to counter modern hypersonic glide weapons, like the one that has been recently deployed by Russia — and currently developed by China — and hence these weapons ‘challenge’ the US.
Admiral Richard further acknowledged that the US defence systems were not designed to counter any ballistic weapons capabilities of Russia and China, but only to protect from attacks by ‘rogue nations’. He noted that it would be ‘technically infeasible’ due to the extreme costs of running such defences. He explained that the US relies on the strategic stability ensured by the ability of Washington to ‘impose costs’ on any nation, which might try to attack the US, using its own strategic arsenal.
Indian strategists should see the writing on the wall: The US has a powerful military, but do not take Trump’s boastful words as gospel; the US’ capacity to force its will on other nations is dramatically diminishing. The standoff with Iran is a telling story — and the less said the better about bullying a big power like China. With or without Quad, the US can no longer ‘contain’ China. So, India should be smart enough to ponder what it gains out of getting under China’s skin.
Fundamentally, a consensus is lacking between the US and India as regards the nature of the China challenge that each faces. The US harps on China’s ideological challenge to the world order dominated by the West. Now, why should India get excited about it? For the US, Russia is part of the China challenge, not the solution. Now, Russia remains a time-tested friend for India. Above all, the US faces no border dispute with China.
In an interdependent world, as Prof Stephen Roach at Yale University (formerly chairman of Morgan Stanley Asia) underscored last week in an essay, even the current slowing down of Chinese economy following the coronavirus outbreak is seriously impacting the world economy. What he wrote becomes a cautionary tale for Indian analysts.
He warned that the risk of outright global recession in the first half of 2020 due to China’s slowdown seems like a distinct possibility, given China’s huge share of world output and its critical role at the centre of global value chains. China is now the largest source of external demand for most Asian economies and Japan will record two consecutive quarters of negative GDP growth due to China’s slowdown.
Prof Roach wrote, ‘The shortfall of Chinese demand is also likely to hit an already weakening European economy very hard — especially Germany — and could even take a toll on a Teflon-like US economy, where China plays an important role as America’s third largest and most rapidly growing export market’.
Indeed, with an eye on Wall Street, Trump is growing concerned about the economic impact of pandemic fear, as his reelection campaign is banking on a strong economy. Politicised health scares can be very damaging in an election year. Suffice to say, the US perceptions of China will keep changing and the mistrust of China is simply not sufficient enough to align India with the US.