We have come a long way from the time when we were firmly tethered to the Soviet Union in the conduct of our foreign policy. All through the Cold War, we openly endorsed or condoned with studied silence some of the worst excesses of the Soviet Union, especially against its East Union satellites. Fortunately, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the steady rise of other powers, especially China, made us shed our non-aligned certitudes.
Increasingly, India felt free to decide on global issues on merit and in consonance with our own interests. Prime Minister Narasimha Rao tried and lent balance to the foreign policy while Atal Behari Vajpayee finally discovered percentage in having a natural ally in the US, the world’s oldest democracy. On their part, the Americans were yet to jettison fully the baggage of the Cold War and the obligations of various international treaties forged with the idea of blunting the challenge of the once mighty Soviet Union.
The American money and arms to Pakistan flowed freely as part of the global effort to checkmate any threat from the Soviet Union. However, over the years the rise of China has come to pose a potential threat to the US’s role as the world’s sole unchallenged military and economic power. The aggressive Chinese designs, especially towards all its neighbours, and its refusal to heed established canons of international law, has become a matter of grave concern. Some of its smaller neighbours in South East Asia, for instance, have virtually made peace with China, quietly surrendering their legitimate claims in the South China Sea before the military might of the communist behemoth.
As the recent face-off over Doklam showed, India was large enough, proud enough to countenance a situation whereby it would play second fiddle to its northern neighbor. While it does not seek confrontation, it cannot be subservient to China. Nor will anyone in the free world countenance a situation when China, with its growing military and economic muscle, becomes a threat to the established global order. A number of countries in the region look up to India to resist the expansionist Chinese designs. Fortunately, the strategic community in the US too had long come to realise that without enlisting India’s assistance the Chinese ambitions to call the shots in the wider region far away from its own land and sea borders cannot be thwarted. It was this thinking that the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reflected in his speech at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington ahead of his visit to India on October 24.
The quadrilateral group of India, US, Japan and Australia that Tillerson spoke of has found favour in the respective capitals. The commonality of interests, especially in the Indo-Pacific region, makes the quadrilateral a natural alliance. Outlining his vision, the US Foreign Secretary noted that the “Indo-Pacific, including the entire Indian Ocean, the Western Pacific, and the nations that surround them, will be the most consequential part of the globe in the 21st century.” He did not mince words about the growing Chinese threat, saying it would be the biggest challenge to the `rule-based’ order in the entire region.
The manner in which the Chinese have redrawn maritime boundaries in the South China Sea, with an eye on exploiting oil and gas reserves and, of course, with military objectives, bears full witness to its faith in the might-is-right approach to the conduct of foreign relations. India along with other like-minded nations can resist the Chinese muscle-flexing, especially if the US continues to play its legitimate role in maintaining global peace and order. India’s security needs, especially for sophisticated military technologies and arms, can be met on a priority basis should the US translate its words into action.
Its dalliance with Pakistan might now be wholly transactional. But the sooner the US realises that Pakistan has all along double-crossed it in Afghanistan and has now taken to playing it against China, the better it will be for its pressured public purse and for its broader security interests. On its part, India should not put all its security eggs in the US basket since Washington is prone to sudden strategic shifts. Under Trump, America is increasingly looking inwards, and has sought to link everything global to narrow domestic interests, Therefore, it will be a mistake to trust fully that the US would carry through Tillerson’s sterling exposition of Indo-US co-operation into action. India ought to be willing and ready to defend its strategic security interests on its own.