India can't afford to play the ostrich

The inaugural “2+2 dialogue” between the foreign and defence ministers of India and the United States scheduled for September 6 in New Delhi has a somber setting. Of late, the regional and world situation has dramatically worsened, Indian foreign policy is passing through a period of adjustment and the India-US relationship has lost some of its verve.

To take the last point first, Trump’s 'America First' strategy has reached the high noon. The neo-mercantilism dominating the US foreign policy is an offensive credo geared to accumulating trade surplus by coercing other countries to part with some of their wealth. Simply put, mercantilism uses economics as a tool for 'war' by other means. Historically, mercantilism frequently led to wars. This is because a country wedded to mercantilism as national economic policy is fixated on augmenting its state power at the expense of other national powers.

Illustration: Bhaskaran Illustration: Bhaskaran

All these tendencies are casting their shadows on India-US relations, making it more difficult than ever for Delhi to seek an equal relationship. The scope has narrowed to leverage the partnership with the US for India’s own economic transformation and development, which has reached a critical stage. From the US perspective, too, the locus has shifted to boosting exports of weaponry and, in the medium term, oil and gas. And, Washington is demanding that India should atrophy its defence partnership with Russia and terminate its oil trade with Iran.

Clearly, the meeting on September 6 will be keenly watched in regard of the US’s prescriptive approach towards India’s time-tested friendship with both Russia and Iran and how it plays out in the months ahead. This is where the other two templates—recent calibration in India’s ties with China and Russia and the regional and international milieu—become relevant. A dialectic has appeared involving on the one hand the ‘defining India-US partnership’ and on the other, India’s strategic autonomy in the contemporary world situation. Arguably, the Doklam face off, and its denouement, has been in some ways its manifestation.

Managing dialectical tensions is always challenging. We cannot be in the denial mode, responding to only one side of the tension, while ignoring the other. The choices are between disorientation or alternation and balance and recalibration. Disorientation means ending the relationship in which tension exists while alternation means going back and forth between the two sides of the tension. Neither is feasible, since India’s relationships with the US, Russia and China are all highly consequential. That leaves balance and recalibration as the realistic option. The good part is that the current international situation is broadly favourable for the pursuit of independent foreign policies.

Suffice to say, the strengthening of India’s strategic autonomy is of utmost importance. However, the government’s record causes disquiet. A telling example has been the US-India logistics agreement of April 2016, which grants the US military access to our bases. A leading Chinese pundit wrote recently that the apparent tilt in the Indian foreign policy towards the US “soured” China-India cooperation. Russian analysts, too, voice similar concern over India’s dalliance with the US-led Indo-Pacific Partnership.

Indeed, the optics of the US-India “2+2 dialogue” is bound to create misgivings in Beijing and Moscow. Curiously, in September, China is participating in a Russian military exercise focusing on “traditional security”, which is billed as the biggest since the Zapad-1981 drill by the Warsaw Pact countries. Presidents Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping are expected to watch the drills, which are taking place in near alliance conditions.

India cannot play the ostrich. Washington’s recent move to grant Strategic Trade Authorisation Status to India on par with the NATO allies underscores where the US priorities lie. But what are the Indian priorities?

The writer is a former diplomat.