India Has Become America's Frontline State In South Asia

India Has Become America's Frontline State In South Asia
I developed an enduring admiration for Indian foreign policy ever since I started my career as a political analyst. Indian foreign policy trends which till the 1990s, Indian analysts and commentators kept defining as non-alignment and which they later started dubbing as “strategic autonomy” represent Indian nationalist elites’ independent space for maneuver on regional and international stage aimed at maintaining India’s independence on foreign policy issues of the time.

Since independence, Indian national elites refused to allow big powers to define their foreign policy agenda. Nehru had a towering personality as an anti-colonial hero of the third world, and though India was economically and technologically backward they refused to bow to the dictates of big powers. Korean and Vietnam Wars, Suez Canal Crisis and big powers tussles on world stage Nehru maintained his independent course on foreign policy matters. This was the time when Pakistan’s national elite had embarked on a headlong rush to join American orbit as a satellite state of western block in the Cold War.

On the other hand, despite India’s status as a political no one on the world stage during this period, Nehru insisted on maintaining relations of equality with Americans as well as the Soviet Union. This space allowed him to pressurize America into a corner when in the early 1950s US Administration started providing military weapons to the Pakistani state, which by then had almost become a satellite state of Western powers.

Nehru made quite an impact on American intellectual circles, media and people. Non-alignment served Indian foreign policy till the advent of BJP in Indian politics. The 1990s and the successive BJP governments in India titled Indian foreign policy towards Washington in a big way. Non-alignment gave way to “strategic autonomy”, which in practical terms meant BJP-led governments were ready to move into American orbit.

Time was conducive: Americans had just started a war against forces of international terrorism led by Islamic terror and extremist groups. BJP-led India also started to play victim. In this way, they not only started identifying with western block—in terms of perceived and shared democratic values, as western commentators started to dub Indian as the largest democracy in the world; they also manoeuvered themselves into a position to corner and pressurize their perennial enemy, Pakistan, which was facing a domestic upheaval in the face of uprising of militant and terror groups in its northwest and accusations from western media and policy makers for playing the double game of, on the one hand, siding with West in the war against terror while, on the other hand, secretly assisting the anti-West and anti-India militant and terror groups. This situation brough Washington and New Delhi much closer strategically when, in 2006, the Bush Administration identified India as a counterweight to China.

The Indian media have recently quoted their prime minister as saying that the non-alignment has outlived its utility. Apparently, India has moved into American orbit with a range of military, intelligence and security agreements and arrangements with Washington during the last two decades. Massive amounts of military technology transfers have taken place between two countries, of which the Indian military is the prime beneficiary. There is no doubt that the Biden Administration is propping up India as a military ally against China.

Recent military tensions with China, according to some reports, have forced Prime Minister Narendar Modi to overcome his initial reluctance to turn the four countries forum named Quad — Japan, Australia, India and United States — into a military alliance. Still there are reports that the Indian foreign policy bureaucracy is not comfortable with becoming part of an overt anti-China alliance and it wants to avoid giving the impression that it wants to become part of a ganging up effort against China. So, old habits die hard. Some of the residual trends of non-alignment, or desire to pursue an independent foreign policy, are still persisting.

Ashley J. Tellis, American expert on South Asia who had served in the Bush Administration, has recently authored a piece in which he has urged the Biden Administration that it should desist from expecting that India would play a second fiddle to it against China on the military front. Mr Tellis has noted the efforts of the Biden administration to prop up India as a military counterweight to China with $20 billion worth of military weapons and technology transfer till 2020.

Americans are assisting India with intelligence and surveillance equipment so that Indian military and intelligence services could keep an eye on Chinese military movement along the China-India border in the Himalayas and Chinese Naval movement in the Indian Ocean. It is propping up India’s democratic credentials in the liberal west so that the latter would support American construction, the “International Liberal Order”.

Ashley Tellis has asked rhetorically; “the bigger question, however, is whether Washington’s generosity toward India will help accomplish its strategic aims. During the Bush and Obama administrations, U.S. ambitions centered largely on helping build India’s power in order to prevent China from dominating Asia".

"As U.S.-China relations steadily deteriorated during the Trump administration—when Sino-Indian relations hit rock bottom as well—Washington began to entertain the more expansive notion that its support for New Delhi would gradually induce India to play a greater military role in containing China’s growing power,” reads Mr Tellis' article published in the latest issue of American magazine Foreign Affairs. “There are reasons to believe it will not. India has displayed a willingness to join the United States and its Quad partners in some areas of low politics, such as vaccine distribution, infrastructure investments, and supply chain diversification, even as it insists that none of these initiatives are directed against China. But on the most burdensome challenge facing Washington in the Indo-Pacific—securing meaningful military contributions to defeat any potential Chinese aggression—India will likely refuse to play a role in situations where its own security is not directly threatened,” is how Mr Tellis answers his own question.

Mr Tellis indicated in his article that the Indian plan is to develop an independent defense and military capability but as far as politically moving into American orbit or following American military plans against China, India doesn’t seem ready for that. Indians believe that it would be their country which would be feeling the military heat if things turn nasty in super power conflict in case they follow American plans. Americans would be sitting comfortably in the far off and secure continent of North America.

This is where Indian national elites distinguish themselves from Pakistan’s nationalist elites. Here we see a reversal of roles. In the 1950s, Americans used the Pakistani military and assigned them the role of countering communist threat emanating from Soviet Russia. We were given weapons, finances and training to build a military that could stand up to Soviet pressures. In those years India remained on the sidelines of the Cold War. They used to raise hue and cry whenever no cache of weapons used to arrive in Pakistani inventory.

We became a frontline state against Communist threat and in the process our national elites endangered the very existence of Pakistan and exposed Pakistani society to all kinds of ills that come with militarization of an economically, socially and technologically backward society. We started playing second fiddle to Washington’s tune.

Now India has been put into the position we were in during the Cold War. India is getting weapons from Washington to act as a bulwark against the Chinese giant. Washington is propping up India’s democratic credentials in a situation when religious freedom is eroding in Indian society. And yet Indian national elites want to pursue an independent course on foreign policy front.

They are not ready — according to Ashley Tellis — to become part of American military plans. India wants to maintain its political and military independence. Apparently, Indian national elites have shown that they have deeper roots and stakes in the society. Contrast this with the utter disregard of Pakistan’s real (as contrast to imaginary) security interests that the Pakistan military elites showed when they sided with Americans against a superpower, the Soviet Union, with all its geographical proximity to Pakistani territory, and all its lethality to cause devastation in Pakistan.

Pakistani elites have never in history shown any interests in chalking out an independent course in foreign policy. In fact, Pakistan’s whole security paradigm stands on the principle of bringing extra-regional power into the politics of our regional security in order to neutralize Indian military superiority. Initially, we brought in Americans, then Chinese came to our rescue in the 1960s and in the 1980s we started depending on our Arab friends. Our ruling elites have very artificial relations with our society.

One classical example is the way our rulers quit Pakistan the moment they are out of power. Reports in the media suggest that our three successive army chiefs and a former prime minister feel save abroad rather than living in their own country. Only elites who don’t have direct and deep-rooted stakes in the society can take the decision to side with one super power against another when the latter is in a position to militarily destroy you with ease.

The writer is a journalist based in Islamabad.