Modi buries India’s ‘unipolar predicament’

This weekend held out surprises on two counts. One, the spectre of a US-China New Cold War met sudden death as President Trump phoned President Xi Jinping on Thursday to turn the clock back to happier times. Trump openly sought to end the trade war and to mend fences with China. As a realist, he knows the US simply lacks the capability to impose its will on China. Beijing is visibly pleased.

Two, Trump announced on Friday the re-imposition of the US’ decades-old sanctions against Iran but giving ‘waiver’ to China, India, Turkey, etc. to buy Iranian oil. Nonetheless, Iran is hanging tough. The reaction by its Foreign Ministry suggests that nothing short of the US returning to the 2015 Iran deal will satisfy Tehran.

These two developments highlight that the US no longer has the capability to put other countries under pressure. The Modi government understands this geopolitical reality and that in turn explains the two major foreign-policy decisions taken by it recently, asserting India’s strategic autonomy vis-à-vis the US.

The decision to conclude the S-400 ABM deal with Russia (estimated to cost around $6 billion) and to bypass the dollar system to make the payment for the purchase in roubles is unmistakably an assertion of clearly defined national interests. Indeed, the threatening noises from Washington in the run-up to the S-400 ABM deal had no effect on PM Modi. This is what the venerable ‘India hand’ in the strategic community Ashley Tellis at the Carnegie wrote in August to blackmail the PM:

“The final approach worth contemplating, therefore, is offering Trump a deal. It would probably require India to move forward on one of the several major defense acquisition programs it has discussed with the United States over the years, thus enabling New Delhi to secure the capabilities it has always wanted while giving Trump an incentive to speedily issue the waiver that India needs. Both sides could thus come out ahead. For such a workaround to attract Trump’s attention, however, India’s proposal must be lucrative enough to the United States and remarkable in its potential geostrategic impact. And the details should emerge close to fully formed from a quiet dialogue between Indian and U.S. policymakers at the highest levels. Quickly resolving some of the more pressing trade disputes would only help this process further.”

Obviously, Modi didn’t heed Tellis’ advice. He did nothing by way of “giving Trump an incentive to speedily issue the waiver.” The really stunning thing about Tellis’ essay was that this Indian-American think tanker’s grasp of his native country’s foreign policy is so pedestrian. This is what Tellis wrote about India-Russia relations:

“Today, India is struggling to maintain a semblance of productive relations with Russia at a time when Putin has tilted toward India’s most consequential adversary, China; Russia has reinserted itself into Afghanistan and Pakistan in ways that are unhelpful to Indian interests; and the warmth has all but evaporated from the ties that still link Moscow to New Delhi.”

(Modi and Putin at Sochi in June, 2018)

What an assessment for a Carnegie pundit! Now, another think tanker, Jeff Smith at the neocon think tank Heritage Foundation took a retrospective view last week. And how does that look? Smith puts all the blame on India’s “nonalignment crowd”, which, to quote him, perceives that “an alliance with America is akin to a pact with the devil, one lined with costly obligations and emasculating dependency.”

Well, Smith should take timeout and visit one of these countries – Turkey, Pakistan, South Korea or Saudi Arabia – and figure out what these erstwhile allies feel today about their alliance with America. And, yet, none of these 4 countries has had anything to do with “nonalignment” in their modern history. Perhaps, they may now begin to explore the charms of nonalignment.

These Americans do not get it that Modi took a conscious decision that India needed the S-400 ABM system and Iran’s oil and his government would go ahead and meet the country’s needs. In fact, the two major developments in the weekend – Trump backtracking on trade war with China and unilaterally diluting the sanctions regime against Iran’s oil exports – only highlight how foolish it would have been for Modi to cling to the American coattail.

In a historical perspective, Modi government’s decision to push ahead with S-400 ABM system and its refusal to blink on oil imports from Iran cannot be seen as mere flashes in the pan. More such decisions involving India’s relations with Russia and Iran can be expected. Something has fundamentally changed:  Modi has buried India’s post-Soviet era ‘unipolar predicament’.