External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar (L) in conversation with Australian counterpart Marise Payne at Quad ministerial, Tokyo, October 6, 2020
The expectations were that the visiting US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun would expand from a public platform in Delhi on October 12 on a theme he had audaciously expounded some six weeks ago in an online seminar that Washington was aiming to “formalise” growing strategic ties with India, Japan and Australia in the framework of the so-called Quad.
Biegun had said, “It is a reality that the Indo-Pacific region is actually lacking in strong multilateral structures. They don’t have anything of the fortitude of NATO, or the European Union. There is certainly an invitation there at some point to formalise a structure like this.”
The remark raised eyebrows within India and regionally, as Beigun entered forbidden territory. Beigun would have desisted if only he had glanced through the External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar’s book The India Way.
The point is, even the former Soviet Union, in the halcyon days of friendship with India — even while shooing off USS Enterprise prowling in the Bay of Bengal in 1971 threatening India — never proposed a formal military alliance with New Delhi.
Therefore, the most striking thing about Beigun’s speech yesterday is that he steered clear of the “Asian NATO” theme. Indeed, Biegun was also speaking a week after the Quad ministerial in Tokyo where Jaishankar said the absolute minimum necessary — and Beijing promptly took note of it.
In such a context, Beigun outlined Plan B, which candidly accepted that “the model of the last century of mutual defence treaties with a heavy in-country US troop presence (aka NATO)” is not necessarily the Quad’s future.
Biegun instead proposed a loose “alignment on how best to equitably address strategic threats while accounting for changes in capabilities and respect for one another’s sovereignty.”
India’s China hands, all dressed up and raring to go for “strategic linkages” with the US, must be sorely disappointed when Biegun stated his “respect” for India’s strategic autonomy. (Jaishankar boldly calls it “nonalignment”.)
Biegun chose measured words to outline what Quad can do, namely, “an organic and deeper partnership—not an alliance on the postwar model, but a fundamental alignment along shared security and geopolitical goals, shared interests, and shared values.”
Nonetheless, he noted, China is the “elephant in the room”. So, how does the Quad look like? Beigun called for an “increase and regularise contact at all levels between the Quad’s diplomats, defense officials, and technical experts”; partnerships between development finance corporations to help facilitate the Indo-Pacific needs for energy and infrastructure; deepening of engagement with ASEAN; cooperation in defending freedom of the seas; joint efforts in governance, health, environmental protection, water conservation and transparent data sharing; and, increased people-to-people ties.
Biegun conceptualised as follows: “The Quad is a partnership driven by shared interests, not binding obligations, and is not intended to be an exclusive grouping.”
The main purpose of Biegun’s visit was probably not this speech but the discussions today with Indian officials to get a preview of the planned 2+2 foreign and defence ministers’ bilateral meet in Delhi. Any productive outcome could be useful for Trump’s campaign, which is in dead heat.
Biegun is a realist, having been President Trump’s envoy to North Korea — and a specialist on Russia with live-in experience of Moscow — and senses that Quad won’t fly in the geopolitics of Asia.
In the run-up to the Tokyo meeting, Washington hoped to attract more countries to the Quad — Mongolia, South Korea and Vietnam. But Pompeo saw there were no takers and abruptly cancelled his scheduled visits to Ulaanbaatar and Seoul.
The week before the Quad meet in Tokyo, Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke to the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam and President Nguyen Phu Trong. According to the Chinese readout,
“The Vietnamese side highly treasures and firmly safeguards the friendly and cooperative relations with China, and is grateful to the Chinese side for offering valuable support and assistance at various stages of the liberation and development of Vietnam… The Vietnamese side hopes to cement political mutual trust of the two parties and the two countries with the Chinese side, give full play to political leadership of the two parties in bilateral relations, maintain the right tone in public communication, and push for new progress in economic and trade cooperation. Both sides should deepen exchanges and cooperation at local levels, boost coordination and cooperation within multilateral frameworks, jointly secure a peaceful and stable environment for development, properly address and resolve existing problems, and lead the relations both between the two parties and between the two countries to new historic development.”
Our ex-generals and ex-diplomats who fantasise about the Quad have lost the plot. Simply put, to rally a political or military alliance against China is not an achievable goal. Just forget about it. At Tokyo, Pompeo indulged in vicious anti-China diatribes, but his Quad colleagues looked away.
The new Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who, unlike Abe, has no pretensions of being Trump’s friend, has made it clear that he wants to repair the somewhat strained relationship with China. Japan will no doubt remain loyal to the bilateral defence alliance with the US, but Suga faces an election next year and his handling of COVID-19 and Japan’s economic recovery are going to be the clinchers, where close economic and trade relationship with China can make big difference.
For India too, the Belt and Road Initiative is the only stepping stone to accelerate economic recovery, create a rapid development path and job creation before the 2024 general election.
At a Border Roads Organisation virtual function on October 12, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh touched upon a collusive threat from Pakistan and China. He said, “First Pakistan, and now also by China, as if a border dispute is being created under a mission by the two countries. We have a border of about 7000 km with these countries.”
Yes, the spectre of a war of attrition haunts India. But it is a failure of foreign policies. A modus vivendi with China is absolutely imperative. How that is to be achieved poses an intellectual challenge rather than a military matter. India should not make the cold-war era mistake of strategic overreach that ultimately tired out the former Soviet Union and led to its collapse.
A starting point will be to examine with a cool head the factors underlying the US’ hostility toward China. In a nutshell, the US’ predicament is that whereas it accounted for one-half or more of the world’s manufactures through the past seven-decade period, it now makes only about one-sixth. The US is paranoid that the era of its global dominance is ending. And, as happened often in history, the great power in decline desperately refuses to accept the geopolitical reality and adapt itself to a new normal.
Today, China accounts for 30 percent of global manufacturing and continues to grow, with an economy that is almost one-third larger than that of the US in purchasing power terms and rapidly approaching parity at nominal exchange rates. China is hard to beat as it is now the largest consumer market on the planet and the biggest trading partner of over three-fourths of the world’s other economies.
China is fully integrated into the global capitalist system and cannot be walled off from it. And China already possesses one-fourth of the world’s scientific, technological, engineering, and mathematics workforce. Its ascendancy has become unstoppable.
Yet, China spends only two percent or less of GDP on its military compared to the current 7.9% spent by the US. China is disinterested in matching the US’ nuclear arsenal and adopts a “no first use” policy backed by a modest force de frappe that can conduct a limited but devastating retaliatory counterstrike.
China cannot be beaten since, unlike the USSR, it is part of the same global society as the US. Look at the sheer spread of the US-China battlefields — global governance, geoeconomics, trade, investment, finance, currency usage, supply chain management, technology standards and systems, scientific collaboration and so on. It speaks of China’s vast global reach. This wasn’t the case with USSR.
Above all, China has no messianic ideology to export and prefers to set a model by virtue of its performance. It is not in the business of instigating regime change in other countries, and actually gets along rather well with democracies.
The heart of the matter is that India has no reason to be the US’ pillion rider. Whatever remained of the US’ exceptionalism is also gone as the world witnesses its pitiable struggle with Covid-19, repeated displays of racism, gun violence, political venality, xenophobia. No wonder, the transatlantic alliance is withering and Europeans are dissociating from the US’ effort to “contain” China.
The US created the ASEAN but today no Asian security partner wants to choose between America and China. The ASEAN cannot be repurposed to form a coalition to counter China. Thus, no claimant against China in the South China Sea is prepared to join the US in its naval fracas with China.
China has resources, including money, to offer its partners, whereas, the US budget is in chronic deficit and even routine government operations must now be funded with debt. It needs to find resources needed to keep its human and physical infrastructure at levels competitive with those of China and other great economic powers.
Why on earth should India get entangled in this messy affair whose climax is a foregone conclusion? No, things should never be allowed to reach such a pass that India needs to tackle a China-Pakistan collusion.
A robust attempt is needed to reach a settlement of the boundary dispute with China, which would open up vast vistas of cooperation that can uplift India’s development trajectory.
If our generals (or ex-generals) want a bigger defence budget, so be it. If the government has money to spare, why not? But that doesn’t have to be pinned on outlandish notions of inevitability of an epochal war with China. China has no need to fight wars when it is already winning.