STRATEGIC policy formulation at best of times isn’t easy. There are always some factors fully under control; some are straws in the wind and others remain perched somewhere on a high shelf not within easy reach. Mid-2018 is one of those junctures when nothing seems pegged in certainty. It happened in 1989 too when the world was in reset. It seems it is in even greater reset today. A review of the indicators and symptoms will help with the uncertainty.
It must start with India’s relations with the big powers. The promising Indo-US strategic partnership seems to have taken a temporary halt as the US resets in priorities and threat perception. Trump’s elation at his perceived success in the Korean peninsula is likely to give him an out-of-proportion perception of his own capability to handle intractable conflicts. During her visit to New Delhi, Nikki Haley stated that she would not be here if India was not high in US strategic priority. Yet, the second postponement of the 2+2 dialogue, slated to be held in Washington in early July, is being interpreted negatively as “buying time for reconsideration”. Quite clearly India is being coerced to come on the line on several issues. In no particular priority, the first is Iran. With Europe uncertain on how to treat future US sanctions on Iran after the US pullout from the Iran nuclear deal, and China far too dependent on Iranian energy, the US is attempting to coercively secure the cooperation of middle powers. Turkey has refused and the Middle East alone isn’t going to make any difference. It’s a big buyer such as India that will help strangulate Iran’s economy. For India, Iran is too important, not just for energy, but for access to Eurasia, Afghanistan and Central Asia, all strategically crucial regions; much time, energy and resources have been sunk into Chahbahar to make that difference. Till India does not relent on Iran in a definitive way, the US attitude will continue. India’s stance is as yet ambivalent although bordering on acquiescence.
The US, more than any other nation, is aware of its dwindling power under Trump. With the concept of time-tested partnerships giving way to US isolationism and “America First”, the distribution of power is up for grabs. With a “neither here nor there” dealing with Russia and an attitude hell-bent on pushing Moscow firmly into the Chinese grip, the US wants India to back off from its time-tested partner. The last straw on the back was the Indian decision to seriously consider a Rs 40,000 crore purchase of the Russian S-400 Triumf Air Defence system for six of its air defence units. One of the world’s finest air defence systems, India decided to pitch for it as part of its return to Russia as a key arms supplier and strategic partner.
Resetting ties with Russia is considered a major part of the retention of balance in relationships; a virtual return to a more equitably aligned status. However, the US has informally mentioned the application of Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) to India should this deal be pursued, even as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has apparently pushed for legislative waiver for India and some other countries. The waiver is as uncertain as any US strategic policy of the current times.
On China, India’s earlier decisions to be seen as part of the US-Japan combine and the commitment towards the “Quad” have now given way to a re-examination, bordering on retention of bilaterals with all these nations without multilateral equations. No doubt, it’s part of the ongoing reset after the dangerous Doklam standoff. Wuhan followed by Sochi exemplified India’s perception that it may have left Chinese and Russian strategic concerns out of consideration in its eagerness to set its ties with the US. A military confrontation with China would leave India relatively isolated without fallback options. To its credit, China has not held back and has been forthcoming in this reset. Its perception of a new world order does include a greater role in India’s neighbourhood and it is attempting to formalise that through a 2+1 format, whereby both India and China can jointly engage a third regional country. There is no certainty on how China wishes to actually handle the US trade war coercion, but obviously its economy is also deeply linked with the US and brave statements may not find practical backing in an era of increasing economic uncertainty.
That brings us to Pakistan, which, for India, remains important notwithstanding perceptions that India should be concerned about bigger things. With smaller discomforts which draw public attention, no Indian Government can afford to ignore threats from that direction. With elections due in Pakistan on July 25 uncertainty again prevails. The completion of the electoral process holds no portend of greater stability in Pakistan if the army-backed Imran Khan and his Tehreek-e-Insaf party come to power. Even if Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League wins, the army will ensure its paralysis. Either way, Pakistan is not a nation with whom peace parleys can be expected anytime in the near future. No big power will go beyond FATF pressure to rein in Pakistan and India has to find the means of neutralising it without international support.
The brilliant piece of Indian diplomacy at the beginning of 2018 witnessed outreach to ASEAN and effective straddling of the Middle East political and sectarian divide with Israeli and Iranian visits to New Delhi in quick succession and PM Modi’s rapid-fire moves with Palestine, Jordan, the UAE and Oman. Modi’s decision to follow with Wuhan, Sochi and Qingdao (SCO) were brave attempts at reset which should help straddle the period of uncertainty. What India needs to do is to ensure that its strategic independence is least compromised and its interests must scan issues far beyond just expression of satisfaction on FATF grey listing of Pakistan. That too bears its relevance, but imperative is keeping eyes peeled on the greater developments that are witnessing the shifting and distribution of international power. Not much may change with China, Russia or Europe, but the US has elections coming up that could significantly change the political landscape in six months. No formal new order is likely to emerge, but whatever shape it does take, India should aim to be supping at a higher table.