The Strategist

There is a New Symphony at Play

22 Jun, 2016    ·   5066

Vice Admiral (Retd) Vijay Shankar looks at Modi’s US visit in light of the need to to balance out China’s objectives of hegemonic control through strategic security partnerships

Vijay Shankar
Vijay Shankar
Vice Admiral (Retd.)

Change, more often than not, is driven by circumstances rather than scholastic deliberation. As President Obama once put it, perhaps as an unintended barb to the legions of geopolitical seers that stalk Massachusetts Avenue, Washington DC, “Change doesn’t come from Washington but comes to Washington.” So it was with Prime Minister Modi’s three-day state visit to the US (6-8 June 2016). Not only did the visit lay the foundation to several strategic goals mutual to both sides, but it was also punctuated by symbolism that provides a basis for the future. When Modi suggested stepping out of the “shadows of hesitations of the past” he could not have stated in more unequivocal terms that India’s strategic orientation was now one that not only respected the status quo, but also would contribute towards ensuring that attempts to upset it would not go unchallenged.

At the same time, laying a floral wreath at Arlington Cemetery to the Tomb of the Unknowns (a first for an Indian PM), on the face of it, was an unconditional tribute to that one unquestioning instrument of state power who historically has laid down his all for a national cause. Underlying the salute was recognition of the role played by the military in binding and stabilising an uncertain security milieu.

Alfred Thayer Mahan in The Influence of Sea Power upon History underscored three prescient perspectives relating to the Global Commons. First, competition for materials and markets is intrinsic to an ever trussed global system. Second, the nature of commerce on the one hand deters war, while on the other engenders friction. Third, the Commons require to be secured against hegemony, disruption and rapacious exploitation. These perspectives today ring a reality whose significance has not been lost on the PM.

Mr Modi’s understanding of contemporary dynamics in the Global Commons and the need to balance out China’s objectives of hegemonic control through strategic security partnerships is adroit. The Global Commons typically describes international and supranational resource domains. It includes the earth’s shared resources, such as the oceans, the atmosphere, outer space and the polar regions. Cyberspace also meets current discernment. It is hardly coincident that it is in these very domains that China has shown aggressive intent. The current distressed state of the Commons is marked by the impact that globalisation has had: strains of multi-polarity, anarchy of expectations and increasing tensions between demands for economic integration and stresses of fractured political divisions are all symptoms. Nations are persistently confronted by the need to reconcile internal pressures with intrusive external impulses at a time when the efficacy of military power to bring on positive political outcomes is in question. While most nations have sought resolution and correctives within the framework of the existing international order, China emerges as an irony that has angled for and conspired to re-write the rule book. The PM’s statement to Congress that it was only strong Indo-US ties that could anchor security in the Indian Pacific Region left little to speculate what direction relations were taking and the extent of mutuality that was perceived in the Logistic Support Agreement (LSA) being fleshed out. Not only is India preparing for strategic collaboration with the US, but it is buttressing its posture in the Indo-Pacific through multilateral cooperation with ASEAN. All this must be seen as its intent to institutionalise its presence in the waters of the Indo-Pacific.

Critics, both in the developed and indeed in the developing world, maintain that scripting an international security relationship with the US flies in the face of autonomy in global affairs. In response one only has to note the transformed conditions of the world order of the day which is far removed from that which existed between the post-World War II era to the end of the Cold War. Uncertainties of events and their multi-faceted impact reflect the new substance of increased global interdependence in every field of endeavour. Whether these fields are in the economic, political or security domains, corollary imperatives are interlinked at the national, regional and international levels.

Latest reports in the run-up to the plenary session of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) to be held at Seoul on 24 June 2016 suggest that the US and Russia along with most other member countries (total 48) have expressed support for India’s admission to the Group largely as a result of three considerations: India’s clean track record of non-proliferation; US and Russian along with majority support; and the lure of commercial gain. But China is resisting admission on the basis of a curious principle – that before any decision is taken about India’s membership, the NSG needs to agree on equitable and non-discriminatory criteria for membership of those countries that are nuclear weapon states (for “those countries” read Pakistan), but are not signatories of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). China argues that if any exception to the conditions for admission is to be made, then it should apply equally to both India and Pakistan. As a counter argument, accession to the NPT is not a criterion for membership — France was not a member of the NPT until 1992 though it was a founder member of the NSG in 1975. On the second rule condition — a good non-proliferation record; India has a better history than some of the NSG members. Particularly China, given membership in 2004, has debatably the most dubious proliferation record whether it is their dealings with Pakistan or North Korea. For that matter, equating the Indian and Pakistani applications for membership, as China has done, is disingenuous. India has never had a state-sponsored AQ Khan nuclear black-market network extending from Libya to North Korea nor sold nuclear technology to third parties. For China to have overlooked all this including the fact that, as Modi put it to the US Congress, all global terrorism is “incubated” in India’s neighbourhood (meaning Pakistan), must speak of China’s own credibility within the group.

What are the stakes involved? For India, the logical sequel to the Indo-US civil nuclear agreement of 2008 and the concomitant NSG waiver followed by entry into the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) is membership of the NSG; gives legitimacy to nuclear aspirations and unimpeded access to technology. However, will China’s stonewalling work? Given the circumstances that China finds itself in, clearly not for long.

Even the prolific realist that Walt Whitman was would agree that “now that the orchestra have sufficiently tuned their instruments and the baton has given the signal to play;” Modi’s addendum that it “was best that a new symphony be played” is most appropriate.