A bolt from the blue
On April 7th 2021, less than a month after the first ever Quad Summit between the leaders of the US, India, Japan and Australia, the US Seventh Fleet issued a terse statement that it had "asserted navigational rights and freedoms approximately 130 nautical miles west of the Lakshadweep Islands, inside India's exclusive economic zone, without requesting India's prior consent, consistent with international law."
No doubt taken by surprise and embarrassed on the world stage by a country it had considered an ally, India lodged a muted protest, and the troubling episode raised questions about the alliance, especially the level of mutual respect on which it was based.
As a matter of principle, the US may have been right in asserting its freedom of navigation, since there is a difference between territorial waters and an exclusive economic zone. [Permission is required before a foreign ship enters a country's territorial waters. In contrast, an exclusive economic zone only means that a country has sole rights to exploit that area of the sea for economic gain, e.g., by fishing, drilling for offshore oil, etc. Merely sailing through a country's exclusive economic zone should not require permission.]
Setting aside questions of principle for the moment, what the US action demonstrated was its ready willingness to embarrass a country that was putatively a close ally in a strategically important grouping. The US perceived no negative consequences to itself from displeasing India, and the continuance of the relationship was taken for granted. That pointed diplomatic snub, and the lack of respect it implied, should be a reminder to India that its inclusion in the Quad is not a sign of its arrival on the global stage, but merely of its usefulness in the strategic plans of other nations.
With the wake-up call afforded by that splash of cold water by the US navy, what hard-headed analysis can India's policymakers carry out now?
Back to first principles
Here's my take on a hypothetical foreign policy shift by India that could be a geopolitical game-changer.
Let's start with some basic premises.
India has no fundamental quarrel with the leading powers of mainland Eurasia - China, Russia or Iran. These are all ancient civilisations that have co-existed for millennia. (A careful reading of history will show that India's current tensions with China are merely a border dispute that is very recent in that timescale, and further, of India's own making.)
In spite of cordial relations, India has no inherent alignment of interests with the countries of the West, and the relationship is in fact transactional. (For that matter, the national interests of Japan and Australia could also be more naturally aligned with those of China rather than the US, but that determination is for those countries to arrive at independently.)
Let us also agree on where the battle lines have been drawn.
China's swift rise over the last three decades has completely altered power equations around the world, but most emphatically in the Eurasian region. The most dramatic reset has been in Sino-Russian relations. At the time of the Chinese communist revolution in 1949, it was the former Soviet Union that was China's ally and senior partner. That relationship ruptured in 1969. Today, it has been restored, with Russia greatly diminished and willing to accept a junior role in its partnership with China. The two countries have been pushed into each other's arms because of open hostility from the US. The US has been aggressively arming Ukraine against Russia, and that could be a potential flashpoint in the near future.
Another major power in Asia is Iran, also an object of unbridled US hostility, including Trump's about-face that negated the normalisation promised by the Obama administration's civilian nuclear deal.
China, of course, has been identified by the US as their main geopolitical adversary today, and as independent analysts have pointed out, third countries have a stark "with us or against us" choice.
The China-Russia-Iran axis has been born of necessity, thanks to the unmistakeably hostile moves of the US against all of them.
The Quad alliance has a similar motivation, in that it is prompted by a shared fear of China.
As we can see, alliances are determined by geopolitical power struggles, and the current line-up of allies and adversaries has been determined as a result of the perspective and actions of the US.
It's instructive to consider that had India liberalised its economy earlier and grown faster than China, the US may have now enlisted China to help contain India. In geopolitics, there is no such thing as a "peaceful rise". All rising powers are inherently threatening to established powers. And hence there is no alliance that India "naturally" belongs to.
India has independent agency
India does not have to blindly accept the cards that the US has dealt it and the world. It has the independent agency to look at geopolitics through its own lens, and determine for itself what sort of alliance would suit its interests best.
The battle lines having already been drawn, the composition of the two sides (apart from India) is now a given.
The questions India needs to ask itself are:
1. Where do the country's best interests lie? Should it remain in the US-led Quad? Should it be non-aligned between the blocs? Or should it switch sides?
2. Are the democracies natural allies merely on account of their being democracies, or is this an appealing construct that helps the US? Remember that outside of the West, the US often finds it more convenient to form alliances with pliant dictatorships than with independent democracies.
3. Is India's perception of China as an adversary justified, or is this merely the result of unfortunate recent history and conditioned thinking?
I have in the past argued for Indian non-alignment between these two rival power blocs, but I now believe that the bolder option of switching sides should be seriously considered. Staying in the US-led Quad or being non-aligned are conventional options with largely predictable outcomes. In contrast, switching is a disruptive move with potentially large benefits for India, and the resulting shift in the balance of world power could itself mitigate the risks.
The battle lines as they have been drawn up suit the interests of the US, and a number of the consequences of India's current alignment with the US, most importantly the hostility of China, flow from that choice. On consideration, China is a threat to India only to the extent that India in turn positions itself as a threat to China. In other words, India can eliminate the threat from China by ceasing all acts of hostility and becoming an ally instead.
What the Chinese want is unquestioned recognition as the dominant power in Asia, but they are not interested in militarily invading or imposing a communist form of government on Asian countries. India does not need to fear Chinese interference in its internal affairs as a result of an alliance. As long as other countries cooperate with China, Beijing will allow them to coexist and even prosper. That's not a very different proposition from that offered by the United States!
There is thus no self-evident logic to India remaining in the US-led Quad. Forming a new Quad in alliance with China, Russia and Iran could in time begin to seem equally natural.
India's place - Perception and reality
While Indians tend to take great pride in the greatness of their own civilisation, some realism needs to temper that perception. In terms of relative power, India can only be a junior partner in either of these current groupings. It is grossly subservient to the US in the Quad (as has been so pointedly demonstrated by the Freedom of Navigation episode), and while it will be more influential within a China-led alliance, it will definitely be a junior partner.
In other words, India can never hope to be king. But it can be kingmaker. While its own power per se is limited, India is tremendously important in the world because it holds the balance of power.
India has the potential to bring about a very different world order, provided it alters its own mindset on two counts:
1. India needs to tell itself the truth about 1962. The Chinese did not stab India in the back after promising friendship. It was Nehru who rejected Zhou Enlai's peace deal in 1960, a deal that was extremely generous from today's perspective. It was Nehru (and his defence minister VK Krishna Menon) who needlessly provoked China with aggressive military intrusions that they called "Forward Policy". The Chinese merely counterattacked to teach Nehru a lesson, and then withdrew to the Line of Actual Control as before. The Chinese showed restraint in the face of unilateral Indian aggression. That was the true story of 1962.
2. India needs to accept the reality of its relative power with China. In the 1950s, and indeed, right up to the mid-1980s, there was rough parity between the two countries in economic and military terms, but the gap has widened to a factor of five in economic terms, with corresponding impacts on relative Comprehensive National Power. In any relationship with China, India will be the junior partner. It needs to acknowledge and accept that subordinate status.
Pax Sinica and a brave new world
Once India changes its current mindset, exciting options open up.
India can finally secure its land borders.
The border dispute with China has always been about the mere demarcation of territory. Quite unlike the troubled relationship with Pakistan, no deeper historical resentments are involved. Zhou Enlai's generous offer in 1960 to give up all other Chinese claims in exchange for just Aksai Chin has probably lapsed. Settlement of the border dispute in today's world may require the giving up of Indian claims to Aksai Chin as well as the actual transfer of part of Arunachal Pradesh to China. Who knows, with shrewd bargaining, it may even be possible to get a much more favourable deal in exchange for the very considerable offer of an Indian defection! Once the prickly territorial questions are out of the way, the rest of the settlement will be a simple matter of agreeing the exact course of the Himalayan border, which in today's age, can be monitored to an accuracy of mere metres with GPS technology.
That will end the decades-long border dispute with China.
An additional factor in India's favour is that China also has an interest in seeing the India-Pakistan border dispute settled amicably, since the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, China's vital access route to the Indian Ocean, runs through the currently disputed region of Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. In the event of conflict between India and Pakistan, Chinese economic interests will be at severe risk, and China would like to eliminate that risk.
Pakistan is effectively a Chinese vassal state, and so it is politically feasible to turn the Line of Control between India and Pakistan into a mutually accepted border with China's blessing, and to have that agreement honoured by the Pakistani establishment. The giving up of claims to all of Kashmir will be a bitter pill for both India and Pakistan, but the benefits of a settlement will be enormous.
The end of hostilities with Pakistan will be a natural corollary of the normalisation of relations with China, and will be a huge relief to both India and Pakistan.
It is hard to overstate the impact of such developments, since insecure land borders have shaped India's perceptions ever since its independence as a modern nation.
This is just for starters.
The holy grail is a free trade zone comprising all of Eurasia, with greatly eased movement of goods and people, and the fastest growth in living standards for the largest number of people ever in world history. China lifted 800 million people from poverty in a single generation. India lifted 270 million people from poverty during a single decade. Together, and in concert with other countries, such economic miracles can be replicated throughout the Eurasian region.
Linking India's Golden Quadrilateral to China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) can unlock synergies that ripple beyond the two countries. Instead of competing for influence in other South- and South-East Asian states, India and China could collaborate in looping them into an economic free trade zone with seamless transport and communication infrastructure. For example, a land link from South India to Sri Lanka will be a reality if both India and China push for it.
All of Asia and much of Europe will become part of a giant economic zone, and every country in its ambit will see a spurt in growth and living standards.
Indians may remain reluctant to admit it, but they will owe their new era of prosperity to this Pax Sinica. They can of course take legitimate pride that they played a key role in bringing it about.
The natural question to ask is, will this shift not antagonise the US, and will it not have negative repercussions for India?
I believe that while the US is certain to be antagonised, it will find itself powerless to take hostile action against India. Virtually the whole of mainland Asia (including Russia) will be part of a united bloc under the leadership of China, and China will then act to protect its interests. India's defection will greatly improve China's own security situation, and together with Russia, China will in turn be able to provide a security guarantee to India against hostile US action.
It could be argued that India's defection carries risk as well as its own mitigation. The US could in fact find itself greatly diminished in power across the board as a result of this dramatic shift, and therefore less able to convey its displeasure in the terms the world has learnt to fear.
Europe may also decide to loosen its tight embrace of the US in the face of a united Asian alliance, which is also a much larger market than any other in the world. The incentive for trade could force Europe to break with the US and engage more positively with the Asian bloc.
As for the remaining members of the erstwhile Quad, Australia and Japan will also be under tremendous pressure to distance themselves from the US.
As has been remarked, the Australian and Chinese economies are complementary, not competitive, in nature. Australia grows and prospers in tandem with China. It makes no sense for Australia to antagonise China, and there is tremendous internal pressure being put on the Australian government to step back from its adversarial position and normalise relations with China. My guess is that Australia will quietly fold in the next year or two regardless of what India does.
Japan is another country that needs to swallow its pride and do what is in its own best interests. Japan is a rapidly declining power, with an ageing demography and an economy that has been stagnating for well over two decades. Its path to continued prosperity lies in vigorous economic ties with China. The two things Japan needs to do first are these:
1. Apologise for the atrocities committed by its troops in World War II, such as the Nanjing massacre, and make reparations, however symbolic.
2. Give up its claims to the Senkaku (Diaoyu) islands. Unlike the Malvinas (Falkland) islands fought over by the UK and Argentina, these islands are uninhabited. Their "strategic" value is paradoxically negated by the fact that claiming them turns China into a powerful enemy, when it could be just a trading partner.
Over to you, India
All of these strategic pieces fall into place based on what India chooses to do. India can be a blocker, or an enabler, of the shift of power from the West back to the East, and the start of a new Eastern Golden Age.
The main impediments to such a foreign policy shift are in the Indian mind - an irrational fear of China, emotional baggage from a false narrative of the 1962 war, a misplaced pride in the second-to-none greatness of the Indian civilisation that precludes acceptance of a subordinate role in Asian affairs, a naive belief that democracies are natural allies when realpolitik has repeatedly demonstrated otherwise, and most importantly, policy inertia and the timidity to dream bold dreams.