Dr Kapil K Sharma
Few days back, on April 7, 2021 movement of a USA Naval boat in Indian Ocean has stirred up polity in Indo-pacific region. This deliberate act of USA has forced India to think again on its policy of Indo-pacific in general and QUAD in particular. USS John Paul Jones (DDG 53), a destroyer vessel of US Navy’s 7th fleet ship entered in the close vicinity of Lakshadweep Islands, well within exclusive economic zone of India ‘without consent, without notice and without permission’ and carried out Military exercise. Such an act of US Navy was not expected at all that too at times when USA & India are working as partner in Indo Pacific region. Never before, two countries have come so close in defence cooperation. The act could have gone totally unnoticed had both countries ignored it but US authorities issued a statement justifying it and Pentagon endorsing the stand. It says USA has right to do so in accordance to UNCLOS ‘United Nation Convention on the Laws Of Sea’, according to which US ships can sail through without prior notice. USS John Paul Jones carried out this Military exercise under ‘Freedom of Navigation Operation’, Leaving India with no option but to issue a meek statement as protest. Now, the question arises why this provocation by USA when Indo-US Military cooperation is all time high?
When QUAD an alliance of USA, India, Japan and Australia has just begun to become a formidable Force? When China a common target was really feeling the heat? Why all of a sudden USA started bullying its own ally? This act clearly shows that USA want to convey a message, a warning, but why? Readers must understand India’s tactical posturing in relation to Russia and Iran is a big irritant to USA. Just few weeks back, Russian Minister Sergei Lavrov was in India and USA was watching it closely. Among many issues $ 400 Missile Shield was a big flash point. India stood by its earlier stand and went ahead with various other issues like visit of Putin to India and purchases of more Mig-29 aircrafts etc. Obviously USA didn’t like it.
Further, USA is not happy with India’s vision of staying in QUAD which is formed with a clear objective of countering China. At the same time India is an active Member of BRICS group of countries which include Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. USA sees this grouping as a threat to American Interests and USA’s perception is that India must chose sides clearly as one cannot travel in two boats at the same time. USA wants India to embrace it in total without independent foreign policy as all its allies do. USA is in habit of total adoption, total control without ifs and buts where as India has never done that. Even during cold war era though we were in former USSR camp but India was having independent foreign polices under umbrella of ‘Non Allign Movement’, but no such umbrella exists now. During that period, India was not having any issues with any other super power, as we are having direct confrontation with China now. It is a very tricky diplomatic situation how to partner USA alongside balancing Russia with an objective to counter China.
At the same time, Russia is also not fully satisfied. It wants India to choose between Russia or USA. In past, Russia was India’s biggest arms exporter but recently Russia is losing this status to others including USA. Result of Russian dissatisfaction was evident soon after Lavrov visited Pakistan, and assured Pakistan of full Military exercises and hardware support. Though Russia is not same Economical Super power anymore but still it is a big Military Super power. Even today, more than 70 per of Indian Military hardware is of Russian origin. As such, India can’t side-line Russia. At present Russia is playing second fiddle to China to the extent we can call Russia ‘Junior China’, for the simple reason that their common enemy is USA and for countering formidable USA, both need each other. Russia is a bridge between India & China at the same time Russia is a speed-breaker between India & USA.
Soon India will face another litmus test. Russia and Ukraine are on verge of war. USA has declared NATO forces will support Ukraine. In that scenario USA will expect India to standby USA alongside other QUAD nations viz Japan and Australia. It will be very difficult for India to stay neutral as both Russia and USA will force India to take side. India siding Russia means India and China on same side opposite to USA. Supporting USA even symbolically means India ditching Russia. Another event is going to poke both USA & Israel soon. India is going to make Chabahar port of Iran operational next month, which will not be good for Indo-US relationship.
Readers must understand personal rapport between Heads of two nations is missing. So far no one to one direct interaction between President Biden and PM Modi has taken place. It’s clearly evident Trump – Modi personal rapport would have probably prevented USS John Paul Jones like issue. Incursion of 7th fleet destroyer in to Exclusive Economic Zone of India has created a big dilemma for India. Binding factor between India and USA is countering China militarily & economically. India definitely wants this but with our own conditions, in relation to independent foreign policy whereas USA wants India to follow it blindly. India wants status of partner whereas USA wants a blind follower. Now in my opinion three options are available, first follow USA for time being, go with flow and at the same time ascertain your wish whenever and wherever possible. China is a biggest threat – tackle it first. By annoying USA, India will be creating unnecessary adversary. Right now we just don’t need another headache. Ignore issue of USS John Paul Jones and move on. Here, I would like to mention it’s not first time USS carried out USS John Paul Jones like Freedom of Navigation Operation. It’s been done many times earlier since 1985, but the difference is that earlier India and USA were not so-close and also USA never used this exercise as tool of making statement.
Secondly, with the help of Russia start making good relations with China. Remember China and India are not born-enemies. India and China are having three major thorns in flesh, Border issue, unnecessary support to Pakistan and trade imbalance. If all these issues are taken care of, I don’t observe any other friction points between India and China. If these issues are settled, Elephant and Dragon can definitely dance together. Third, India must go solo. Independently counter China, handle USA tactfully with arm’s distance and create environment so that both super powers look towards us for support and cooperation. It is very hypothetical and can happen if India is an economical and military powerhouse in itself.
Dr Kapil K Sharma