Troubles & China
India has to be vigilant against the new turmoil in the Indo-Pacific region.
New Delhi: The Indo-Pacific region is experiencing great turmoil. Disturbances are building up at an unusually rapid pace. India must exercise utmost vigilance since its interests are involved to an unprecedentedly high degree.
The Donald Trump administration has authorized the Central Intelligence Agency to launch drone operations against terrorists operating in Pakistan. The previous Barack Obama administration had suspended unmanned attacks which were mostly handled by the United States Department of Defence. Now the CIA has been added.
The mood in Washington has turned determinedly against Pakistan. While relations are unlikely to reach a stage where they completely break down, they are inexorably headed, however, in that direction. No one trusts Pakistan. Without being formally designated, Washington sees it as a state sponsor of terrorism. While Pakistani terrorist attacks against India and Afghanistan are no longer taken lightly, adding to the anger and dismay are terror groups backed by Pakistan which target US interests and the residual American troops based in Afghanistan.
Significantly at a juncture when Pakistan has come under renewed scrutiny and action in Washington for sponsoring terrorism, Pakistan’s army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, has made a splashy visit to Beijing, whose details are available in the newspapers. The substance of the visit is expanding Chinese military cooperation with Pakistan. Transfers of conventional weapons’ systems, while outsized for Pakistan’s threat requirements, are less at issue here. China has flagrantly made over a variety of nuclear platforms to Pakistan to tilt the deterrence balance with India.
At the same time, China has launched a propaganda blitz in this country of the benefits to India of joining the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that passes through Indian territory held by Pakistan. Politicians, experts in think-tanks and journalists have been sought to be moulded to favour CPEC. India, of course, has rightly and robustly rejected any scope of participation in the corridor and demanded the return of Gilgit-Baltistan from Pakistan, which it has set out formally to annex to facilitate the CPEC project.
The CPEC has become a desperate fallback for China as the Asia-Pacific region teems with hostility against North Korea for threatening South Korea and Japan with nuclear weapons. To counter the North’s sabre-rattling, the THAAD anti-ballistic missile systems have arrived in parts in South Korea. Livid at this, China has scaled down relations with South Korea. Meanwhile, anti-nuclear missile drills have been conducted in Japan in anticipation of a North Korean strike.
While variations of this theme have played out before, the difference for now has been supplied by the Trump administration. Speaking in Japan, the new US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, said twenty years of diplomacy have failed to convince North Korea to abandon nuclear weapons. He did not overrule hard measures which are certain to unnerve the North’s sole ally and partner in the region, China.
What has to be ominous for China is that President Trump has slashed the budget of the US Department of State by nearly thirty per cent and allocated a bulk of the proceeds to the hiked defence spending. White House officials openly speak of boosting US hard power. Among the Great Powers, the United States sees China as its principal adversary. That this should happen in the forty-fifth year of Richard Nixon establishing diplomatic relations with China has to be bitterly ironic. After witnessing what became of the Soviet Union, China cannot underestimate the United States’ capacity and resolve to cut it down to size.
Nixon played the “China card” against Soviet Russia and compelled a detente. While Russia could well return the favour, aligning with the US against China, it is more likely that the United States will build a coalition of democracies to contain Chinese expansionism. South Korea and Japan are obvious partners, and India is slowly and steadily getting there. In a definite thrust for India’s rise, the United States has reiterated its support to the country’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group and to other export control regimes.
Traditionally, India has waited for the international order to rearrange itself to its benefit. Such passivity shall no longer yield results and may even be harmful, especially as India is seen as a rising state with a capacity to influence the global balance of power. India has to make sense of the fast-moving events in the Indo-Pacific region and take proactive steps. At a minimum, it ought to be in close consultation with South Korea, Japan and the other major state in the region, Australia, and must open special channels with the United States.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is not one to let the grass grow under his feet; but his strategic leadership nevertheless might soon be put to a ruthless test. India must remain vigilant and ready for any contingency. As much as his predecessor was somnolent, President Trump is bursting with energy to set right US foreign policy. It is perilous to suppose that India won’t be affected.