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An alliance, post-Galwan

The underlying principle of ‘Asia Pivot’ was also based on pragmatism, specifically to be in Asia with the US at the centre of that action, not exclusively anymore, but with powerful regional ‘allies’. Allies cannot and should not bank on America’s militaristic intervention; instead they require enhanced strategic posturing, flexibility and cohesion.

Bhopinder Singh | New Delhi |

When borders erupt and rival militaries clash, the fleeting reality of ‘alliances’ comes forth. Only when the people, infrastructure or the critical interest of a superpower-inalliance is directly impacted, does it partake any meaningful intervention on behalf of its perceived ally. Short of that, at best it does symbolic militaristic posturing and usually confines itself to making diplomatic statements, that don’t count for much.

In the middle of the violent border faceoff between the Indian soldiers and the Chinese PLA at Galwan, President Trump chipped in with one such trifle, ‘It’s a very tough situation. We are talking to India, we’re talking to China. They have got a big problem there. They have come to blows and we’ll see what happens. We are trying to help them out’. This pusillanimity was much weaker in spirit than the support the US afforded Pakistan in the 1971 Indo-Pak war.

Declassified documents reveal that the Nixon- Kissinger combine kept supplying arms to Pakistan despite having declared an embargo on military hardware and above all, ordered the US 7th fleet to sail menacingly towards the Bay of Bengal. A confidential note prepared by the Embassy of India read: “Feel (sic) that the bomber force aboard the Enterprise had the US President’s authority to undertake bombing of Indian Army’s communication if necessary.”

But this was at the peak of Cold War sensitivities and stakes, and the United States’ commitment towards its ally in 1971 was more pronounced, than towards its changed ally in 2020, at Galwan. As the high player of realpolitik, China is fully aware of the various shades and levels of militaristic ‘interventions’ afforded by superpowers, towards their ostensible allies. China carefully calibrates and figures out its neighbourhood in such a manner that the immediate impact of Chinese belligerence is felt ~ further escalation to a full-blown war is avoided, and yet China inches forward in pursuit of its expansionist and assertive agenda.

The Chinese government’s unofficial mouthpiece, Global Times, noted the conundrum faced by countries confronting China. ‘Most of them understand that US’ involvement in the region is limited and once they really have conflicts with China, assistance offered by the US will be far from sufficient’. Singapore’s Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, noted in The Endangered Asian Century: America, China, and the Perils of Confrontation, that China was ‘a reality on the doorstep’ and that neighbouring countries could not afford to alienate it, as China now ‘wants to protect and advance its interests abroad and secure what it sees as its rightful place in international affairs’.

Banking solely on the US to guarantee protection, stability and support is unrealistic as the strategic resolve and capability of Pax Americana has weakened considerably, and Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ has only accelerated the phenomenon of ‘transactionality’, as opposed to unconditional protection of the Cold War era. The Chinese have mastered the theoretical idea of ‘war control’, which envisages an ability to dictate the sparring terms, intensity and limits of a conflict.

The PLA undertakes the militaristic wherewithal towards escalation and an advantageous and coercive situation ~ then allowing the civilian leadership of Xi Jingping to shape the narrative, as he would be more acutely conscious of the tolerance-limits and of the transcendent goals. The restive countries surrounding the rim of the South China Seas are familiar with this peculiar Chinese stratagem. Philippines had famously won a case against Chinese claims on territorial sovereignty in the International Court of Justice, only to incredously go back to appeasing and wooing the Chinese, even at the cost of scrapping the 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with its traditional ally, USA.

It has now done another U-turn, apparently ‘in light of political and other developments in the region’. The fear of the Chinese juggernaut is increasing, as also of a sense of vulnerability and isolation, should a dispute flare-up militarily. It is in this backdrop of Chinese belligerence, that India had emerged as a natural and foremost US ally and vital component of Obama-Hillary duo’s famous ‘America’s Pacific Century’ with the ‘Asian Pivot’, call. Thereafter, technological, military and intelligence exchanges that are typically reserved for allies, symbolic renaming of United States Pacific Command (USPACOM) to Indo- Pacific Command and concepts like QUAD (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between US, Japan, India and Australia) did start.

Yet the nature of alliance remained essentially a matter of posturing with America’s own fickle relationship with Pakistan, driven by its own topical urgencies. But India is clearly not an ally like Saudi Arabia, where the stakes are much more immediate and perceptibly, irreplaceable. Adding meat to the bone of posturing is the latest statement by Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, that US is reviewing a reduction of troops from Europe to counter the Chinese.

Pompeo noted the impact of a potential 25,000 US troops deployed against PLA, ‘We’re going to make sure we’re postured appropriately to counter the PLA’, to be still in the realm of posturing, albeit, much more effectively, than the sort of US support offered in the recent crisis. What perhaps is more effective in terms of support that the US can realistically offer India is to free it from unnecessary encumbrances in managing its own tactical, regional and geopolitical concerns, without burdening it with the USA’s own baggage.

If India can source advanced weaponry from Russia (waiver from ‘Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act’) on preferential terms or partake strategic energy and infrastructural alliance with Iran (overcoming sanctions), neither of which risks US interest or dilutes India’s preference for a foremost alliance with US. India needs to be trusted with that exceptional manoeuvrability along with the enhanced military posturing to realistically counter China from its ‘war control’ instincts.

The underlying principle of ‘Asia Pivot’ was also based on pragmatism, specifically to be in Asia with the US at the centre of that action, not exclusively anymore, but with powerful regional ‘allies’. Allies cannot and should not bank on America’s militaristic intervention; instead they require enhanced strategic posturing, flexibility and cohesion. The USA is weakened militarily, but a more practical and pragmatic alliance with India and others, force-multiplies it into a formidable counter.

(The writer IS Lt Gen PVSM, AVSM (Retd), Former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands & Puducherry)