Put simply, a miniscule group of avant-garde truth diggers among India's well-heeled and smug community of defense analysts came up with a startling find last week involving the deal. It seems the US was making virtue out of dire necessity.
Robert Scher, US deputy assistant secretary of defense for South and Southeast Asia, announced on November 3 that while India had not requested information on its fifth-generation fighter, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), the US was making a unilateral
invitation for sales as an "example of the high regard that we hold for India's military modernization".
In good measure, the Pentagon drafted an extraordinary nine-page report to the US Congress and swiftly publicized it, which offered, "Should India indicate interest in the JSF, the United States would be prepared to provide information on the JSF and its requirements … to support India's future planning."
The initial speculation was that the US was making a last-minute effort to gatecrash India's mega tender for the purchase of 126 multi-role combat aircraft, from which Delhi has "disqualified" the original American bids of F-16 aircraft. However, the analysts' "discovery" is that the US has desperately sought Indian participation in the JSF's development as the program faces unaffordable rising costs, with a price tag estimated at $150 million per aircraft. In sum, the JSF has become a white elephant and, hopefully, cross breeding it with the Indian black elephant might just about make its uncertain progeny probably airworthy as a beast of burden.
The tragi-comic episode exposes an aspect of the US-India "partnership" hardly glimpsed by Indian pundits, namely, the desperate need for the US to conjure up an ideology-driven relationship that enables it in real terms to boost its exports to the Indian markets - the latter being one of the few world markets today enjoying growth prospects of around 7-8% in its gross domestic product (GDP).
Getting the head examined
Indian think takers are talking through their hat by structuring new security architectures for India with Australia or Japan, riveted around these countries' traditional Cold-War alliance with the US in a strategy to "contain" China. The hard reality is that the US is "flirting with national solvency", as a noted American scholar Robert Kelly recently put it, "which will dramatically impact all its alliances" in Asia. Kelly wrote:
"The US is now borrowing 40 cents of every dollar it spends; the deficit is US$ 1.5 trillion (160% of South Korea's entire GDP); the debt is almost US$10 trillion; the IMF [International Monetary Fund] predicts America's debt-to-GDP ratio will exceed 100% by the end of the decade; and integrated US national security spending tops US$1.2 trillion, 25% of the budget and 7% of the GDP. These are mind-boggling figures that all but mandate some manner of US retrenchment from its current global footprint."In sum, except in the highly unlikely eventuality of the "Wall" protestors in America accepting a still lower standard of living with deep cuts in social welfare programs, the US cannot fix its finances without applying a scalpel to its defense spending. Former US defense secretary Robert Gates summed it up brilliantly when he said, "any future defense secretary who recommends sending a big US army into Asia or Africa again should have his head examined".
Yet, the relative decline of the US is an untold story, locked up in the attic by Indian think-tankers.
Of course, India's plight is not as grave as that of South Korea or Australia, which are swimming in shark-infested waters in a geopolitical context. Both are being called upon to realize the probability of US military (and political) power receding from Asia in the budgetary environment. Kelly concluded: "America's political and financial dysfunction will soon force a painful re-prioritization of US foreign policy. Commitments like Germany, Iraq, Afghanistan, South Korea and others will be scrutinized, and no amount of Korean-American friendship will undo a US$ 10 trillion debt.
Measure of balance
How does it add up for the alchemy of the US-India partnership? The former US ambassador to India and a strategic guru on the circuit, Frank Wisner, handed down a checklist at a speech on his current tour of India. The list combines with great sophistication solid business with airy geopolitics. Wisner identified Pakistan, China and the US-India bilateral economic approach as the three key "difficulties" that will shape the US-India partnership ahead.
He made the astounding remark that there is no issue more important to the US-India relationship than the "question of Pakistan" - that is, jointly devising a "winning strategy" that makes Pakistan an obliging partner. He proposed a division of labor: the US would have to focus on building up ties with the Pakistani military in the fight against terrorism, while India should press Pakistan to have transparency with regard to cross-border terrorism and at the same time persisting with the normalization dialogue, including on Kashmir.
However, with regard to China, Wisner was plain-speaking, telling the Indian audience precisely what it would like to hear: "The US and China want good relations with China, but the problem is not as much with China's economic expansion as it is with China's assertions that we have to be careful about."
Wisner cautioned India about developments on the Sino-Indian border and in the South China Sea. He added, "We [US and India] have to reach out to nations like Japan, [South] Korea, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, among others, to build relations and give a measure of balance."
Wisner all but echoed what the US deputy secretary of state William Burns said in a major policy speech in Washington last Friday, where he described the Asia-Pacific as the "strategic pivot" of the US foreign policy and said the US and Indian strategies "reinforce each other" in that region.
The US is vociferously exhorting India to switch its "Look East" policy to an assertive mode of "Act East". Burns, in fact, expressed satisfaction that this transformation was already happening. Clearly, Washington has taken note of the Indian elephant bestirring itself to scale up economic, energy and strategic ties with the Asia-Pacific region (which Delhi-based pundits now unequivocally assume to be India's "extended neighborhood") - with Japan and Vietnam, in particular.
But bluster is an integral part of the US public diplomacy, and separating the chaff from the grain isn't always easy. Two relevant aspects must be noted. One, it serves Washington's purpose to create some angst in the Chinese mind about an emergent US-Indian strategic axis in the Asia-Pacific, which may have useful fall-outs for the broader canvas of Sino-American interdependency, as Washington keeps switching between the two tracks of "containment" and "engagement" depending on current exigencies.
On the other hand, Delhi also may hope to gain something if Beijing's angst translates as conciliatory gestures toward India on a host of other geopolitical templates, especially the dynamics of the Sino-Pakistan relationship or the peace and tranquility along the disputed Sino-Indian border. Over and above, Delhi most certainly seeks a helpful stance by China vis-a-vis India's search for a place at the "high table" - the United Nations Security Council and Nuclear Suppliers Group, in particular.
The big question is whether China is taking note of an "assertive" India in the Asia-Pacific. If a Xinhua commentary on Tuesday is any indication, it does. The commentary did a neat cataloguing of Delhi's moves in the past six to eight weeks alone suggestive of an "Act East" policy. It appreciated the authenticity of India's desire to seek a "secure" external environment for its "peaceful development as an emerging power." However, Beijing seems to be still reading the tea leaves.
Xinhua's catalogue is impressive:
Nonetheless, interestingly, Xinhua concluded on a mixed note partly conciliatory, partly challenging:
China's rise might have given [India] a nudge ... Beijing's growing influence in India's neighborhood, especially in Pakistan, causes anxiety to New Delhi ... On top of that, warmer ties between India and Japan have been given a nudge by the US. Washington has been eyeing China's increasingly assertive posture and has grown more wary about Chinese regional diplomacy.Delhi lost no time reacting positively to Xinhua's advice. Indian government sources "leaked" to the media that contrary to general impressions, India is yet to respond to two sensitive demarches from Vietnam in defense cooperation - namely, to transfer to Vietnam medium-sized warships and to upgrade the strategic port of Nha Trang.
There is nothing to be said against its [India's] overtures to others for strategic cooperation. But if it intended to estrange and antagonize its neighbor [China] by taking it as an imaginary enemy and get unwisely involved in affairs which fall within others' backyards, it would hold its national strategies as hostage and put at stake its own national interests. It is highly advisable for New Delhi to think twice about the pitfalls in making its foreign policies.
But the mandarins in Delhi left tantalizingly open as to what India proposes to do with regard to two other Vietnamese requests - submarine training and transferring the BrahMos supersonic cruise missile. Vietnam uses Russian-made kilo class submarines and BrahMos is an India-Russia joint venture - which actually makes it a double hedging on futures and options.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.