Vice President Joe Biden was in India for four days in July, visiting Delhi and Mumbai. The visit got less than the usual level of media exposure than high-level visits from the US normally attract. This was effectively the second visit at this level since Independence, not counting the visit of Hubert Humphrey for Shastri’s funeral, and therefore a purely protocol affair. Then it was Vice President George HW Bush who visited India in 1984. And now, after a gap of almost three decades, Vice President Biden came visiting.
Whatever the reason for the low-key treatment of the visit, it deserved more attention, not so much for the discussions in Delhi, but for a noteworthy speech he delivered in Mumbai. This was made before a gathering of business persons, but covered more than the normal fare at business gatherings.
Two important points were made by Biden, among several others of course, that need attention, both in the public discourse and among the officials dealing with the US. For some time now, the dominant one-word summation of the Indo-US relationship has been stagnation. There appears to be a resignation, on both sides, that nothing more can happen until a new Government takes office in Delhi. This is probably true, but not because of any calculations or policies, or even compulsions – it is more a function of this Government being unable to muster up the intellectual energy to address the emerging opportunities in the India-US relationship.
And that is what the two openings mentioned by Biden are about. The first was about the “rebalance” towards Asia, and the second was about the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Both of these require some elucidation.
Biden was up-front in telling the audience that India was an indispensable element in the rebalance. This is something we have been hearing from American leaders for some time now. What is not clear – at least in the public domain or even in Track II exchanges – is what this means in terms of detail or action. But first, it is important also to note that Biden waded into the internal debate here by adding that there was no contradiction between strategic autonomy and strategic partnership. This is an important practical point, because in India, the view seems to dominate that nonalignment – 1.0 or the new, improved version 2.0 – is the key to strategic autonomy.
In point of historical fact, this is not true; Indira Gandhi enhanced her strategic autonomy by signing the Indo-Soviet Treaty in 1971. Without that, India would have been restricted in its actions even as events hurtled towards war in the subcontinent. Of course, we all made statements that nonalignment was not affected by the Treaty, but for that brief period of 1971-72, India was aligned with the Soviet Union – and a good thing it was too. The Treaty formally ran on until 1991, but had lost much of its strategic value by the mid-1970’s. Similarly, Nehru was all too willing to jettison nonalignment in the face of the Chinese aggression in 1962, by asking for not just US military equipment, but even personnel to man the weaponry. It was, in fact, so much the subject of controversy within Indian political circles that many of the Americans, who visited India with different missions to extend military and other aid, were plied with this very question – was America bent upon India giving up nonalignment?
To the fear that the US was keen to steal the nonaligned crown jewels under the guise of military assistance, the US Ambassador in India then, JK Galbraith, put his thinking with his characteristic mix of frankness and acerbity. He wrote the following passage to his President and repeated it to any questioner from the Indian press, though this last he did with a little more finesse:
If the Chinese should really come down the mountain in force, there will be more political changes here. Much so-called nonalignment [has already gone] out the window... Popular opinion and our military assistance has worked a further and major impairment. The problem in face of a really serious attack would be how we would react to the prospect of a new, large and extremely expensive ally. I personally hope the Chinese do not force this choice. The Indians are busy worrying about the end of nonalignment. It is we that should be doing the worrying on this. [Galbraith, Ambassador’s Journal; letter to President Kennedy on 13 November 1962]
These are home truths that we need to ponder even today, for we seem to be agonising over the same issues. Putting aside the question of nonalignment, what really needs an answer is – just how much autonomy does India have at the moment? It is unable to take even basic measures in defence of its own security in the face of Chinese and even Pakistani provocations. This is what Galbraith meant when he described India as an “extremely expensive” ally. And we really ought not to have too many illusions regarding continuity and change since those times. In the polite terms employed in the Asia-Pacific Region, the code word for the same syndrome is that India needs to be a “net provider of security”. But that can only happen once we have the means and the will to provide for our own security. The bitter reality is that there is not much strategic autonomy we are exercising in producing dossier after dossier on the Mumbai terror attacks, only to have them rejected with disdain by the recipient.
This should be the basis of the dialogue with America on the issue of the rebalance. Whereas America is seeing India as the indispensable partner in adding to the economic and military strength in the Western Pacific, we have serious issues on our land frontiers where we are facing military and sub-conventional pressure simultaneously on two fronts. A serious partnership would need to address these concerns of ours just as much as the concerns of our putative partners in the Pacific.
To spell this out in some detail: one small step that can quite easily be taken by our partners, for which the US would have to provide the lead, would be to adopt clear positions on the Indian territorial claims vis-a-vis both China and Pakistan. In 1962, at the height of the war, the US made a formal declaration through the Embassy in Delhi that it recognised the McMahon Line. It is time now to come down on India’s side in the western sector – Aksai Chin – as well.
Similarly, the Line of Control with Pakistan needs to be extended from beyond where it was left off in 1949 – Pt NJ 9842. It is time for America to extend recognition to the Actual Ground Position Line along the Saltoro Ridge. This is both the legally correct position, and accurate from the viewpoint of the ground reality. And yet, American maps continue to depict the line as joining the current end point of the LoC to the Karakoram Pass – for reasons that nobody can explain.
Understanding on these issues is important for India, and it is to be hoped that it is also important for those in America who believe that India needs to be part of their Asia-Pacific strategy. And to be blunt about it, it is not any atavistic attachment to nonalignment that is holding India back, but the fact that our security concerns are not being addressed in the framework of this pivot.
The second major point in the remarks by Biden concerns the Trans-Pacific Partnership. This proposal has been under discussion for some years now, and most of the large economic players in the region are in it. Japan, Canada, and Mexico have all signed on in recent months, while China is out. The project looks well set to become a reality, though it will take time for the negotiations to be completed.
First, of course, we need to be certain as to what the remarks made by Biden actually portend. The formulation used by Biden falls short of inviting India to join, but that could be a conscious decision to couch it in terms that do not embarrass India into taking a position – just as the pivot appears to be doing. But they were sufficiently clear for the Chinese press to take note and to conclude that India was being invited to join the TPP. Nonetheless, the burden of comment in the Chinese press maintains, India will not abandon its nonalignment and become a strategic ally of America, in part because it also fears that America will abandon the pivot and set up a G2 with China.
None of this is to say that the TPP will make easy progress. And as far as India and America are concerned, we have not even been able to work out an investment treaty so far. Moreover, American positions on outsourcing and visas for Indians are incomprehensible, especially for a country that touts the benefits of free trade. The known clauses of the proposed TPP – for the details are closely held – also suggest that India will have difficulties with some of the commitments on labour standards, on environmental obligations and on intellectual property issues. Granting all of this, it is still at least worth India’s while to take the dialogue forward. Several of the current negotiating members of the TPP began by becoming observers in the dialogue. This should certainly be something for India to consider favourably too.
We also need to understand that our current economic slow-down is not one that will be fixed easily or quickly, notwithstanding the positive assertions being made at the official level. The days when we took a 6-7 percent GDP growth rate as a given are gone, and it will take careful policy planning to get back to a steady and high rate of growth. We are going to need all the leverage that the world’s largest economy can provide. America is clearly fashioning a new economic strategy, the twin pillars of which are the TPP and its mirror in the Atlantic region. The obvious exclusions are the BRICS countries, and they will lose out on economic opportunities if these strategies come to fruition. Not surprisingly, Goldman Sachs, the originator of the term BRIC, has recently stated that the judgement on them was mistaken.
For the doubters, Biden had a word of caution – it is not a good idea to bet against America. This piece of advice is particularly valid for Indian audiences, who have largely convinced themselves that America is yesterday’s story, and China is tomorrow’s. Judging by the kind of writing that we are seeing in the Chinese press, this latter conclusion needs very careful examination. As does the theory of America’s decline – and here Biden’s admonition was on the mark.
Thus, the visit of Vice President has left much of substance for the Indian policy makers to chew on. Although it was largely projected as a visit to prepare for Prime Minister Singh’s visit to the US, it went well beyond this, as it should have done. And to the extent that it was a curtain-raiser for the visit of the Prime Minister, it would be good if our side did have well-argued positions on the issues discussed above. They do not, of course, exhaust the agenda, which is full of urgent and operational matters of concern, not the least to do with Afghanistan. But there are longer-term currents flowing globally and across the Asia-Pacific region that will affect us materially in the coming years. It would be good if we were to move with serious intent on these issues.