India to play US proxy in Asia? By M. Ziauddin

India is clearly being prodded by the US and its own overambitious hawks into a confrontational mode vis-à-vis China. Their mantra: The so-called Asian century is as much that of India’s as it is China’s. New Delhi is being told that it should step in as the US withdraws from Asia. In other words Washington wants India to play its proxy against China which the US fears is fast replacing it from the Asian continent.
According to an inspired piece of writing (Modi needs to show India has teeth—published in Foreign Policy weekly on May 31, 2008) by Atman Trivedi and Amy SearightAsia’s uncertain political and economic climate presents an opportunity for Modi as U.S. President Donald Trump’s policies, including the withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement and a purely transactional approach to longtime alliances, have contributed to strategic drift in the region as China grows assertive and authoritarian.
“The situation calls for steady leadership — and the United States and its Pacific allies hope that New Delhi can deliver,” add the authors, one (Trivedi) of which is a Managing Director at Hills & Company and Adjunct Fellow at the Pacific Forum. He worked on India policy at the US State and Commerce Departments and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The other (Searight) is a Senior Adviser and Director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and served as a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia at the Pentagon.
Pakistan needs to keep the related developments under close watch to be able to safeguard its own strategic interests in case they are threatened by the emerging alignment ostensibly against China but could also undermine Islamabad’s interests by way of collateral damage.
India’s ‘inadequate’ defense-industrial base and lack of regional economic integration are said to threaten to frustrate the idea of it playing the proxy for the US. To be of any use as its proxy the US wants Modi to convince Asia’s elites that his country is ready to become a leading power that can ensure no one country can dominate the region’s future.
As a first step towards gaining the confidence of its East Asian neighbours the US wants India to match its military expenditure which currently is 1.5 per cent of GDP to China’s 2 percent of its GDP which itself is five times that of India’s. It is more than a tall order. Moreover, despite being world’s top buyer of military weapons India still has acute shortfalls in major weapons systems like fighter jets, basic infantry combat equipment, and even ammunition.
Pointing out that being world’s fastest-growing large economy, India could get better positioned to build its defense capabilities if it can muster the political will, streamline procurements, and improve both civil-military and intra-services coordination. In other words, the US wants India to increase its purchases of weapon systems which in turn would boost the sagging US and European economies which are crucially dependent on their respective military hardware manufacturing industries.
Continuing their seemingly persuasive argument the authors insist that Modi should beef-up presence in the Indian Ocean, as well as assistance and capacity-building activities in the Bay of Bengal region.
“China is testing India around South Asia and surrounding maritime trade and energy routes as never before. Events this winter in the Maldives led some commentators to wonder whether its leader, Abdulla Yameen, was shifting allegiances from New Delhi to Beijing. Modi must meet the challenge,” maintain the authors.
In this regard they quoted a former Indian Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran saying, “It is India’s neighbourhood that holds the key to its emergence as a regional and global power.”
The authors further maintain that Modi should also call on collective efforts to help strengthen the maritime capacity of Southeast Asia. In their opinion the region will listen attentively to what Modi says about related disputes and the need to resolve them peacefully and in accordance with global rules.
India has rapidly expanded security ties with Japan and Vietnam, participated in sea exercises with other powers, and joined the revival of the quadrilateral U.S.-Japan-India-Australia democratic security grouping. The authors consider getting the band back together is positive, but Southeast Asia, they believe, doesn’t want to be left out.
“The 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations countries await confirmation that the Quad complements, not substitutes for, that body’s centrality and the inclusive multilateralism that ASEAN-led frameworks represent,” opine the authors.
Modi is asked to restate these principles and also call for greater cooperation with Europe’s democracies reminding that France, for example, has significant Indian Ocean interests and is sending clear signals to India, Australia, and the region that it’s ready to work together.
Modi is advised to embrace the nation (US)‘best equipped to underwrite India’s defense and technological transformation — and, even today, Asia’s rules-based security order’. While at it, the authors say, Modi can gently remind the United States why it’s in its own self-interest to do so.
At the same time, India is advised to accelerate the building of ties with Australia and South Korea, and in Southeast Asia, cultivate closer relations with Indonesia, Singapore, and the new Malaysian government. As China’s influence expands to include the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific, the region is said to be headed toward more networked security partnerships. Modi is further advised to welcome this variable geometry.
Recalling that Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping recently tried to reset fraying ties after a tense border confrontation, the authors believe “the giants’ inveterate mistrust suggests the détente may not last.” India is told that the smaller countries are watching to see if India would stand its ground.
China’s Belt and Road Initiative to build Eurasian infrastructure, in the opinion of authors, creates potential debt traps, as has already happened in Sri Lanka, and Beijing’s political and military leverage limits countries’ independence.
“Thus far, territorial grievances with Pakistan and sovereignty concerns have animated New Delhi’s criticism of the initiative. This can come across as too myopic. Modi should pivot to making the case that India, Japan, and the West offer bankable alternatives for the private sector, while keeping the door open to partnering selectively with China,” said the authors.
The authors want India to restart economic reforms after next spring’s parliamentary elections in order to win the confidence of its Southeast Asian neighbours and a pledge to reinvigorate its efforts to conclude the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, they believe, would draw resounding applause.
India is said to be understandably nervous about opening up its agriculture and manufacturing to China and 14 other countries. But, the authors believe, it however needs to meet them in the middle to strengthen global competitiveness and enable its high-skilled services professionals to work abroad.
“Both India and Southeast Asia have far more to gain strategically and economically by finding a way forward and protecting against overdependence on China,” believe the authors.
India’s willingness to advance deeper economic integration with the region is said to be also essential because, as they said, it’s much harder to be a reliable security partner while arguingwith everyone over trade and often sitting outside Asia’s supply chains.
Finally, Modi is asked not to shy away from highlighting liberal values such as openness, tolerance, and rule of law. It’s these attributes, they said, that make India’s rise so compelling and essential to the preservation of the Asian order. Building New Delhi’s soft power, it is said, requires tackling India’s own injustices and addressing the horrors suffered by the Rohingya (and other groups) in Myanmar and now Bangladesh.
They insist that Modi has the perfect moment to show world leaders that India’s future belongs at the high table of global powers — and that its ascendancy comes with obvious benefits for their countries.
But all this appears to be a wishful dream of the US which is fast losing its powers to control the levers of global hegemony. India is too big a country to play the proxy of any one, especially of a declining power. And even if it wanted to play the role, it would find itself too inadequate because in the first place it is still a developing country; it is not in a position to be able to assume the role of a big power even if it is only in Asia.
Secondly, it is ravaged by a number of domestic secessionist movements, especially in its Eastern and North-Western peripheries. Its killing fields in occupied Kashmir have forced New Delhi to maintain as many as 700,000 troops encircling the valley.With the rise of BJP, Modi’s ruling Party India has become one of most intolerant countries in the world. Its treatment of minorities is perhaps the worst by any country in the world. It is becoming an increasingly illiberal and closed society sans rule of law.
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