In the game of one-upmanship between the US and China, India has emerged unwittingly a participant, and that could well prove a blessing. This is the time for India to assert subtly its strategic importance as a regional power to reckon with.
The Narendra Modi-Xi Jinping parleys in China yielded India some leverage in Maldives, with the openly-hostile, the China-instigated Abdulla Yameen regime now coming to accept Indian soldiers and two Indian military choppers to continue in the island nation after its earlier insistence that New Delhi pulls them out.
Significantly, Chinese Ambassador to India Luo Zhaohui told a senior Indian journalist recently that Beijing was ready to have joint projects with India in Sri Lanka and Maldives. Similarly, Maldivian envoy in India Ahmed Mohamed said in Chennai that like China, India could also undertake projects in his country. These may seem small overtures, but they cannot be dismissed lightly considering that China has been establishing its stranglehold over Maldives brazenly in the past to India’s discomfiture.
At the other end of the spectrum, the US has shown great interest in meeting India half-way in the strategic relationship between the countries as borne out by the 2+2 strategic dialogue held in New Delhi earlier this month at which Union External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman represented India, while the US was represented by Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and Secretary of Defence James Mattison.
With the signing of the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA), the way has been paved for greater Indian access to cutting-edge US military technology and platforms with encrypted and secure communications and data links. The COMCASA will facilitate access to advanced defence systems and enable India to optimally utilise its existing US-origin platforms.
What is heartening for India is the decision for the US and India to work together on the open seas with critical emphasis on the Indo-Pacific to counter Chinese attempts at asserting its hegemony over international waters.
On a strategic plan, to keep an eye on Chinese submarines and ships, both sides agreed to set up bilateral engagements in support of maritime security and maritime domain awareness.
There was a clear thrust towards deepening the Indo-US maritime cooperation in the western Indian Ocean.
As if to reflect India’s new importance, Mattis said India is a “stabilising force,” a key country to make the Indo-Pacific “safe and secure”. The very idea to rename the Pacific as Indo-Pacific, which the US had recently mooted, is a recognition of how the US wants to project this country with the covert intent of building up India as a counterpoise to China in the region.
India would indeed do well not to get wholly sucked into the American orbit. While the US has enhanced India’s stock it would be apt for the former to build up on the strategic relationships with China and Russia too in the best interests of New Delhi.
In that context, India’s firm stand that it would press ahead with the procurement of five regiments of Russian-made S-400 Triumf advanced Air Defence Systems is appropriate. The US had passed a waiver for India, but the US president has to personally certify the exemption of each such deal.
Likewise, while India works around the US intent for slashing Iranian oil supplies, it cannot completely succumb to a total stoppage, not merely for oil’s sake but also because Indo-Iranian relations are vital for the project of Chabahar port to go through smoothly.
Chabahar is a strategic project for India to link up to the high seas to counter the Chinese-Pak designs to control the sea lanes for international trade.
Overall, strategically, India is at the crossroads. However, if it plays its cards well, it can be deemed to be a regional power with some leverage on the international stage.