If diplomacy is a lot about timing, the “Malabar Exercises” have been most crudely timed. Our diplomats should have known that issues of war andpeace are hanging by a thread.
The times seem to have changed in South Block. There was a time not too long ago when the Ministry of External Affairs needed to give political clearance to interactions — all major and most minor ones — involving our armed forces with foreign countries. Maybe, with a Congress party stalwart with a Gandhian slant at the helm of affairs in the Ministry of Defence (MoD), there is no more need to consult the foreign policy establishment.
What comes to mind is the stupendous folly of the timing of the so-called “Malabar Exercises” with the United States Navy along our western coast in October. The event has been scheduled in complete isolation from the goings-on in India’s immediate neighbourhood, and it runs contrary to the larger co-relation of forces in the international arena. Can it be that a highly experienced diplomatist and statesman like Pranab Mukherjee is losing his touch not to know where Indian foreign policy should tread softly at this point in these troubled times lest it treaded on the sensitivities of the emergent world order? If diplomacy is a lot about timing, the “Malabar Exercises” have been most crudely timed. Our able, highly professional diplomats should have known that issues of war and peace are hanging by a thread. Conceivably, they have been overruled by the political leadership.
Three things come to mind. First, of course, the gathering storms in “East-West” relations. It is obvious that the two-decades-old post-Cold War era is drawing to a close. And, as it happens in twilight zones, the shadows are lengthening minute by minute. In the downstream of the conflict in the Caucasus, relations between the U.S. and Russia can never be the same again. Equally, it is clear that subterranean tensions, as old as the first term of Bill Clinton, in the relations between the two big powers have begun to froth.
The well-known American scholar on Russia, Stephen Cohen, analysed recently that these tensions are far more dangerous than the Cold War-era tensions. Mr. Cohen says that in many respects the U.S.’ 15-year containment strategy toward post-Soviet Russia has been more hostile than its Cold War-era variant. Nothing brings this out more clearly than the stunning details given out by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to Germany’s ARD television channel that U.S. military advisers were present in the combat zones alongside the Georgian forces that assaulted South Ossetia in the night of August 7. Never during the Cold War had either camp shown the audacity to indulge in such high provocation.
In a subsequent interview with CNN, Mr. Putin bitterly added: “Those [in Washington] who pursue such a policy toward Russia, what do they think? Will they like us only when we die?”
Without getting into the nitty-gritty of the conflict in the Caucasus, this much can be said: that it is the latest chapter in a sustained U.S. campaign to expand the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) eastward beyond Europe and to “contain” Russia’s resurgence. The U.S. policy is integral to its global strategy that in the New American Century any rival power even remotely capable of challenging U.S. dominance will be stopped in its tracks. Of course, casting Russia in adversarial traits as an enemy at the gates would also re-establish the U.S.’ trans-Atlantic leadership. Woven into all this is the struggle for the control of Caspian oil. NATO’s current muscle-flexing in the Black Sea underscores that this high-stakes game is far from over and that its outcome will largely determine the contours of the international system for decades to come.
These are not esoteric topics for a serious regional power like India. Even with the obsessive drive on the part of the UPA leadership to navigate the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal to its safe destination in the next few critical weeks, we cannot be so very oblivious of what is going on in the world in which we live. We aren’t one-dimensional men. At issue is the nature of the world order. At the very least, we are an interested party because Russia is an old friend and the U.S. is our present-day benefactor. Even if there is no more a bilateral treaty in vogue with Russia which places obligations on us to enter into consultations with Moscow, we are concerned about what has happened in the Caucasus for nothing else than that U.S.-Russian relations form a crucial template of the world order.
At the very minimum, it is a matter of bad taste that we host a massive U.S. naval fleet — involving aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines and warships of high offensive capability — on our waters for friendly exercises at such a juncture. The UPA leadership should not be petrified that Washington might get irritated if we told them that the present time posed us some difficulty in conducting the “Malabar Exercises.” After all, the heavens are not going to come down on our armed forces if we don’t schedule these exercises at precisely this point in time. Haven’t we already had over 50 military exercises with the U.S. in the past seven years? Even NATO allies do not have such an intensive level of interaction with the U.S.
Then, there is a second aspect. Let us not fool ourselves that the U.S.-Iran standoff has blown over. Great standoffs in politics and history do not just wither away. They are about power and the exercise of power. They constantly strive to outwit political realism in their overreach for absolute victory. Unsurprisingly, the majority opinion amongst the “Iran watchers” is that the most critical period in U.S.-Iran tensions is just about approaching — the period between the U.S. presidential election in November and the historic departure of President George W. Bush from the White House to his ranch in Texas in January. Most observers believe that if a U.S. or combined U.S.-Israeli or “stand-alone” Israeli attack on Iran were to take place, that could most likely happen between November and January.
South Block cannot be unaware that the Persian Gulf remains a tinder-box. It is a supreme irony that we have scheduled the “Malabar Exercises” along our western coast straddling the Persian Gulf against precisely such a backdrop. Could there be a more unkindly cut aimed at Iran than what the UPA government is doing?
What is the message we are conveying to the Muslim Middle East? What has Iran done to India to earn such pitiless wrath from the UPA? As it is, it is bad enough that the UPA government lacks the courage to defy the U.S.-Israeli diktat and pursue the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project. Tehran feels disappointed that the UPA leadership does not realise that India is actually a “powerful country.” Iranian diplomats are completely devastated that Delhi uses India-Iran relations to leverage additional advantages out of Washington. Imagine this: a sudden flurry of activity on the India-Iran front; alarm bells start ringing in Washington; and one more ounce of U.S. concession to Delhi is extracted. The Iranians cite instances to show that the UPA government has been using the gas pipeline project to extract concessions out of Washington. If there is an iota of truth in all this, we should hang our head in shame. This is simply no way to treat the Persians.
A third aspect concerns the very nature of the “Malabar Exercises.” The exercises are not pro forma goodwill exercises of the sort that the Indian Navy might have with Brunei or Papua New Guinea. They are manifestly aimed at co-coordinating the offensive capabilities of the two sides — U.S. and Indian — in combat conditions. They are precisely of the sort that are required to conduct joint military operations. The U.S. has not hidden its interest in co-opting India as its junior partner in the Indian Ocean region. The U.S. National Defence Strategy spells out Washington’s expectations of India being groomed as a “stakeholder” in its global strategies. Indeed, Washington has been quite open about its intentions.
The UPA government cannot pretend that the sort of “strategic partnership” it is gearing up for — via the “Malabar Exercises” or the “Red Flag” exercise in Nevada in August — is no different from what India has with Albania. (Yes, believe it or not, this was exactly what the UPA leaders maintained with the Left parties within the four walls of their famous committee cogitating over the nuclear deal).
The point is that the UPA government is assuming a “bloc mentality” in its approach to the world order. This is not only contrary to what India has been professing — a multilateral, democratised world order — but also is sure to be challenged including by friendly countries such as Russia and Iran. Alas, a country that cannot distinguish its friends is truly myopic. The MEA should have counselled the MoD to stand down on the “Malabar Exercises” at this point in contemporary regional and world politics.
(The writer is a former Ambassador and an Indian Foreign Service officer.)