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Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

A coalition to counter China will take some time to operationalize

India and the US will now face the hard decisions of how far each is willing to go in implementing their cooperation pacts

This week, another important cog in the machinery of strategic cooperation between India and the United States fell into place when the two countries signed the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (Beca) for Geospatial Intelligence. The agreement opens the doors for India to get access to military-grade global positioning system signals, digital imagery and mapping that can upgrade the capabilities of our defence forces and intelligence agencies. For the United States, the agreement not only helps lock India in as a defence equipment buyer, but more importantly, is one more step towards drawing New Delhi onto its side, geopolitically.

As much as the signing of this agreement seems rushed ahead of the US presidential election next week, and in the wake of tensions along the India-China border, it took the two countries almost a quarter-century to get to this point. The innocuously named “Agreed Minute on Defense Relations" signed between the Narasimha Rao and Bill Clinton governments in 1995 set the ball rolling in the immediate post-Cold War era. Since then, governments of all persuasions on both sides have held a slow but consistent course, pushing through an alphabet soup of agreements that enable their armed forces, security and law-enforcement agencies to work together.

New Delhi and Washington have had to negotiate and sign Beca and previous defence cooperation agreements piecemeal because India was neither part of the United States’ formal alliance framework, nor wished to be. With the agreements in place, it will now be much easier to operationalize the Quad, as Japan and Australia, its other two members, are US allies. Whatever else the four countries say it is, the Quad is a countervailing coalition that has arisen to resist Chinese expansionism. If coordination among the Quad has gathered pace—three of the four foundational defence agreements between India and US were signed in the last four years—it is but a delayed response to Beijing’s provocations. It is also evidence of New Delhi exhausting other options before falling in with the Quad.

Yet, deliberate and slow as it has been, forming the coalition is easier than putting it into action. The United States will want India to support it in the South China Sea and the Western Pacific, where the risk of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan is increasing. Similarly, India will be looking for tangible US support in the Northern and Western theatre should China and Pakistan trigger conflict. To what extent the United States and India support each other against a common adversary in conflicts that do not directly concern them is a big question. Now that the legal framework for bilateral defence cooperation is largely in place, and the Quad is taking a more coherent form, New Delhi and Washington will have to take harder decisions.

India’s goal is to deter aggression and manage Chinese expansion, accepting what is legitimate and reasonable, preventing excess. That is the reason for the coalition. Yet, as the events leading up to World War I warn us, there is always a risk that the coalition will bring about a bigger conflagration than the fires it seeks to extinguish. That is good reason for caution.

It is quite possible that should Joe Biden become US president, his new administration would indulge in the conceit of attempting a reset with a problematic adversary, before being mugged by reality. Many of India’s own prime ministers have gone through this educational process. We could have a couple of years where the progress of the countervailing coalition will witness a slower momentum. However, unless something dramatic happens within the corridors of power in Beijing, China is unlikely to change course on its foreign policy. Given the bipartisan consensus in the United States on China policy and that Biden was vice-president in an administration which pivoted to the Indo-Pacific, invaded Pakistan, and unleashed drone strikes in Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen, Washington too is likely to keep to its current course.

Over the past 25 years, despite fluctuations, the floor has been steadily rising in the India-US relationship for two reasons: India’s steady economic growth and the prosperity it creates in both countries; and a deliberate process of strategic convergence charted out since the Narasimha Rao days. The two elements must move in tandem; letting one get ahead of the other will create problems. An inward looking, slow-growing economy is currently the primary challenge to India’s interests, because we can now be dragged forward more easily by Washington in ways we might not want. In other words, to shape the agenda of this partnership with the United States, and of the Quad, India needs to regain its economic growth story.

Nitin Pai is co-founder and director of The Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy

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