Some recent reports have suggested that US President Donald Trump was keen on a deal with China to rein in North Korea. Before his secretary of state Rex Tillerson made the startling disclosure that Washington was willing to negotiate directly with Pyongyang, some backroom parleys with China had been taking place. One of the rumour that started floating viciously was that China had agreed to pressurise North Korea to the satisfaction of US but only if the US agreed to pressurise India to stop their long-range missile program. The Chinese are tough negotiators and it is no secret that they are worried over India’s Agni missile program which brings all major Chinese cities within the range of Indian missiles. One of the trademark Chinese style of negotiation is to make demands that appear just and logical because they contain an element of equivalence. So, it is not unlikely that the Chinese would have asked the US that if you want us to neutralise the North Korean nuclear missile threat for Washington, the US should oblige with a similar effort to rein in the Indian long-range missile program that is a threat for China. The timing for such a move is significant — reports suggesting that India was now boosting its nuclear program and pegging it on China rather than Pakistan had rattled Beijing, because they seemed co-terminus with Indian assertiveness on the border and the Modi administration’s desire to reopen the Tibetan question.
The Chinese have considerable influence on North Korea for a whole range of support Pyongyang has historically received from Beijing — not the least China’s military intervention in the 1950s Korean War to back North Korea. From food to missiles, Pyongyang had depended on Beijing for almost everything. Is that the case when it comes to India and US! Surely not. After India’s disillusionment over lack of US support during the 1962 war with China, Delhi moved decisively into the Soviet camp for the remaining duration of the Cold War. The US send its Seventh Fleet to stop the Indian military intervention in East Pakistan in 1971. It did not work and Kissinger made matters worse by calling Indira Gandhi a ‘bitch’. The CIA was seen as responsible for trying to foment unrest in Northeast India and for engineering the 1975 coup in Bangladesh that was meant to draw Dhaka away from the Indian ambit. It is only after the Cold War that US and India started to improve relations but the speed of that rapprochement (now that the two countries describe each other as strategic partners and special allies) has led to the US replacing Russia as India’s main military hardware supplier. Trump underscored the importance of the Indian arms market when he patted PM Narendra Modi on his back during a recent visit to Washington, asking him to keep buying US weapons because “they were the best”.
But would that give the US as much leverage on India as China perhaps enjoy on North Korea! Surely not. Because if Modi and his chest thumping saffron brigade were to succumb to US pressure for discontinuing the long-range missile program under whatever pretext, the BJP will find itself thrown into the Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea by the Indian people. It is impossible for Modi or his flock to keep such a secret from the Indian people if that were to happen. If the Chinese really made such a quid pro quo offer to the US, it would betray an unimaginable degree of naivete in Beijing over what is India and indicate that the Chinese take the allegations of India becoming an US surrogate too seriously. Even Manmohan Singh, who started the process of getting close to US by signing the 2004 Indo-US nuclear deal despite the threat to his government, had to react strongly when the US tried to push its line in Bangladesh in 2013-14. The resultant spat between Indian envoy Pankaj Saran and US envoy Dan Mozena, who went to Delhi to complain against Saran’s “misdemeanour”, is well known, as is the linkage between the strip search on Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade and the Indian retaliation evident in the withdrawal of security from US embassy in Delhi for a while.
It is only after Modi’s coming to power, even if there is no direct evidence of US support for the BJP, that the India-US relations started to resume flight again. Though it would be a huge affront to every self-respecting Indian only if Trump and his aides dared suggest capping the country’s long-range missile program, the sure impact of any Indian withdrawal of its long-range missile program would mean the end of the present government in power. The saffrons surely know the ‘laxmanrekha‘ (redline) of their honeymoon with the US. Already there is much outcry over Modi’s failure to raise the H1B visa issue with Trump as it is impact very adversely on the Indian infotech industry. Imagine, just for argument sake, what happens to Modi if he chickens out to Trump and accepts his proposal to cap India’s long-range missile program (that all would know happened under Chinese pressure)! He will sink as fast as he has risen, his party would cease to shine though India might.
The Chinese must understand that as a working democracy, Indian leaders have to think of consequences of their decisions in the ballot box. However much they may berate Indian democracy and blame it for everything from lack of development to weakness in the social fabric, the ultimate accountability of the rulers is something they cannot ignore. No Modi, however persuasive and effective for a while, can back off from India’s long-range missile program, as no Nehru or Indira would have. After all, now India is self-sufficient in food and not dependent on US PL 480 grain supplies, as it was until 1970.
I don’t think that the US would dare make such an offer to India even if China may have made this a quid pro quo for helping Trump out with North Korea. Trump’s push to settle Kashmir through UN has upset even the most pro-US Indian. His flip-flop on H1B visas has upset the industry. Sensing this mood, Modi has not gone far enough with Trump as he did with Barak Obama by calling the US president by his first name during an India visit.
The Indian people have two options — to throw Modi out of power if he compromised on national security and ambitions by trying to placate Trump and then also to reverse the trajectory of its relationship with US and gravitate towards the BRICS grouping to settle its differences with China. Parag Khanna, the India-born US strategic thinker, had rightly described India as a ‘swing state’, though he insisted India was still a long way off from becoming a Super Power. Khanna meant that India was the key to the power balance in Asia — if it goes with US, as it is now doing, the power balance swings towards Uncle Sam, but if it goes with the BRICS, the situation is reversed.
So the ground reality is this — India is not a Super Power, it is not US, EU or China, which will dominate world politics in the first half of 21st century. But it is a very important swing state none can ignore. It is not a surrogate state like North Korea and if anyone in power tried taking India down that road, the teeming millions will vote with their feet to oust even the most powerful of governments. Modi will make a huge mistake if he takes the Indian voter for granted. Trump will make a huge mistake if he fails to read the power of Indian nationalism — it will stupid of him, or anyone else, to equate it with Hindutva. It will be stupid of Beijing to imagine India is a surrogate like North Korea.
It will also be stupid of both Delhi and Beijing to under estimate smaller nations of South and Southeast Asia, who cannot be influenced beyond a point.