Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo: Xinhua

U.S. tightens exports to China’s chipmaker SMIC, citing risk of military use

“It is true that we have a border dispute with China. But in the last 40 years, not a single bullet has been fired because of it,” Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in a panel discussion at the St Petersburg International Economic Forum on June 2, 2017.

Two days later, according to Modi’s observation, “We have noted positive remarks made by Prime Minister Modi. We welcome that,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a media briefing when asked about the comments Modi made during his visit to Russia. 

Less than two weeks later, the Doklam standoff between India and China sprouted on June 16 and lasted until August 28. 

While it may be true that not a single bullet has been fired in the Galwan Valley in the course of the current Ladakh standoff, 20 Indian Army personnel, including the commanding officer, lost their lives in a violent clash with China’s People’s Liberation Army on May 15. 

What’s wrong with India’s Chinese “strategy” since Modi became prime minister in 2014?

The answer is straightforward. He has fallen victim to a “coconut” strategy on China.

Strong on outside, soft on inside

The word “coconut” is sometimes used to describe people, or in this case policies, that are one type on the outside, but a different kind on the inside. Though hard and stern-looking on the outside, the coconut is soft inside. It looks strong externally, but weak internally. Thus the coconut is the symbol of an oxymoron.

For the purposes of this article, I use the term coconut for multiple connotations. First, in represents paradoxical Indian strategy.

Indian civilization is rich and contrasts with the the “Western Civilization” as depicted by Samuel P Huntington in his famous essay “The Clash of Civilizations?” Indian civilization represents a Weltanschauung – worldview – that differs from “the Western.” Yet despite being rich in civilization and an aspirant superpower, India’s strategists embrace the “Western” strategic mindset when it comes to China policy. 

Besides, Indian career diplomats, strategic analysts, and foreign-affairs journalists and opinion makers come from the political, military, economic, and bureaucratic elites. They are educated in elite schools and universities at home and abroad. The majority advocate Hindu nationalism on the outside, but they prefer to embrace the “Western” alliance.

Second, Indian strategists think their country has become strong enough to be a global superpower and critical player. However, India lags behind China and the US economically, politically, strategically, technologically, and militarily. India pretends to be a superpower in Asia by signing foundational agreements (more on these below) with the US; but in fact, it is not even a successful South Asian player. India lost its South Asian friends and allies after Modi became prime minister. 

Third, Russia, China, and many other countries want a multipolar world. Although Modi agreed with Chinese President Xi Jinping on “building an open, multipolar, pluralist and participatory global economic order” in the Wuhan informal summit between the two leaders held in April 2018, India in reality supports the US-led unipolar world.  

Strategic shift under Jaishankar

Before the end of the Cold War, Indian strategists believed that their strategic interests could be best fulfilled with an alliance with Russia. But after the signing of the US-India nuclear deal in 2008, the “coconut” strategy started to gain momentum. 

The doctrine of “interoperability” is an outcome of the influence of the “coconut strategists” in Indian foreign policy. That doctrine was responsible for the Sino-Indian standoff at Doklam in 2017, and for the current confrontation with China at Ladakh.

The influence of the coconut strategists reached its crest at the South Block when Subrahmanyam Jaishankar replaced Sujatha Singh as Indian foreign secretary on January 29, 2015. 

Jaishankar was known to be staunchly pro-American and anti-Chinese. He had written an article titled “India and USA: New direction” in the limited-circulation volume Indian Foreign Policy: Challenges and Opportunities, published by the Indian Foreign Service Institute in Delhi in 2007. In his article, he seemed to be a strong advocate of a partnership between India and the US for regime change in China. 

Besides, he is a strong advocate of bending the norm of India’s long-serving “one-China policy,” and India’s new Taiwan policy was the outcome of his strategic calculation.

Modi’s choice of Jaishankar as foreign secretary accelerated the partnership between the US and India. Washington and New Delhi negotiated the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), and on August 29, 2016, it was signed. Under that agreement, India and the US can use each other’s military facilities. However, it did not permit US army bases on Indian soil.

The Sino-Indian standoff at Doklam in 2017 was China’s response to the Indo-US LEMOA. 

India initiated diplomatic communication for dialogue to ease tension on the border in 2017. Jaishankar proposed an informal summit between Modi and Xi to settle the disagreements. Two summits were held, in Wuhan, Hubei, in 2018 and in Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu, in 2019.

Despite apparent agreement on the sensitivity of each other’s concerns at the Wuhan summit, at the subsequent Indo-US 2+2 ministerial meet, in the presence of then-defense minister Nirmala Sitharaman, Foreign Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and then-defense secretary James Mattis, India and the US signed the COMCASA (Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement) on September 6, 2018.

COMCASA is one of the three foundational agreements that must be signed by a country with the United States to share high-end encrypted communication and satellite data. 

In the second 2+2 ministerial meeting – between Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper on the US side and Defense Minister Rajnath Singh and External Affairs Minister Jaishankar on the Indian side – in Washington, DC, on December 18, 2019, the two countries reaffirmed “the growing strategic partnership between the United States and India, which is grounded in democratic values, shared strategic objectives.”

When US President Donald Trump made a state visit to India on February 24-25 this year, the two countries agreed to work toward an early conclusion of the third and final bilateral foundational military pact, the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-Spatial Cooperation (BECA). The BECA will enable the US to share with India advanced satellite and topographical data for long-range navigation and missile targeting. 

Unreliable strategic alliance

Joseph Mearsheimer, an American international-relations scholar, believes that there are no such terms as “friend” and “trust” in international relations and strategy. He suggests Indians should engage for Indian interests, and the US should engage for its interests. If there is a chance of mutual interests, they should act together. So if American strategists see a better payoff from negotiating with China, India will no longer remain the United States’ strategic partner. 

Kishore Mahabubani, a Singaporean scholar and former diplomat, thinks that the beneficiary of the last resort of any Sino-Indian war is the US. It is India, not the US, that has to pay the price of the logistic and strategic agreements it has signed with Washington. 

The US itself wants a better trade deal with China. After the November US presidential election, that deal will likely be made. If the US is able to make a trade deal it sees as favorable, it will reverse its current anti-China course. Indian strategists are naive to rely on the consistency of the US policy on China. 

John Bolton, in his 570-page tome titled The Room Where It Happened, mentions India 16 times in the main text. In his view, India is not a priority in Trump’s strategy. Moreover, Bolton’s claim of impotent leadership in the White House is a further indication that Modi is taking his country on an uncertain excursion by believing in Jaishankar and his pro-US strategy. 

There is a very popular Hindi proverb, “Dhobi ka kutta, na ghar ka na ghat ka.” A working translation is “a person who is supported nowhere.” Modi will find no really helpful friends in need in the future by putting all his eggs in the American basket. 

For example, Indian strategists suppose that Russia backs India. However, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking at a Russia-India-China foreign ministers’ meeting on Tuesday, said, “I don’t think that India and China need any help from the outside. I don’t think they need to be helped, especially when it comes to country issues. They can solve them on their own, [including] the recent events.”

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Bhim Bhurtel

Bhim Bhurtel is visiting faculty for a master's in international relations and diplomacy, Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, and faculty for a master's program of Development Economics, Nepal Open University. He was the executive director of the Nepal South Asia Center (2009-14), a Kathmandu-based South Asian development think-tank. Bhurtel can be reached at bhim.bhurtel@gmail.com.