US President Donald Trump shakes hands with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a joint press conference at Hyderabad House in New Delhi on February 25, 2020. Photo: AFP / Prakash Singh

If you are of two minds about the foreign-policy orientations of the Indian government, what do you do? Answer: Read the lips of US State Department officials. They will give you the authoritative account of what India’s secretive foreign policy elites are up to. 

At any rate, do not allow yourself to be misled by what Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar says from time to time. I have come to this bitter assessment after reading the stunning remarks by US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun on August 31 in an online discussion organized by the US-India Strategic Partnership Forum. 

They were fairly lengthy remarks – thoughtful, well structured and quite obviously premeditated.

Biegun, incidentally, is not an “India hand,” although he’s the No 2 official in the US State Department and is an American businessman and accomplished Russian-speaking diplomat who has been a staffer on the National Security Council in the George W Bush administration and the US special representative for North Korea in the Donald Trump administration. 

US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun Photo: AFP/Petras Malukas

Biegun candidly disclosed during Monday’s remarks that the US seeks to formalize its closer defense ties with countries of the India-Pacific region – India, Japan and Australia – as something like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization with an aim to counter China. 

The disclosure was well argued, conveying the distinct impression that this is work in progress.

Also read: India’s gamble on China policy looking like a bad bet

According to a report carried by the South China Morning Post, Biegun said Washington’s aim was to get the Quad grouping of the United States, Japan, Australia and India to work together as a bulwark against “a potential challenge from China … [and] to create a critical mass around the shared values and interests of those parties in a manner that attracts more countries in the Indo-Pacific and even from around the world … ultimately to align in a more structured manner.” 

To quote Biegun: “The Indo-Pacific region is actually lacking in strong multilateral structures. They do not have anything of the fortitude of NATO or the European Union. The strongest institutions in Asia oftentimes are not, I think, not inclusive enough and so … there is certainly an invitation there at some point to formalize a structure like this.

“Remember, even NATO started with relatively modest expectations and a number of countries [initially] chose neutrality over NATO membership.” 

Biegun added a caveat that the US would keep its ambitions for a Pacific NATO “checked,” asserting that such an alliance “will happen only if the other countries are as committed as the US.” 

Special forces commandos conduct fast-roping from a Blackhawk helicopter aboard HMAS Kanimbla in the Arafura Sea off Darwin. Photo: AFP/Darren Hilder

But he added that the Quad grouping is expected to meet in New Delhi this autumn and cited Australia’s possible participation in India’s forthcoming Malabar naval exercise as an example of progress towards a formal defense bloc. 

Biegun noted that the US wants to see Vietnam, South Korea and New Zealand eventually join an expanded version of the Quad, citing the “very cooperative” meetings of the grouping of four countries with officials from these nations regarding the response to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

He added that the meetings among senior-level officials of the seven nations were “incredibly productive discussions among very cooperative partners, and one that we should look at to see a natural grouping of countries that really will do their very best to advance this combination of interests.” 

Curiously, Jaishankar participated in this online discussion, but what Biegun said is diametrically opposite to what we are used to hearing from Jaishankar – namely, that India has no bloc mentality, the Quad is not directed against any country and that India intends to pursue independent foreign policies. 

Has Jaishankar been deliberately misleading the Indian public? Indeed, some profound issues arise here. The conspiracy of silence on the part of the government suggests that a systematic hijacking of India to a military alliance with the US has been in progress for a while. Specifically, it predates India’s current military stand-off with China. 

The stand-off with China provides a justification for the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to unveil its real agenda – just the alibi the Indian foreign-policy establishment would need to transform the Quad openly into an “Asian NATO.” It’s a deeply worrying thought. 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Singapore address was worth noting. Photo: AFP

Not too long ago, on June 1, 2018, Modi delivered a keynote address at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, eloquently espousing the ABCs of India’s policies in the Asia-Pacific region. It was a stirring speech, almost “Nehruvian” in its originality and vision. Let me quote some excerpts: 

“The Indo-Pacific is a natural region. It is also home to a vast array of global opportunities and challenges … Today, we are being called to rise above divisions and competition to work together … Inclusiveness, openness and ASEAN centrality and unity, therefore, lie at the heart of the new Indo-Pacific. 

“India does not see the Indo-Pacific region as a strategy or as a club of limited members. Nor as a grouping that seeks to dominate. And by no means do we consider it as directed against any country. A geographical definition, as such, cannot be.

“India’s vision for the Indo-Pacific Region is, therefore, a positive one … It stands for a free, open, inclusive region, which embraces us all in a common pursuit of progress and prosperity. It includes all nations in this geography as also others beyond who have a stake in it. 

“Southeast Asia is at its center. And ASEAN has been and will be central to its future. That is the vision that will always guide India, as we seek to cooperate for an architecture for peace and security in this region. Asia of rivalry will hold us all back. Asia of cooperation will shape this century. 

“We are inheritors of Vedanta philosophy that believes in essential oneness of all, and celebrates unity in diversity एकम स यम, व ाः बहदावद त (Truth is one, the learned speak of it in many ways). That is the foundation of our civilizational ethos – of pluralism, co-existence, open-ness and dialogue.” 

Asean Economic Community flags on the blue sky background. illustration: iStock
Asean flags fly in the breeze. Photo: iStock

It is improbable that Modi can improve upon his Shangri-La speech espousing the great inclusiveness of India’s worldview, the centrality it attaches to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the values of pluralism and co-existence that it cherishes. Yet, in two years’ time, that visionary speech has landed in the dustbin. Was it a vacuous speech? 

Great nations do not do such flip-flops on the world stage when it comes to the moorings of their beliefs and ethos. Can it be that Modi is blissfully unaware that his foreign minister is planning to host a Quad ministerial in Delhi this autumn as the foreplay to creating an “Asian NATO”? 

The Modi government has removed India’s chastity belt and is readying it to be another concubine in the superpower’s harem. Modern history tells us that the Americans are simply incapable of having equal relationships. How come the ruling elite have so quickly forgotten India’s colonial history? 

The strangest part is that India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, which wears nationalism on its sleeve, is so eagerly stepping forward on to a turf where ASEAN fears to tread. 

This article was produced in partnership by Indian Punchline and Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute, which provided it to Asia Times. 

M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.