Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (right) speaks with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (center) and US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper during a meeting in New Delhi on October 27, 2020. Photo: PIB / AFP

India and the United States on Tuesday signed an intelligence-sharing agreement during the “2+2” security dialogue between their foreign and defense ministers in New Delhi. The Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) is expected to provide India with access to the United States’ geospatial maps and satellite images that would help enhance the accuracy of weapons and drones.

This is seen as a “force multiplier” for the Indian armed forces. Everything has been handled in such a hush-hush manner that the public at large has no clue as to what is afoot. Some military analysts caution that the new grid gives the US access to highly sensitive nerve centers of defense planning and operations in the Indian military establishment. 

How India’s Russian friends will take all this remains to be seen. Will they transfer advanced military technology to India if the Americans have a mole inside the system? The US objective is to deepen the “interoperability” between the two armed forces, which gives underpinning for the US-Indian military alliance. 

Also read: How the US and India became brothers in arms

To be sure, these processes by far predate the India-China border standoff. But the standoff provides an alibi to push the US-Indian military alliance ahead. Indian analysts view the BECA as a matter of defense cooperation. But US Defense Secretary Mark Esper last week drew attention to a parallel track involving the famous Five Eyes alliance as well.

Esper said the Five Eyes alliance was also addressing the “challenges in the Indo-Pacific” and, importantly, “how do we cooperate together?” He added, “So you see a lot more closer collaboration come out. And this’ll be reflected in our meetings next week in New Delhi, as well, when we travel there.” This needs explaining.

Historically, the Five Eyes alliance emerged from spying arrangements forged during World War II and facilitates the sharing of signals intelligence (SIGINT) among the US, the UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. The Five Eyes are to share, by default, all SIGINT they gather, as well as methods and techniques relating to SIGINT operations – share “continuously, currently and without request” both “raw” intelligence and the “end product” (that is, intelligence subjected to analysis or interpretation). 

Countering Soviet influence was the original charter of the Five Eyes, but with the Cold War ending, focus shifted to the rise of China. Since the beginning of 2018, the Five Eyes began exchanging classified information with other like-minded countries as a mark of the broadening of the front against China. The enhanced cooperation amounted to an informal expansion of the Five Eyes group on specific issues concerning China (and Russia). 

The British press was full of reports earlier this year that the Five Eyes could be expanded to include Japan to form a cohesive political and economic alliance to compete with China. Inevitably, what started as ad hoc discussions is now leading to more detailed consultations regarding China.

Early this month over a weekend, members of the Five Eyes reportedly sat down with representatives from Japan and India. From the perspective of the Five Eyes, India holds many attractions. India possesses impressive intelligence-gathering networks and is also uniquely located bordering Tibet and Xinjiang.

India has a long record of monitoring the developments in Tibet. The recent border clashes with China lifted the veil on a shadowy force of ethnic-Tibetan fighters who have been trained in India. All this cannot be lost on the Five Eyes alliance.

Additionally, if Nepal also can be “persuaded” to cooperate, a very long stretch of China’s “soft underbelly” along the disputed 4,000-kilometer India-China border could become a hunting ground for the Five Eyes. 

Indeed, the foreign-policy implications are very profound. Unsurprisingly, the US is desperately keen to get India on board its anti-China Western alliance. The unseemly hurry to schedule the “2+2” security dialogue just a week before the US election was self-evident. 

Unfortunately, Indian policymakers are open to American persuasion that the international system is in transition from the post-Cold War unipolar world to another bipolar world. In reality, though, the rise of China is leading to the emergence of a kaleidoscopic multipolar world order, as many countries, including some former US allies, have begun refusing to take sides in the rivalry between the US and China.

Such countries  – for example Turkey, Indonesia, the Philippines, South Africa, Germany, Mexico – prefer to seek their own national interests separately, maximizing their national autarky. Clearly, attempts to create military spheres of influence or regional economic blocs will not produce enduring results in such an international milieu. 

As China’s economy grows in real terms and provides economic opportunities to its neighbors, even America’s two East Asian protectorates are facing such a predicament. Japan’s top trading partner is the US (19.9% of exports) but its No 2 trading partner is China (19.1%). South Korea traded twice as much with China (25.1% of exports) as with the US (13.6% of exports).

This trend can only become more pronounced. Why should these East Asian allies of the US agree to eliminate their trade and investment with China? Yet how can a strategy of military containment of China succeed without that country’s economic isolation?  

Clearly, instead of the risky gambit to align with the US, India has an alternative option to tap optimally into the international environment for meeting its development needs by pursuing a policy of “dealignment.”

Indian strategic planning blithely overlooks that in a foreseeable future, contradictions are bound to arise in the US-Indian relationship when the two countries begin to compete opportunistically for markets, raw materials and contracts for their firms. 

According to the consulting firm PwC, by 2050 – within just another 30 years from now – India could be the second-largest economy (behind China), with the US, Indonesia, Brazil, Russia, Mexico and Japan trailing behind it in that order. The gap between the economies of China and Japan may be greater than between the US and Mexico today.

In a conceivable future, too, as the world’s most populous country, surpassing China, India could have the world’s largest economy. Now, what would be India’s outlook on the “Indo-Pacific” in such a scenario a generation or two from now? 

Just as China hopes to evict the US from East Asia today, India’s nationalists may also have their “nine-dash line” in the Indian Ocean, eyeing Diego Garcia from Ascension Island in Seychelles. Setting aside their current differences, the US and China may even have shared interests in “freedom of navigation” in the Indian Ocean. 

The lessons of modern history are chastening. The US aligned with the USSR to defeat Germany and Japan in World War II, and thereupon, it aligned with Germany and Japan to contain the Soviet Union through the Cold War era. Again, the US aligned with China against the Soviet Union late in the Cold War, but once the Cold War ended, the US switched to a dual containment strategy against rising China and resurgent Russia. 

Sadly, India lacks a strategic culture. Indian strategic planning is still predicated on the Cold War model, whereas what India should prepare for is not a bipolar world of tight Cold War-era alliances, but the multipolar order that the rise of China and the relative loss of US hegemony is already inducing, in which power diffuses and more and more countries seek to avoid taking sides in the US-China rivalry.

What stands out from Esper’s talk at the Atlantic Council on October 20 is that the US  grand strategy is still riveted fundamentally on the Cold War model – based on unilateral US military protection and a shared economy. But the geopolitical landscape of the Cold War era cannot be re-created. The old order of a deeply integrated core bloc of allies is vanishing.

The cost of failure to comprehend this could be very severe for India. The period ahead is going to be volcanic, unstable and fragmented and requires to be navigated through spheres of influence and trading blocs, created and managed by both lesser powers and major powers. The perversity of seeking American protection from a largely imaginary threat of Chinese invasion and occupation is too obvious to be denied.

This article was produced in partnership by Indian Punchline and Globetrotter, which provided it to Asia Times.

M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.