India’s commitment to ‘All Alignment’ has added credibility to the view that the Quad has no relation to security. This is in contrast to AUKUS, which is entirely about security, and which it would be beneficial to the Quad members to integrate into a more formalised and capable alliance, writes Prof. Madhav Nalapat
There has been a swift international and domestic reaction to US President Joe Biden’s adoption of Trump’s surrender to the Taliban in 2020 at Doha. Sino-Wahabi elements in the Administration had manipulated focus groups in their successful effort to convince Biden that the 46th President’s denuding of kinetic capabilities from Afghanistan would make him immensely popular. Biden is aware that unlike his predecessors Obama and Trump, he has no base of his own. There is no voting bloc that has been loyal to Biden in the manner that liberals have been to Barack Obama and nativists to Donald Trump.
The Sino-Wahabi lobby (including within White House staff) convinced the US President that cutting and running from Afghanistan, despite thereby handing it over to a known extremist group, would win him support from both the nativist as well as liberal camps. The reverse took place. Biden’s popularity (and confidence in his leadership) is at a lower level than was the case under his erratic predecessor, who spoke of a fightback against the Wahabi International (and backed those words by supporting anti-Wahabi rulers such as Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman of Saudi Arabia) and yet cosied up to President Erdogan, indulging the Turkish leader who has sought in his country to replace the vision of Ataturk with that of the Wahabis, who were used by the British to assist in the demolishing of the Turkish caliphate in the Arabian peninsula in the early part of the previous century.
In his courtship of Erdogan, Trump even surrendered the Kurds to his newfound ally, despite that ethnicity being almost entirely moderate and doughty fighters against Wahabi extremists. His surprising kowtow to the Wahabi International (which is the closest ally of the Chinese Communist Party leadership) was followed up by another surrender, the agreement at Doha to hand over the keys to Kabul to the Taliban just as Bill Clinton did a generation back.
Returning to Biden, it would appear that the blowback from his adoption of the Sino-Wahabi playbook on Afghanistan has made the politically sensitive US President appreciate the political risk not just to himself but to his party in the 2022 midterms of the White House accepting the policy directives mapped out by elements promoting Sino-Wahabi interests within the Biden administration and the Democratic Party. The first sign that Biden had understood the danger of following Trump (in the latter’s propensity to pander to Sino-Wahabi preferences despite claiming the opposite) was the announcement that there would be an in-person meeting of the four Quad leaders in Washington on 24 September.
The next was the announcement of the AUKUS security alliance and its technological implications, including in the fields of nuclear capability and joint development of Artificial Intelligence systems. India would be a superb fit within AUKUS, given this country’s (a) technological and scientific capabilities, (b) essentiality in keeping the Indo-Pacific and the Eurasian landmass free from dominance by any single power, (c) vast reserves of youthful human-power that could be trained and equipped for battlefield conditions including training and logistical help, and (d) the hundreds of millions of citizens who speak English, the lingua franca of the US, Australia and the UK.
AUSTRALIA LOOKS TO U.S., NOT CHINA
That Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison made the correct decision when he walked away from the deal with France for conventional submarines is obvious. There is a universe of capabilities that separate nuclear from conventional submarines. Also, from an overall geopolitical standpoint, the US is more consequential than France, impressive though that country’s achievements have been since Charles De Gaulle took charge of the country in 1958. The 360-degree approach towards decisions such as multi-billion dollar defence contracts is different from that followed in India, where a much narrower view gets taken even in matters such as major purchases of weaponry or aircraft.
This is a fallout of the silo system of decision making that has been the rule in India since the 1970s, where issues are looked at and decided upon not based on overall national needs and interests but those of a segment of the government. Defence procurement is decided based on the specific needs and views of the particular service needing such systems, so that considerations such as overall geopolitical desirability fail to get factored into the decisions. An example is the UPA decision to go in for 126 combat aircraft from France in place of alternatives such as the setting up of production facilities in India for the manufacture of selected US aircraft. From the narrow view of the service involved and in the short term, this may have been a correct decision, but in the overall context, passing up an opportunity to expand domestic aircraft production platforms through US companies outsourcing facilities to India may have deserved a closer look than was given by the UPA government at the time.
So far as AUKUS is concerned, following the lead of Australia and teaming up with the US to produce nuclear-powered submarines would be better for India than passing up such an option, assuming that it has been presented by the Biden administration. Rather than view matters as “Either Or”, what may be preferable is to add on capability through other sources rather than depend on a single supplier for defence equipment. That India may become a major platform for the production and maintenance of US-made weapons systems is a matter of worry for the Central Military Commission in Beijing, which over the decades has been more than generous in ensuring that GHQ Rawalpindi be given weapons and capabilities that are meant to be used only against India (and possibly a post-Taliban Afghanistan in the future).
Thus far, whether out of an absence of interest in the US side or the Indian side, such an unwelcome scenario for the PLA has not been actualised. At least in public, India has been careful to emphasize a commitment to what may be termed “All Alignment” to a degree that has added credibility to the oft-expressed view that the Quad has no relation to security. This is in contrast to AUKUS, which is entirely about security, and which it would be beneficial to the Quad members and to the UK to integrate into a more formalised and capable Quad. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was forceful in private during the BRICS conclave about the importance of ascertaining the origins of SARS-Cov-2, just as he was publicly about the risk posed to moderate members of the SCO by radicalism and extremism.
This may be the time for the External Affairs Ministry to replace the often elliptical (and difficult to comprehend for those unschooled in diplomatese) verbal and written formulations made public by officials with others that are as direct (while being polite and respectful of the need for avoiding unpleasantness in exchanges) as the sentiments expressed by PM Modi to the 20th summit of the SCO. Given the tensions that have become more palpable in recent times, such a change in tone may be warranted and beneficial in terms of signalling to friends and foes alike the mind of the central government on matters of extreme concern.
AVOIDING CONFLICT THROUGH DETERRENCE
Over the decades, the Chinese Communist Party has created a narrative that makes it difficult for the party to backtrack from the open resort to force that has become the hallmark of Xi Jinping Thought as applied to the external environment. From their formative years, the young in China have been schooled not just to believe that (a) a PRC-centric world order is desirable for the whole of humanity, but that (b) such an ascent to primacy and later dominance is inevitable, given the rising kinetic and other capabilities of the PRC. It is noteworthy that care seems to be taken since the 1990s in showcasing tall and conventionally “good looking” individuals. They parade before the media as role models for the Chinese people to follow. “Effeminate” men and those who appear less than Spartan about their deportment and attitude to life are looked down upon in the CCP leadership’s efforts at creating a New Chinese Man (and Woman) for the latest version of New China, which is guided by Xi Jinping Thought.
Another characteristic is to seek to be more than merely first among equals in every field of “hard” activity, whether it be in defense, sports, technology or external relations. Xi is working on establishing the primacy and eventual dominance of the PRC over all other countries (not just the US or India but Russia as well, looking at the inroads being made into Eurasia by the BRI), just as the CCP General Secretary is seeking to dominate the Indo-Pacific. In following such a strategy, Xi is returning to the playbook of the US in the period before the dilution in US influence following the 2008 financial crash and the military disasters in Iraq, Libya, Syria and most recently Afghanistan. No ally of the US was treated as an equal, not even Japan, the UK or France.
The only exception was China during the period since 1972 when Beijing and Washington worked together to demolish the USSR. The PRC was treated as an associate of Washington rather than as a supplicant, subsidiary or junior power. These days, the role of significant US associate could fall to India, in case policymakers in the Lutyens Zone decide to make use of Cold War 2.0 between the PRC and the US for India’s benefit, the way the PRC used Cold War 1.0 between the USSR and the US during the 1980s and until the 1997 Hong Kong handover. Such a move would necessitate a much more robust utilisation of present-day opportunities than the imprecision and zigzags that have characterised much of policy thus far.
The setting up of AUKUS has shown the importance of the security dimension in all major power relationships in an era of a new Cold War. Should President Biden go further along the path that he is following (through holding a Quad meeting in Washington and setting up the AUKUS alliance) and should he understand that a repeat of the 2001 US strategy of assisting the Northern Alliance to defeat the Taliban is needed in 2021 as well, prospects for major power conflict will ease as a consequence of the greater level of deterrence such clear and resolute steps will create where the revisionist superpower is concerned.
In the 1930s, the leaders of France and the UK failed to act in time to prevent the 1939-45 war and accompanying genocide by Hitler, despite CPSU General Secretary J.V. Stalin pushing them to do so before the 1939 invasion of Poland by Hitler. Efforts were made through USSR Foreign Minister Maxim Litvinov, but failed as a consequence of the policy of appeasement and inability to understand the depth of Hitler’s obsession with dominance through conquest. Earlier in the 20th century, in much the same way, ambiguities in signalling on the part of London Moscow and Paris assisted the incomprehension of the German Kaiser about the resolve and capabilities of Berlin’s perceived foes. This was the toxic compound of misjudgements that resulted in the 1914-19 war. A similar ambiguity by those defending a free and open Indo-Pacific and a lack of comprehension in the reviionist superpower about their resolve and unity may result in a repeat of the tragedies of 1914-19 and 1939-45.
THE PRC WORLDVIEW
Analysts who have a detailed knowledge of the everyday “mechanics” of the functioning of the world’s biggest political machine, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), but not the actual “chemistry”, fail to understand that the assertive, indeed aggressive, policy line being pursued by the CCP General Secretary has its origins in the birth pangs of the party almost a century ago. The CCP in essence is a party of Han nationalism, that mandates efforts towards the return of the Middle Kingdom as the centre point of global geopolitics, initially by stabilising the country ruled by the party internally, and later by establishing first primacy and subsequently dominance over the Eurasian landmass and the waters of the Indo-Pacific.
More than two decades ago, the present writer had pointed to the initial years of the 21st century as heralding the period when the levers of authority down the chain of command within the CCP (and the governmental machinery controlled by it) would vest in the hands of single male children, the inevitable product of the One Child policy pursued by the CCP since 1980. Given the latitude given to them by parents and grandparents, single male children are liable to be headstrong and confident of having their own way. When this cohort took over full control of the (heavily male-dominated) CCP leadership by the initial years of the 21st century, it was inevitable that the policies of the PRC would become more assertive and subsequently more aggressive.
This was the case since the second term of CCP General Secretary Hu Jintao, but became undeniable since the assumption of power in 2012 by General Secretary Xi Jinping. Earlier, from Jiang Zemin’s years in power onwards, a concerted effort had been launched to bring back artifacts of ancient China from the homes and museums that they had found their way into over the centuries. Knowledge of their civilisational heritage and its assumed superiority were reinforced in this manner. From the mid-1950s, school curricula as well as popular literature focused on the centrality of the ascent of the PRC to the “betterment of the world”.
This was to be achieved by expanding influence across the world, and bringing into the fold more and more countries that would accept the CCP creed that doing what Beijing wanted was good not only for their own countries but for the world as a whole. When a spokesperson in the Atlanticist powers speaks of the international order, what is meant is the post-1945 construct created after the 1939-45 war. What is meant by “international order” when the term is mentioned by CCP spokespersons is the ordering of the world with the PRC as its centre of gravity. Both sides seek an adherence to the “international order”, but have entirely divergent concepts of what that means. Which is why each side believes the other is not being sincere when references are made about following the “rules of the international order”.
The first set of rules was designed to enshrine the primacy (if not any more the dominance) of the Atlantic Alliance in global geopolitics, while the construct conceived by the PRC seeks to promote the “inevitable” transition of the globe into an international order where Beijing will have primacy where it cannot immediately be dominant. Since their formative years, the young in the PRC have been schooled through a carefully crafted narrative to internalise the assumed benefits of Pax Sinica across the world. Since Xi Jinping assumed charge of the CCP, they have been taught both in subtle as well as in obvious ways that such a shift in global geopolitics from the Atlanticist to the Sinic is an inevitability. Given such a Weltanschauung (world view), it is surprising that there remain large clusters of policymakers in the US, India, the EU and Japan who believe that these two opposing views of a desirable world order can in the natural course exist side by side in harmony with each other.
CREDIBLE DETERRENCE ONLY PATH TO PEACE
Just as there are concepts such as values and human rights that are universal, it would be desirable were peace to be universal, the goal sought by Mahatma Gandhi. His effort to halt the tragedy of the partition of the subcontinent in 1947 failed, and in both the 1947 attack on Kashmir and the 1962 invasion of China, it was clear that peace with pacifist India was not a priority for either Pakistan or the PRC. Rather than universal peace, violence and efforts by a few to establish dominance over the others has been the rule of existence.
There has been much discussion about “revisionist” powers as compared to those favouring the continuation of present-day realities. When a significant power becomes hyper-confident both in its capabilities and in the presumed inevitability of its kinetic and other success over countries which differ from its expansive aims, tensions are unlikely to spike. That there are still policymakers who cling on to delusions of “harmony”, or seek the same through concessions and repeated efforts at changing revisionist minds is testimony to the adage of the triumph of hope over experience.
History teaches that peace can be made more likely only through deterrence created by capability and the will to resist. AUKUS is an example of that. For whatever reason, the Quad is not yet credible as a deterrent to the creeping annexation of land, sea and air space that the Indo-Pacific has been witnessing . Prime Minister Narendra Modi needs to change that, if possible during his September 24 meeting with President Biden. Prime Minister Suga and Prime Minister Morrison.