Lessons for India in ruckus over AUKUS

Torpedoed France in India’s foreign policy periscope

Politics

September 19, 2021

/ By / New Delhi

Lessons for India in ruckus over AUKUS

US President Joe Biden announcing nuclear submarine deal with Boris Johnson and Scott Morrison (Photo: AFP)

The ongoing spat between United States and France, the most critical in perhaps a century, has serious implications for India and should serve as an urgent message for a serious re-alignment of its foreign policy which over the past five years has come to mirror that of the United States.

In a clear sign that it was not letting go of the issue, France ratcheted up its criticism of the triad of United States, United Kingdom and Australia over the nuclear submarine deal that killed a EUR 56 billion deal which Australia had signed with France over two years ago.

Using fairly undiplomatic words for its closest allies for well over a century, French foreign affairs minister Jean Yves Le Drian accused the three nations of lying and underlined that the issue was far from settled and that France would not let the trio try to brush it under the carpet. “There has been lying, duplicity, a major breach of trust and contempt,” Le Drian told French state television, adding “this will not do.’’

That France has already recalled its ambassadors to Canberra and Washington DC, for the first time in history goes on to show the anger and displeasure that Emmanuel Macron has felt over the way France was ousted from a lucrative deal by two of its closest historical allies – the United Kingdom and the US – in a backroom deal that looked anything but transparent or friendly, at least seen from Elysee.

Of course, France is miffed about missing out on one of its biggest defence deals in living memory, but it is equally pissed at the way its friends went behind its back to rework the deal, giving it no clues till about a few hours before the Australia-United Kingdom-United States (AUKUS) deal was announced. If ever an ally was blindsided, it was in this deal.

The trio are trying to justify their deal saying that for years Australia had been insisting that France also share its technology and allow some of the subs to be made in Australia, a point over which France has been reticent, and not just with Australia. Even in the deal involving purchase of Rafale fighter jets by India, France held off sharing technology for a real Make in India programme and signed on the deal only when Prime Minister Narendra Modi agreed to buy 36 aircraft in a totally fly-away condition, at an inflated price.

While Australia’s desire to get the technology behind nuclear-powered submarines, one of the rarest weapons in the world currently possessed only by six nations, including India, their behaviour and the backroom dealing clearly does not portend well for a Western alliance that has been building up over the past decade in the ‘Indo-Pacific’ areas, aimed solely at curtailing regional superpower China’s military and economic prowess.

Biden delivers lesson for Modi in realpolitik

While the drama between the Western allies does not directly implicate India, New Delhi had better watch it very closely and take some urgent lessons from this conflagration. Over the past decade or so, but especially since the arrival of Modi as Prime Minister in 2014, India’s foreign policy goals seem to be increasingly aligned with those of the United States, notably in the passive-aggressive strategy of ‘containing’ China in Asian region and in the Indo-Pacific.

From an annual naval exercise with the US, India has moved on to an annual exercise of the Quad – with Japan, Australia, US and India – whose obvious target is China, even though all the four nations regularly make fruitless efforts to say it does not target any nation in particular. Not just that, but over the years, India has been progressing at breakneck speed in deepening its ties, and reliance, on the United States.

This tight embrace has not gone unnoticed by Beijing which now sees India, with a fair degree of justification, as another close ally, or even pawn, of the US that would do pretty much whatever Washington DC asked Delhi to do. As India gets into a tighter embrace with the US and increasingly adopts its foreign policy goals as its own, Beijing, for its part, has been showing its anger over this alliance, ratcheting up incursions across the border into India, through the entire stretch from Ladakh in the west to Arunachal Pradesh in the east.

Modi’s denials not withstanding, over the past five years Chinese army has occupied thousands of square km of Indian territory and has agreed to lower the tensions on the border only on its terms and that too when India agrees, each time, to withdraw deeper into its own, and previously uncontested, territory, resulting in a rapidly evolving status quo all along the border. The incidents are far too many to be ignored. The latest standoff at Pangong Tso lake in Ladakh, where India agreed to pull its troops even further behind the actual line of control than it had before the conflict began three years ago.

China has also strengthened its alliance with traditional ally, Pakistan, and has been enhancing the capability of the Pakistani defence forces through induction of modern weapons that it has developed. Moreover, now with Afghanistan under rule by proxy from Islamabad, China has entirely ringfenced India on its north-western borders and has also been enhancing ties with Nepal as well as Myanmar in order to completely surround India. With this, India’s military strategies and capabilities are clearly stretched beyond limits, more so because the gap between the Indian and Chinese defence forces has widened so much that India would be unable to withstand a Chinese attack, even in case of all other borders remaining peaceful, which hardly seems likely should a conflict emerge.

Miffed Moscow

It is not just China that has been anxious about India’s newfound and ever-deepening bonhomie with the US and its traditional allies. India’s long-standing and so far, perhaps, the only true ally is none too happy over the developments and has been sending subtle as well as less than subtle messages to New Delhi to rebalance its relationship. Though Modi has tried to pacify Russian President Vladimir Putin and reassure him that India has not abandoned its long-held practice of an equidistant relationship with Russia and the US, Russia is far from assured.

Russia’s ties with the western nations have taken a serious nosedive in the recent years and India would find it hard to straddle both the boats. Already, Russia has mended its ties with China to a large extent and has also begun defence supplies to Pakistan, for the first time in 75 years. The three nations are also at ease in dealing with the Taliban, leaving India as the odd man out in the region.

In such a scenario it is difficult to see Russia helping India, either to lower tensions with China or perhaps even coming to its aid should a violent conflict break between the two Asian giants.

In such a situation, the US’ response to developments in Afghanistan and also the way it has risked to seriously anger one of its oldest allies, France, in forming a new alliance Aukus, for its own foreign policy goals, should serve as a bitter lesson in realpolitik for India that needs to urgently rebalance its foreign relationships. While no one would advocate a hostile or anything less than friendly relationship with Washington, Delhi needs to put India’s own interests – short, medium or long-term – first and last and decide its foreign and defence policies accordingly.

It has two recent lessons served by the US to the Afghan government as well as to France to learn the dangers of putting all eggs in one basket, especially when the basket belongs to an ally as fickle as the United States.

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