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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 43 New Delhi October 15, 2016

Vendors heard the War Drums On LoC

Sunday 16 October 2016, by M K Bhadrakumar

The guns on the Line of Control have not yet fallen silent, but arms vendors are coming to Delhi. The Reuters reports that US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter will pay a quick visit before moving on to his next job. (Reuters)

A think-tanker, Jeff Smith, Director of Asia Security Programmes at the American Foreign Policy Council, told Reuters: “The (US) administration is eager to get as much done as is humanly possible. They believe the conditions and the personnel in both capitals (Washington and Delhi) are uniquely favourable at the moment, and are eager to consolidate and institutionalize the progress.”

It is an illuminating remark. Hmmm... Who could be the personnel in Narendra Modi Government who are “uniquely favourable at the moment” viewed through the looking glass of American vendors? The entire Modi Government? Or, only a handful of them? Where do they work on Raisina Hill—in PMO, South Block or North Block?

The “progress”, of course, concerns arms sales. The Reuters cites expert opinion arguing that it is the spectre of the Donald Trump presidency that haunts the Modi Government so much so that it plans to stock up as much American weapons as possible during the Obama presidency. That is baloney.

Where is it that Trump said he’d stop America from selling weapons to the Modi Government? Where is it that he said he’d dismantle America’s military-industrial complex? Where is it that he said that he’d slash America’s defence budget? Where is it that he said he’d reorient American capitalism? Where is it that he said he’d go ‘soft’ on China?

All that Trump said is (a) military allies such as South Korea should not expect a free ride; b) Europe should equitably share the NATO budget; c) the US shouldn’t squander resources in meaningless wars; d) Interventionist policies are best avoided; and, e) China shall damn well cough up some of that money it made in the American market.

Second, assuming Trump clamps down on arms exports, isn’t it a dumb thing for our chaps in Delhi to get into a buying spree just now before the November election results in America showed he’s lost the bid for the White House?

Alas, there is no discourse in our country whether extravagant shopping spree for weapons serves or makes sense. It is the American lobbyists who are doing the thinking for us.

Pakistan has shown how to develop strategic deterrence capability to checkmate a far superior adversary. Okay, ‘Pakistan’ is a dirty word. Then, learn from Vietnam. Vietnam fought many wars with China in history. It has a 1200-kilometre border with China. Hanoi is just 173 kilometres from the Chinese border. Vietnam has an explosive territorial dispute with China, where China is assertive and will not even settle for ‘peace and tranquillity’.

Capacity build-up of national defence is an existential challenge for Vietnam. Yet, even if Ash Carter pays monthly visits to Hanoi, Vietnam will not be persuaded. The country has a defence budget equal to Malaysia’s and a shade above the Philippines’. Nonetheless, it maintains a national defence capability at high readiness.

Fundamentally, where Vietnam scores over India is in its mastery of the psychological aspects of its complex relationship with China —the capacity for independent action. Vietnam’s armed forces cannot prevail in an all-out conflict with China’s PLA. So, Vietnam shrewdly calculates the strategic risk involved, and if the risk is acceptable, it embraces the risk. Or else, life moves on. It is unlikely to take strategic risk over a Masood Azhar or CPEC or Gilgit-Baltistan.

Vietnam cultivates strategic bandwidth through the extraordinary depth it gives to international relations. The bottom-line is: Vietnam has a coherent approach toward China. There could be competition, but sustained political engagement with China continues, which factors in that no matter strategic distrust, disputes or tensions, China remains a neighbor, and neighbors are important.

Therefore, Vietnam engages deeply with China. Trade turnover will touch $100 billion this year—double India’s with China. Why not? Vietnam is an ambitious regional power. It is determined to emerge as a middle income economy in a near future and, therefore, it needs all the trade and investment that China can offer.

To be sure, it is cost effective to defend national interests while living at close quarters with strategic risk by drawing on the realities of self-reliance and developing the capacity for independent action—rather than depending on the man (or woman) who sits in the Oval Office in White House.

The Reuters report claims that Americans simply admire our Prime Minister as one of their DNA—a real go-getter. Will Americans dare say such an idiotic thing to a news agency regarding General Secretary Nguyen Phú Treng or Prime Minister Nguyen Xuân Phúc, hoping to play on their vanities? I think not.

Ambassador M.K. Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).

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