Don’t look now, but there’s a fire-breathing red dragon right behind you.
That’s the alarmist message that a lot of US leaders are conveying to India with increasing vehemence.
It’s the busy season for former US presidents and diplomats who have been dropping by to point to China as an existential threat to India.
Former president George W Bush evidently told a closed-door group of Indian CEOs in Mumbai on Tuesday that China, which was now targeting the US, would next turn its Red Eye on India. Similarly, former US ambassador to India Frank Wisner came by to caution India about China’s assertiveness – and pitch for stronger Indo-US relations as a foil.
Former US President George W Bush. AFP
There’s always been a certain reductionist simplicity to Bush’s worldview. In the “war on terror” that he blundered into soon after 9/11, you’re either with us or against us, he famously said, drawing a line in the quicksand. Over the next seven years, the unwinnable wars bled the US dry and distracted attention away from a monstrous credit binge that, by the end of his eight-year tenure, blew up spectacularly.
Yet, during his years in office, Bush traced more arcs of history in a way that left Indian strategic thinkers rapturous. Building on the diplomatic spadework done by Jaswant Singh and Strobe Talbott, the Bush administration signalled a reshaping of America’s strategic priorities by inducting India – against considerable international opposition – into the club of nuclear powers and projecting it as an ally of the future against a rising China. In many ways, it was considered Bush’s only foreign policy success.
It’s that legacy, which is at risk of being lost, that he’s now evidently come to protect. The hardsell of Indo-US alliance comes at a time when perceptions in both the countries point to a sense of drift in bilateral relations under Barack Obama. Conservative commentators in both the US and India now lament that the golden age of the Bush years has faded away.
“Things aren’t going exactly as planned,” notes Wall Street Journal’s editorial board member Mary Kissel. “It’s been more than two and a half years since the Obama administration took office, and there’s not a single major India initiative on the table. If anything, the two parties have disagreed more than they’ve agreed in public.”
US frustration over India’s unwillingness to play ball alongside it on the world stage is mounting.. Whether it’s the vote on Syria or Libya, India hasn’t jumped when the US wanted it to. And far from “looking East and acting East” as Hillary Clinton wanted India to, Indian diplomats are wary of responding to Vietnam’s request for defence cooperation for fear of antagonising China.
In fact, so nervous has India become that the Censor Board has taken to blurring visuals of Tibetan flags in Bollywood films for fear of upsetting Chinese sensitivities.
Kissel contrasts the Obama administration’s “standoffish” behaviour with India to its policy towards China, which is characterised by an “obsequious” manner although Beijing has been flexing its military muscles more strongly than ever.
It is of course true that China has in recent times unnerved many of its neighbours, including India, with its gunboat diplomacy. But by framing the debate as a Bush-vs-Obama doctrinal approach to India and China, such commentaries miss out on the larger picture.
India’s unwillingness to align itself more forcefully with the US at a bilateral level, despite the threat it fears from China, is symptomatic of a larger perception about the decline in US ability to project power around the world. Even countries in the Central Asian region, which hosted US bases and benefited from US military aid have now given notice that they want the US to leave.
As historian Niall Ferguson argues, civilisations don’t go into gradual decline, they collapse speedily beyond a tipping point. And although that tipping point hasn’t been reached in America’s case, and the story of its decline is overstated, it still makes for a compelling narrative. In geopolitics, perception is just as important as reality.
Which is perhaps why the US is reduced to scare-mongering about China to win over the influence of even a relative pushover like India – in the hope of selling it yet more military firepower. But having bet the wrong way in the 1950s by aligning itself with the Soviet Union, India will likely remain wary of committing itself more forcefully for fear of repeating its strategic mistake.
In any case, for a country that already walks on eggshells so as not to offend China, another bout of scare-mongering will have only marginal impact. Tell us something we don’t know, George.
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