India’s prime minister Narendra Modi paid his second visit to the White House in two years on June 8. President Barak Obama was greatly pleased by Modi’s stated willingness to proceed with ratification of the Paris agreement to limit greenhouse gases, and this was the theme duly emphasized in the Western media coverage of their meeting.
To Modi, however, global warming was a peripheral issue. He is a foreign-policy realist who looks upon Obama’s climate-change obsession with quiet bemusement, while pretending to share his concern in order to obtain concessions on other issues. He is far more interested in the long-term geopolitical challenges facing India from the Islamic world to her west and from the Chinese colossus to her north. Pakistan is perceived—quite rightly—as a threat and a source of chronic regional instability, and its deep state (as embodied in the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, ISI) as irredeemably jihad-friendly. China’s explosive economic growth over the past quarter-century, followed less spectacularly by India’s since the mid-1990’s, has not prompted the two Asian giants to resolve their border disputes and other feuds of long standing.
In order to meet various actual or potential threats, Modi wants to further develop and assert India’s status as a regional power; but to that end he needs closer relations with Washington on a number of fronts. His strategy vis-à-vis the United States is threefold. First of all, Modi wants to turn India into a major global manufacturing workshop—that is the theme of his Make in India campaign—and he sees the involvement of U.S.-based corporations as essential to its success. His second goal is to encourage the United States to terminate its policy of tolerating Pakistan’s duplicity in the fight against Islamic terrorism—as manifested in its schizophrenic attitude to the Taliban in Afghanistan—and to encourage the U.S. to look upon India as the only reliable and rational partner in the Subcontinent. Finally, Modi wants to diversify India’s arms supplies—most of which still come from Russia—but does not want to become (or to be seen as becoming) too close to the United States in the grand-strategic scheme of things.
All of Modi’s strategic themes and objectives broadly correspond to America’s interests in Asia. India occupies pivotal position in the Indian Ocean, the second most critical maritime highway in the world. Under Modi the Hindu nationalist, the government in Delhi may be more inclined to base its long-term strategy on the development of a community of geopolitical interests with the leading thalassocratic power in the world—the United States—than any of its predecessors since independence. America wants to contain China’s ambition to break through the bars of the First Island Chain in the Far East and Southeast Asia, while India would be loath to see Burma (“Myanmar”) provide China with direct access to the Indian Ocean by road, rail and pipeline.
As for Pakistan, it is a failed state devoid of any right to exist. It is successful in only one area of human endeavor: in producing literally millions of unemployable Muslim fanatics in its 35,000-plus madrassas. Generously financed by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf kleptocracies, they teach hatred of the infidel and inculcate the virtue of martyrdom. It is high time for the United States to see and to treat Pakistan as a problem which simply cannot be solved (as I have been arguing ever since 9-11). It is also desirable for American strategists to start thinking outside the box and consider encouraging that artificial entity’s disintegration along tribal and ethnic lines. A Pakistan-free world would be a safer and better world.
It is to be feared that the opportunity to enhance relations with India will be squandered if Hillary Clinton becomes president. A controversial episode in Modi’s political career—the wave of anti-Muslim violence which swept Gujarat at the end of February 2002, when he was that state’s chief minister—resulted in the U.S. government denying him a visa in 2005 under a section the Immigration and Nationality Act which makes foreign government officials ineligible if they are responsible for “particularly severe violations of religious freedom.” Even after India’s Supreme Court found no such evidence against Modi, the U.S. did not lift the ban until after Modi’s election to prime ministership in 2014. The campaign “to get Modi” was particularly virulent during Hillary Clinton’s tenure at the Department of State, which bodes ill for the future. As an Indian commentator has noted, “it is pretty clear that Clinton is not a friend of India”:
It is the Republicans who are more worried about China, and who wish to bring India on board as an ally. Democrats tend to like dictators, and thus are far more enamored of the Pakistani Army—we have seen Obama’s and John Kerry’s largesse to Pakistan despite much evidence of their perfidy. It is very likely that in a Hillary Clinton presidency, her chief of staff might be Huma Abedin, a close aide who is a Pakistani-American and no friend of India.
America’s relations with India can and should improve to the level of serious partnership. India should not be perceived in Washington merely as a future southern link in the American strategic chain around China. Potential shared interests in balancing China’s growing might should be considered in the cold light of Realpolitik, free of ideological assumptions and wishful thinking. For the United States, containing China is an optional strategy: no vital American interest will be jeopardized if Taiwan is eventually reunited with the Mainland, or if Beijing annexes the South China Sea islands. For India, the issue of who controls the strategic roads in Aksai Chin, in the western Himalayas, is both more pressing and more dangerous if not handled with caution.
India under Modi’s leadership bases its foreign policy on the old-fashioned premises of national interests and raison d’État, which provides for predictability and rational calculus. The notions of “the world’s two largest democracies” being natural partners (Obama) are not only misguided; to someone of Modi’s background and convictions they are also implicitly hegemonistic, and therefore counterproductive.