India gains nothing from an ‘Asian NATO’


US President Donald Trump shakes hands with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a joint press conference at Hyderabad House in New Delhi on February 25, 2020. PHOTO/AFP/ Prakash Singh

If you are of two minds about the foreign-policy orientations of the Indian government, what do you do? Answer: Read the lips of US State Department officials. They will give you the authoritative account of what India’s secretive foreign policy elites are up to. 

At any rate, do not allow yourself to be misled by what Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar says from time to time. I have come to this bitter assessment after reading the stunning remarks by US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun on August 31 in an online discussion organized by the US-India Strategic Partnership Forum. 

They were fairly lengthy remarks – thoughtful, well structured and quite obviously premeditated.

Biegun, incidentally, is not an “India hand,” although he’s the No 2 official in the US State Department and is an American businessman and accomplished Russian-speaking diplomat who has been a staffer on the National Security Council in the George W Bush administration and the US special representative for North Korea in the Donald Trump administration. 

Biegun candidly disclosed during Monday’s remarks that the US seeks to formalize its closer defense ties with countries of the India-Pacific region – India, Japan and Australia – as something like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization with an aim to counter China. 

The disclosure was well argued, conveying the distinct impression that this is work in progress.

According to a report carried by the South China Morning Post, Biegun said Washington’s aim was to get the Quad grouping of the United States, Japan, Australia and India to work together as a bulwark against “a potential challenge from China … [and] to create a critical mass around the shared values and interests of those parties in a manner that attracts more countries in the Indo-Pacific and even from around the world … ultimately to align in a more structured manner.” 

To quote Biegun: “The Indo-Pacific region is actually lacking in strong multilateral structures. They do not have anything of the fortitude of NATO or the European Union. The strongest institutions in Asia oftentimes are not, I think, not inclusive enough and so … there is certainly an invitation there at some point to formalize a structure like this.

“Remember, even NATO started with relatively modest expectations and a number of countries [initially] chose neutrality over NATO membership.” 

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