Raja-Mandala: Trading places

On the South China Sea, Delhi speaks less in public while Washington can’t stop talking.

Written by C. Raja Mohan | Updated: March 9, 2016 12:10 am
South China Sea, South China sea dispute, China SCS, US South China sea, South China sea news There’s no doubt that Washington considers the joint patrols an important part of the effort to secure freedom of navigation in East Asia’s waters.

India has long irritated its international interlocutors by its penchant for “public diplomacy”. What we mean by public diplomacy here is somewhat different from the current usage of the term — about informing and influencing public opinion at home and abroad. It used to be called “propaganda” in the old days. Our reference here is to the style of public argumentation that marked India’s engagement with the world over the decades. New Delhi’s mandarins privileged public posturing over tough but outcome-oriented negotiating strategies.

American diplomatic tradition, in contrast, emphasised deal-making and splitting differences. American statecraft also understood a simple but important dictum: “If there are no negotiations in private, there will be no covenants to be signed in public.”

In the last few months though, Delhi and Washington have begun to trade places. Delhi now speaks a lot less in public and Washington can’t stop talking. If Indian media complains that official Delhi doesn’t keep them in the loop, Washington is trying to conduct negotiations with India through the Indian media.

Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Delhi has been compelled to curb its enthusiasm for public argumentation. Its mandate now is to bargain hard in private and be prepared to give and take on a pragmatic basis. The focus is on finding win-win outcomes.

This approach has, for example, helped India wrap up the outstanding issues in implementing the historic civil nuclear initiative. Even as Delhi tries to advance India’s strategic cooperation with the United States, an overly eager Washington is undermining the prospects for forward movement with its public diplomacy. Consider, for example, the recent diplomatic confusion on “joint patrols”. In the last few weeks, US officials have been publicly pressing India to agree on joint operations, including naval patrols in the Indo-Pacific.

There’s no doubt that Washington considers the joint patrols an important part of the effort to secure freedom of navigation in East Asia’s waters amidst Beijing’s vigorous assertion of its expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Unlike the UPA government, which was hesitant to be drawn into the debate on the South China Sea that unfolded at the turn of this decade, Modi has been forthright in affirming India’s stakes in the waters to the east of Malacca. The NDA government has also been more open than the UPA government on defence cooperation with the US. It has renewed the 10-year defence pact signed by the UPA in 2005 and has unveiled an ambitious vision for strategic cooperation in the Indo-Pacific during President Barack Obama’s visit to India in January 2015.

Beyond the bilateral, the Modi government has invited Japan back into the naval exercises with the US in the Indian Ocean and elevated the trilateral political consultations with Washington and Tokyo to the ministerial level. If Delhi is ready to expand the envelope of security cooperation with the US, it has been irritated by Washington’s ceaseless public talk on joint naval patrols that has excited the Indian media and the commentators in Beijing. Delhi indeed bit its tongue for a while, but defence minister Manohar Parrikar stepped out last week to deny that Delhi was considering joint patrols at this point of time.

As the question of joint patrols gains salience every day in the South China Sea, Delhi and Washington certainly need intensive consultations on how to deal with Beijing’s forward policy in Asia’s waters. But America’s needless public diplomacy has only complicated Indian decision-making on the subject.

Quiet diplomacy is also the need of the hour to manage the traditional divergence between India and the US on the issue of Pakistan. At a time when Modi finds his bold outreach to Pakistan tested by cross-border terrorism, the public warmth for Rawalpindi in sections of Washington’s bureaucracy has become more than an irritant for the Modi government. South Block realists have no problem in recognising that America has enduring interests in Pakistan. What it finds hard to accept is Washington’s embrace of Rawalpindi’s quest for nuclear parity with India and its approach to the Kashmir question.

Modi has gone to great lengths in addressing many American interests — including Obama’s appeal to make the Paris summit on climate change a success. But the PM is apparently concerned at Washington’s inability to appreciate India’s concerns on Pakistan. Modi and Obama have surprised the world by injecting unprecedented energy into the transformation of the bilateral relationship. Modi’s visit later this month to Washington to attend the Nuclear Security Summit is a big opportunity to turn the last 10 months of the Obama administration into a very productive moment.

But Washington’s lack of high-level political attention to Delhi, its ingrained habit of pandering to Pakistan’s military, and the newly acquired taste for public diplomacy could result in squandering the moment at hand to consolidate the recent gains in the strategic partnership.

The writer is director, Carnegie India, and the consulting editor on foreign affairs for ‘The Indian Express’

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  1. P
    Paki.Commie
    Mar 9, 2016 at 4:13 am
    India is afraid China will intrude and occupy a simple 20 km stretch on its northern border. Now even the South Asian Super Power, Sri Lanka, can ask China to do that if it wants to any time.
    Reply
  2. K
    Kautilya
    Mar 9, 2016 at 11:26 am
    "American diplomatic tradition, in contrast, emphasised deal-making and splitting differences." That is specifically a Republican trait; Democrats have always been loud-mouthed wimps.
    Reply
  3. A
    ashok
    Mar 9, 2016 at 7:26 am
    Joint patrolling of the South China Sea would have been an unduly provocative act. India needs to keep its relationship with China on an even keel.
    Reply
  4. M
    mast kalandar
    Mar 9, 2016 at 1:38 pm
    go put a bandage over your skinless D I C K - H E A D....i guess its rotting...no wonder you are coming up wid utter uotpian C R A P
    Reply
  5. M
    mk
    Mar 9, 2016 at 3:37 pm
    joint statement during Obama visit was to increase stretigic cooperation was not to help ameracans to interfere in s. China sea. These kind of statements helps in maintaining balance in world power politics by creating a fear in mind of others to influence them indirectly. These things simply convey message to others that if you do not care about our concerns then we can also do same you are doing to us. Same India did by conveying message to China.Our concerns to s China sea have nothing to do with what china is doing in scs(like artificial island and putting modern weapons there) but of maintaining freedom of navigation and using nations there to increase our outreach as China doing in Indian ocean. Anything else like natural resources etc if it comes as fringe benefits then well and good that too without becoming too hostile to China. Every country's foreign policy driven by its self intrests not on but US say(leaving some issues where intrests are complimentary). INDIA is mature enough to know where she need to intervane and how much. US can say whatever it want.
    Reply
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