Partha Chakraborty is an Indian-born immigrant; a naturalized US Citizen since 2018. Educated in India and at Cornell University, Partha is currently an entrepreneur in water technologies, Blockchain, and wealth management in the US and in India. The views expressed are his own.
On the morning of December 16, 1971, an armada of US warships called “Task Force 74”, led by the nuclear-powered USS Enterprise with ten other assets of various use, sailed into the Bay of Bengal through the Straits of Malacca. Officially ‘for evacuation and other contingencies”, they sailed slow and in broad daylight to maximize visual impact and caused quite a stir inside the War Rooms of New Delhi as India was leading a righteous war in support of Mulkti Bahini of Bangladesh against a genocidal Pakistani Army. In aid of India, USSR sent in two groups of destroyers and cruisers along with a nuclear submarine – they tailed Task Force 74 inside the Bay from December 18 to January 8, 1972.
The Mandarins of the Indian Military steeled up mentally to go into a highly asymmetric war with the US as USSR surfaced all of her nuclear submarines in the Indian Ocean during the period. If even to this day, Officer Cadets of the National Defence Academy in India learn Russian, there may be a reason behind it. India’s tilt to USSR, and Russia after its demise, for defense equipment, was unfortunate but understandable – about half of India’s defense imports came from Russia in the five years ending in 2021, though down from over two-thirds in the five years before that.
Visiting India two decades since the last visit by a sitting US President, Bill Clinton was the first to formally begin a de-hyphenation process whereby ties with India were no longer spoken in the breath as ties with Pakistan. Thereafter, every US President continued a trajectory of upward movement in the strategic relationship with India and this happened through tectonic shifts in political climate both in the US and in India. At the same time, contributions of Indian Americans are noted in the halls of commerce, academia as well as statesmanship, so much so that sitting US Vice President is Indian-American, as well CEO’s at many iconic US businesses and dons at many academic institutions of high prestige. The same is true in the UK where South Asians already commanded a commensurate heft in business and civic life, the second-highest elected official in the country is of Indian origin. Indian origin professionals already run the economic machinery at most GCC members, and many in Australia, Singapore and elsewhere, even if their political representation is moderated by local considerations.
How do these two democracies, one is the oldest and the other is the biggest, overcome “hesitations of history” to solidify their mutual role as “natural allies”?
First, acknowledge their shared burden of history. US leaned on to Pakistan to help her be on the good graces of China, who, in turn was being cultivated both to act as a counter to the USSR and to induce opening up economically. Opening up Communist China and inviting her to the UN sounded like a grand strategic move at the time, and it did raise over five hundred million Chinese from abject poverty. On hindsight, not all of it was a grand bargain for Uncle Sam, especially as it failed to loosen the vice grip of the Party even an inch. Everyday stories of depravity – from internment camps in Xinjiang to ruthless suppression in Hong Kong (and pretty much everywhere in COVID days) – arrive in drips past the iron curtain, we are certain of China’s continued d
escent into autocracy coincides with its economic resurgence, often at steep cost to the working class in the West. Pakistan too played its hand well in dealing with the US, it actively fomenting terrorist elements while crying a river over losses caused by the same entities, offering rights to operating bases for US foray into Afghanistan while harboring masterminds at a stone’s throw from its West Point. India, on its part, cozied up with the USSR even if it mouthed “Non-Proliferation”, its dreams of socialism hollowed out its industry and commerce while creating a cadre of those connected who continued their privileged existence. Not that the same dynastic quasi-dictators were any less brutal in maintaining their vice grip using all levers of government but the military at times; the Indian military, to its utmost credit, remained staunchly apolitical through it all. All things considered, the US paid a high price for its a stance against India, even if informally. India paid a high price for its explicit tilt away from the US.
Second, acknowledge explicitly that Chinese aggression is a shared threat that keeps decision-makers awake. It is a threat to the rules-based global order that the US has established and led for over seventy years paying handsome dividends to all, including, most notably, China. Not only the US laid down the red carpet for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) at institutions that grease the machines that make the world turn, US essentially bankrolled the economic miracle that happened inside red China.
Decades of double-digit economic growth strengthened CCP’s hand inside, as well as gave it a calling card to approach willing nations, particularly on her borders and inside Africa. Couched in seemingly plebeian terms like “One Belt One Road”, CCP’s hundred (nee thousand) year plan is to replace the US as the nucleus of world’s ecosystem – by purchase, bribery, chicanery and threat of violence, among others. The existence of India as a vibrant democracy that is pursuing its own economic miracle, albeit slowly as befits a governing system that emphasizes the diversity of peoples and opinions, appears almost an existential threat to her – especially when they share more than two thousand miles of border and common Asian ancestry. China would rather India not exist, at least as a vibrant functioning, if messy, alternative to its own bankrupt promise of ghost cities that look amazing but contain nary a soul. After decades of cultivating instigators inside India, with obliging parties and people in power (“Hindi Chini bhai bhai”) at times, all in an effort to align them well enough if not to wolf down the neighbor in whole, a lesson of abject failure has sunk in the minds of Mandarins of the CCP, setting the tone for eternal enmity between the two.
Third, acknowledge and amplify a new reality that is starting to sink in among commercial interests in the West. Imagine yourself as a global business person who’s deciding where to locate a manufacturing base. Back in the eighties, China was the obvious – and near-unanimous – choice. Yes, it took weeks to transport to developed markets; yes, it took months to educate and orient workers and yes, it risked unrest at home when moving production lines far east. But you get lightning-fast decisions in your favor, seemingly endless build-up infrastructure that helps your production, a very pliable and hard-working workforce that will work twice as long at a mere fraction of cost per unit. Decades later Chinese workforce are no longer the cheapest while other countries have learned the magic of infrastructure investments and single-window decision process. It does not make sense to utilize sweatshops, so to speak, exclusively for your manufacturing – awareness among consumers is high, especially among the millennials and the Gen Z. Higher up the value chain, China was always notorious in her disregard, even active violation, of IP rights – western manufacturers were required to share technology as a condition for entry.
Twenty years down, almost every foreign automaker has a Chinese counterpart that copies its design, locomotive manufacturers have gotten it so bad that China is now winning multi-hundred-million-dollar bids in Africa and elsewhere hawking copycat western products at a fraction of the cost. Fortunately, there is an alternative – well within thousand miles as a crow flies in many cases – inside India, where the language is English for historical reasons, where there is rule of law, where IP rights were paramount even before. Indian states’ governments are competing against one another creating Special Economic Zones (SEZ) where many of burdensome laws are waived, where infrastructure is specifically abundant and where the decision process is (near) lightning fast. Yes, India is trying and the message is getting across.
Fourth, prepare for a new cold war. The (old) Cold War had Russia as the bugaboo, a pole in a bipolar world in her own right. As the war in Ukraine makes transparent, Russia no longer has the wherewithal, nor a military backbone, to be a logical counterweight to the US. It still has all the nukes though, and that makes it a credible global player – not leading, but acting in consort and supporting the interests of another party. Historical reasons will preclude Russia from supporting the US, so the only other contender is China. In the New Cold War, China will be the cynosure of anti-West interests. Just like in the Old Cold War, the West needs to contain China.
The West needs to work in sync with India to contain China economically. Businesses have already started looking away from China, and the US must work in tandem with the Government of India to create a pipeline of facilitators – government and quasi-government bodies – that identify areas of improvement in mutual interest. India can create Special Innovation Zones for example, where Indian universities can collocate with both US and Indian businesses with favorable treatment for IP created therein. Movie production and post-production is another example, India being the biggest player by number already; she can add immense value to US players, in exchange India can give favorable treatment to US players for their (dubbed) releases inside the country.
For value-added production, India can promote its ingrained rule of law and supremacy of IP rights, even as it works to improve infrastructure, which in turn is a multi-hundred-billion-dollar revenue opportunity for US corporations. India has already started work on that, creating a framework, among others, for contracting large infrastructure projects that prioritize legitimate non-Indian technical and financial expertise. Inside the country, India has already started dismantling vestiges of a socialistic-leaning economic structure, selling off of flagship carrier Air India and IPO of Life Insurance Corporation of India, a behemoth of a financial institution, are latest movements in the right direction.
Containing China requires a defense mechanism that instills confidence and fear. Chinese aggression is felt not just by Taiwan and India, but also by Australia and Japan, and a host of others. China retaliated against AUKUS pact by threatening to lob missiles into Australia. Taiwan remains an existential threat to China every single moment – the fact that the US cannot even say Taiwan is a country, much less the US militarily stands behind Taiwan, is an utter shame. Japan has US bases on its shores, still North Korean missiles fly overhead with Chinese imprimatur. The US may have bilateral agreements of mutual defense with individual countries, but a better framework already exists – NATO. What we need in the Indo-Pacific Theater is an Indo-Pacific Treaty Organization (IPTO). Critically this IPTO needs to have its own Article 5 and it must surround China in a bear hug that no wolf-warrior can bark her way out.
Future entails moving past old prejudices, as both the US and India have done inside their borders. Future involves thinking bold and dreaming bigger. Future beckons these natural allies to work together, in mutual interest and in the interests of rule of law, of democracy, and of prosperity. As I see it, the future for the two is moving, slowly, past hesitations of history. Let the future be now. Amen.