July 2, 2022

Indo-Pacific, The Quad and India: An Interview with Walter Russell Mead

Written By: Gaurie Dwivedi

Gaurie Dwivedi

In India, there is a great deal of focus on the Indo-Pacific and more specifically on the Quad. How does the US view the Indo-Pacific and the role that India should play, both in the region and in the Quad?

Walter Russell Mead

What we’ve had now, I think every president from Barack Obama to Joe Biden has said in public that the Indo-Pacific is the centre of American foreign policy and national security concern. And that’s true, both from an economics perspective and from a security perspective. So, I don’t think there’s any doubt that when different politicians from such different parties, agree on this basic thing, I think we can say, for America, the Indo-Pacific really does matter. Within the Indo-Pacific, there is simply no doubt that because of its population, because of its technological accomplishments, because of its economy, because of its standing in the region, there’s really no one like India. I personally spend a lot of time working on American foreign policy talking to people in the US. I don’t know anybody who really disagrees with the idea that the relationship with India is central to the future of American foreign policy.

Gaurie Dwivedi

Irrespective of the multiple noises that come from Washington, some going two steps forward, some going three steps backward, do you think that hurts the common objective, which is to have this region being free and fair?

Walter Russell Mead

The United States and India are both democracies, and cacophony and democracy are closely related. And certainly, I could read the Indian press and see lots of comments about the United States and the difficulties of working with the United States. And I know very well there could be an election in India and a different party with a different attitude might form a government. So, this is just the way it is, when democracies work together. India has, in some ways, a problem with some of the Human Rights communities in the United States. There is a sort of a unique Indian dimension to this, which is that there are some countries where the political right and the human rights groups on the right in the US are very upset, and then others on the left, they’re very upset too. In the US, the Democrats look at some of the communal questions in India; they feel a link with the Muslim community in India and so you get a lot of human rights agitation around that from the Democratic side. On the Republican side, we get voices which are supportive of the Christian communities in India. The politician, when with such groups, will voice their support as they do not lose anything by taking the stand. This is a factor in Congress. Even with Israel, we can sometimes see the opposition to things that happen with the Palestinians or whatever. The US and the Congress will take a stand or the President will take a stand. But it doesn’t change the fact that US has a relationship with Israel and Israel is a very important ally. But yes, sometimes the Human Rights types issues, whether they are right or wrong, do get into the mix. But then, again, I think it’s true that in India too, you have political groups that have a very strong opinion about something and it can affect Indian foreign policy because it affects Indian politics.

Gaurie Dwivedi

You talk of how central identity politics is becoming a part of national discourse and hence impacting foreign policy. How do you see that shaping the foreign policy of India and the region as well, because, you know, there’s a lot of churns that is going on in the region itself? There have been elections that are trade regime changes that are happening. How do you see that?

Walter Russell Mead

If you think about India’s region, we see Pakistan where, who knows what’s going to be happening there? I think the only thing safe to say that at the end the army will be in charge the army and ISI will be in charge. Fortunately, in Bangladesh we see a fairly good situation, but in Myanmar, there is a civil war going on. There are also issues with respect to both Sri Lanka and Nepal. So, we can see that there is instability in the region. India, in that sense, I think because it has a flourishing democracy and for that matter-Bangladesh too, has some insurance against these problems because they can be vented in the political system and people can have an election. In other places, that’s more difficult.

India, in particular, I think is going through a profound historical stage, where for the most of the early decades of India’s history, the Congress Party was in charge and it had a certain vision of India. And it projected that vision to the rest of the world as being what India was. But clearly, not everybody in India has shared that vision of what India should be. And now with the BJP rising over many years, India has changed or at least Indian politics have changed. That creates a change and anytime there’s change, it affects international relationships, too, because everyone got used to one kind of India. Now we have another kind of India and we’re all curious. What does it mean? Where’s it going? This was a big change. Are there more big changes ahead? What will they be? What will be the good consequences and the bad consequences? So, that inevitably comes into Indian Foreign Policy too. It comes into the way the press covers India, I think because many American correspondents, people and diplomats, all knew the old India. They had trusted friends and sources, all of whom were connected to the Congress dominated era. So, when these people are politically unhappy with the current state of affairs, their journalist friends in America hear that from these well-informed people who have been in charge of many things and who they’ve known for many years and who, on a personal level they trust. So, we can see that the impact this change in Indian politics creates. As a result, all kinds of adjustments are happening across the world around it.

Gaurie Dwivedi

But you know, this assertive national identity comes at a time when you have a very aggressive China. As we speak, there have been reports about growing Chinese influence in the Solomon Islands. China is also now going to probably utilizs the flux in Sri Lanka to its advantage. So, at a time like this when China is the predominant threat in the region, do you think it’s important now, for the Quad member nations to be having a more assertive policy and roadmap to dealing with China?

Walter Russell Mead

I absolutely do. I thought the last Summit meeting of the Quad in Tokyo was a really positive thing. It felt to me as if all four of those leaders were making strong commitments. Everyone seemed to be aware of the danger; everyone seemed to be concerned. It was nice to see that even though Australia had just had an election and a new government had been formed, there was continuity in Australian foreign policy on this issue, despite, historically, the Labor Party being less hawkish in some ways, on China.

Gaurie Dwivedi

How would you visualise or see this region, maybe a few years down the line? I ask you this because we are talking just months ahead of Xi Jinping’s possible coronation, as President for life, which, at this stage, looks set. There’s no way to know what’s going to happen. But if that were to happen, then this region is probably going to see more intense geopolitical tensions.

Walter Russell Mead

I think that’s right. I think the big question is really Taiwan. And strategically, if China were to succeed in conquering Taiwan—invading and conquering it—not only would that be a terrible thing for the Taiwanese people, but it would mean that China has the capability to be able to cut Japan’s sea communications with the rest of the world. This would be a terrible danger for Japan. I think Japan would have to move toward China, would have to accommodate China in some way, sooner or later, if this happened. So, what happens in Taiwan is central to the future of the Quad and to this whole region. An Indian might say, well, Taiwan is really very far away. But you think about it.

Gaurie Dwivedi

For India, China has been assertive in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh? You know, a lot of people in India would say, that Taiwan matters, but so does Arunachal and Ladakh.

Walter Russell Mead

It does. And we have to think about Taiwan everywhere. Again, here’s something that I think India needs to think through and come to the United States with a very clear message. How does India want support from the United States on its frontier issues with China? Does India want American troops on the bay or on the frontier? Does it want a treaty so that America is legally obliged to come to India if it’s attacked; what is it that India wants? And that’s a question only India can answer. So far, I think the American understanding is that India prefers a friendship to a marriage—that, non-alignment is deep in Indian culture. There’s a concern about how a treaty relationship would bind India.

Gaurie Dwivedi

You are raising the questions which in fact are being raised in India as well, that if we are to be completely nonaligned, then how do we count our friends and enemies? How do we count our supporters? And if we want to be aligned, then how do we want our position to be in the world because you know, we are, if not a global pivot, a regional pivot on our own. This gets compromised if we become an alliance partner or a treaty partner. So these are tough questions.

Walter Russell Mead

It is tough, but an alliance with the United States is not the same as an alliance with China or Russia. Look at some of the European countries. Germany and France are in NATO, but Germany and France have a lot of freedom of action. I’m not trying to sell the treaty of alliance; I don’t have a view and a lot of people in America would question the deployment of American troops in the Himalayas. So, it would be controversial in the US as well. But it’s clear that both India and the United States need to think hard about where we stand with China, and what each of us needs from the other and what each of us can offer to the other. I think in both countries, people are looking at this much more deeply. I think probably the war in Ukraine is having an impact too, because Ukraine is a country that didn’t have treaty allies.

Gaurie Dwivedi

In fact, I was going to come to that. Just how much is Ukraine impacting the world equations right now? Many analysts have been saying that Ukraine has been given everything except for troops on ground and it has been able to fend against the Russian troops. That could be some sort of a lesson for China. Taiwan may not be the simple scoot in and invade model that China was hoping for. Do you see the similarities there? Or do you think we’re just trying to do a copy paste of a completely different model?

Walter Russell Mead

Well, they are different you know, there are different situations. Firstly, Russia currently has occupied 20% of Ukraine’s territory with huge consequences for people impacted by food shortages. In the last few days, Russia seems to have the momentum, which is why Finland and Sweden seem to have decided that they would like to join NATO having seen what happens if you’re not in NATO. So, it really depends on the nature of the threat and where you stand with regard to it. In the India-China border, the territories that China lays claims are remote and hard to access. Russia was able to attack Kyiv in the first few hours of the war. China couldn’t quite attack Delhi in that way. So, the cases are not exactly comparable also.

Gaurie Dwivedi
Ukraine and India are not comparable but on the issue of Ukraine I want to ask you this: in the initial weeks, even now in fact, until a few weeks back, many people in DC as well as analysts in Europe were deeply ‘disappointed’ by India’s position on Russia which is nuanced for many reasons, some historical, some military and off course, for following an independent foreign policy. Do you think that position has now been accepted, has been embraced and well understood?

Walter Russell Mead

I think well understood. I’m not sure of embrace. Embraced would be too strong a word.

Gaurie Dwivedi

The reason why I said embraced, is because then you can keep that in mind for future discussions. And because this is an evolving situation.

Walter Russell Mead

You see, I think, in the American context anyway, there was a sense during the Cold War that India tended to be more forgiving of Soviet behaviour than of American behaviour. So, in the Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia, India did not seem to feel a problem.  This was viewed by Americans as being more non-aligned against America than being non aligned equally with both. I, however have not studied the period and so I’m not going to come to any judgment there. But that is a perception—a pre-existing perception in American foreign policy, that this is the sort of thing India does. On the one hand, you’re less surprised when they do it. But on the other, people do wish India would somehow find a way to take a stronger stance.

Gaurie Dwivedi

And just on the side, the perception has also been built, because of-maybe as a consequence, or due to some other factors, such as the US-Pakistan relations have also been during the 60s, 70s, 80s. They were very, very good. And that also had an impact on how India had looked towards the US.

Walter Russell Mead

Of course, it did but I don’t think there are many people in India who think now that US-Pakistan relations are particularly good.

Gaurie Dwivedi

I think that that is behind us. I’m going to ask you two last questions on trade, a subject that’s close to my heart as well. There has not been enough discussion about just how much China has been given a free ride. There are still many people in the business community who feel that you cannot take back some of those concessions because it impacts everybody. We are part of this one big global interconnected economy. And we all stand to benefit from a cheaper destination. Do you share that view? And how optimistic are you that the ruptures that have been made in the global supply chain will benefit countries like India and America permanently?

Walter Russell Mead

Well, it’s clear that the situation, among other things, both the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, have taught a lot of people the lesson that you need to think about your supply chain. You can’t just take it for granted that at the moment you need something it’s going to be right there. And if you need two of them, they’ll be right there. But this is not about statecraft or, you know, security policy. It’s just simply, if you want to run a company and you want to be able to sell cars, you need to make sure that politics is not going to interfere with your ability to do that. Well, so what do you do? You look for places to invest where you don’t see political problems, and you also want to have more than one place one factory in one country. You want to diversify. So, in that sense, I do think that lots of people now understand that they need to diversify their supply chain. And this would not just be America. I think Japan has about 90% exposure to China. So, for Japan, when it looks to diversify, Vietnam is the most obvious close destination, followed by Philippines and maybe Indonesia. And India too is a very natural destination. So this is not simply about the bilateral US-India relationship. And it’s also not simply about governments telling people what to do and what not to do. This is common sense business. And I do think it’s interesting to me, the India seems to be working on it and has already done great work on beginning to improve its infrastructure to make it easier for manufacturers to be here.

On labor law reforms, there has been a lot of discussion in India on how to allow different states to develop their labor codes so that they can take advantage of opportunities. And this strikes me as opening the door to India having more manufacturing. I also believe that building up the manufacturing economy is really important for India, for poverty reduction and social justice. While technology is wonderful, it tends to favour people who are extremely well educated and often fluent in English, to be ready for that global market. And not everybody in India has those advantages. Manufacturing is something you can do with a basic education. From a village you can do this. And so technology is the avenue for so many Indians to reach a global level of freedom and affluence and all these wonderful things. For a lot of Indians manufacturing really matters.

Gaurie Dwivedi

Yes, India needs both manufacturing as well as technology. On that note, last question I have to ask you this is news that comes out of the world’s second largest economy impacts everybody. And the economic parameters right now are not positive for China. There are about 340 million people in lock downs in 45 odd cities. Do you see that as a blip because of the multiple lock downs? Or do you see the slowing down as a slightly long-term trend that the world needs to adjust to?

Walter Russell Mead

Well, I do think you know, trees don’t grow to the sky, even in China. And China is not going to grow at 8% to 10% a year forever, especially if its economy depends on exports. Because, if you’re growing at 10%, and your market is growing at 3%, this cannot last. So, there is a built in obsolescence to the Chinese model. Also, clearly, China has the most massive economic bubbles we’ve seen in the history of the world—a real estate bubble. You drive through a city in China, and you’ll see these 17 storey apartment buildings, almost to the horizon and no one is living in any of them. And the country’s population is not growing, the country’s population is actually beginning to decline. So, when you think about all the banks that made the loans to those buildings, all the cities that have borrowed money to create the infrastructure that supports those buildings, it appears that a lot of China’s wealth is paper wealth. And we do know that the Chinese Communist Party is going to do everything in its power to keep those bubbles inflated. And they know they cannot do this forever. So, every now and then they come back and say that they must reform, they are going to tighten up the housing market, stop wasting money on infrastructure projects and rein in local government. But when they start doing all those things, the stock market goes down and the growth rate goes with it. So they go back to pumping everything up. And they’ve been trapped in that cycle for a long time. I don’t know how this ends. What is happening in China has never happened before on this scale. The person who tells you that they know what’s going to happen next in China is either a prophet or an idiot. And there are more idiots than there are prophets.

Brief Bios:

  • WALTER RUSSELL MEAD is James Clark Chace Professor of Foreign Affairs and Humanities at Bard College, Ravenel B. Curry III Distinguished Fellow in Strategy and Statesmanship at Hudson Institute, and the Global View columnist at The Wall Street Journal.
  • Ms Gaurie Dwivedi is a senior journalist, columnist and author of the book ‘Blinkers Off, How Will The World Counter China’.
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