Evolving Dynamics of Indo-US Relations
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Issue Vol. 30.1 Jan-Mar 2015 | Date : 24 Sep , 2015

The pro-US lobby in India prefers to see in Prime Minister Modi’s move to invite President Obama an inclination to strategically lean towards the US, shed “strategic autonomy” and end the phase of missed opportunities with the US that marked Manmohan Singh’s second term. This could be misconstruing the significance of Modi’s move, which may well be to strengthen our strategic autonomy by engaging with all countries to maximum potential, opening up opportunities in all directions and separating the economic from the political as much as possible. Modi may not be thinking of taking sides but working with all sides pragmatically. At the end of the day, India and the US have to find common ground to protect their respective interests. Dealing with the US will always test our diplomacy.

Our interests have actually not been served by US policies in West Asia and towards Pakistan…

The remarkable improvement in our relations with the US has been the most significant development in India’s external relations in the last decade. We have suffered from US sanctions in the nuclear, missile and high technology sectors ever since the nuclear test in 1974. US policies in our neighbourhood, in particular with regard to Pakistan, have been seriously damaging to our security. In this background, the shift towards growing mutual confidence, wide ranging political, economic and security related engagement in recent years has been unprecedented.

During his visit to India in 2010, President Obama described the India-US relationship as a defining one for the 21st century. What “defining” may actually mean is difficult to define. It could mean that the US sees India growing into a major global power in the years ahead, and believes that the relationship forged between the oldest and the largest democracy, between the world’s largest and the third largest economy in time, could define how international relations will be played out in the 21st century. This sounds rather grandiloquent, but then such rhetoric comes easily to the Americans.

India has been more reticent in its rhetoric because even if the general sentiment towards the US has become more positive, there is still political reluctance to be seen drawing too close to it. India is sensitive to any perception domestically and externally about losing the independence of its foreign policy if it embraces the US too tightly. But India too has used vocabulary about relations with the US that is not justified by realities. We have said that India and the US are “natural partners”, when objectively this is not the case. Democracy and pluralism has not shielded us from punitive US policies. The US has targeted us in the 1990s on human rights issues, especially relating to Kashmir, and remains censorious on issues of treatment of religious minorities and religious conversion in deference to its own Christian lobbies. It is worthwhile remembering that it denied Narendra Modi a visa for the US for nine years under an act of which he was the only victim.

The US has committed itself to support India’s membership of the four technology control regimes…

A natural partnership would also imply that there is a basic convergence in policy goals. Our interests have actually not been served by US policies in West Asia and towards Pakistan, its support for jihad to fight the Soviet Union which has ended in spawning extremism and terrorism in our region, its ambivalence towards the Taliban and its handling of Afghanistan. Its views on China’s policies in South Asia, especially China’s relationship with Pakistan that has so seriously damaged our security, have not been congenial to our interests.

In fact, India and the US have had to overcome a difficult legacy. The US has done the greatest damage over the longest period to India’s strategic interests by curbing our efforts to develop nuclear and missile technologies and denying us dual use technologies by imposing global sanctions bilaterally and internationally through export control regimes. It has politically undermined India’s sovereignty over J&K by frequently intervening on Pakistan’s behalf, though less so publicly in recent years. It has, in the past, armed Pakistan in full awareness of the security implications for India and continues to do so now. It has also been responsible for unleashing jihadi terrorism in our region by legitimising extremist groups and their ideology in the fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan. It has been unduly tolerant of Pakistan’s use of these terrorist groups against us as an instrument of state policy. Even now, despite the shelter given to Osama bin Laden by Pakistan, the support given by it to Afghan Taliban groups targeting US/NATO troops in Afghanistan, the US has given primacy to its own concerns about an orderly, Pakistan-assisted withdrawal from Afghanistan and has treated regional and Indian concerns as secondary.

The US decision to open a dialogue with the Taliban without insisting on the red lines laid down by the international community creates potential problems for India. It continues its failed policy of offering carrots to Pakistan, including military aid, in the hope of buying its co-operation. The manner in which Pakistan Army Chief General Sharif has been feted during his lengthy visit to the US in December 2014 suggests that the US has not been able to forge a clear policy of dealing with an increasingly radicalised country whose duplicitous conduct it recognises. Secretary Kerry went to the extent of calling the Pakistan military a binding force when he met the General, which suggests that the US has little faith in Pakistani democracy and endorses the political role that the Pakistan military sees for itself in the country.

India is sensitive to any perception domestically and externally about losing the independence of its foreign policy…

Notwithstanding all these negative elements, it is necessary for India to have as friendly a relationship with the US as possible. The US cannot be ignored because of its superpower status. The 2005 India-US nuclear deal opened the doors for establishing a relationship at a much higher level than ever. With the dissipation of strategic distrust as a result of the deal, the range of bilateral engagement has expanded phenomenally. As many as 28 sectoral and subject specific dialogues have been set up with the US, covering the areas of energy, education, health, development, science and technology, trade, defence, counter-terrorism, non-proliferation, high technology, innovation and the like. With no other country do we have such wide ranging institutionalised dialogues.

The nuclear deal removed the distorting impact of the nonproliferation issue from our bilateral agenda with the US and other important members of the international community. The US has committed itself to support India’s membership of the four technology control regimes: the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), the Wassenaar Arrangement and the Australia Group. This support is repeated in political declarations, as was the case when Prime Minister Modi visited Washington in September 2014, when President Obama noted that India met MTCR requirements and was ready for NSG membership, without, however, setting any time-tables. India’s task will be to prod the US to implement its strategic commitment at the earliest and not use it as a bargaining lever to extract more concessions in non-proliferation areas and to obtain commercial contracts for its companies on their terms. The US is miffed that having done the heavy-lifting for India in the NSG, its companies have not procured civil nuclear projects in India because of our Nuclear Liability Act which provides for supplier’s liability in certain circumstances. The US has openly lobbied for an amendment of our law, and could well link its active support for India’s membership of the NSG to the amendment it seeks. During each high level visit after the nuclear deal, this issue has been raised by the US and India has been obliged to show some “progress” in implementing its commitment to acquire GE and Westinghouse nuclear reactors for producing 10,000 MWs of power in two sites reserved for these companies.

During President Obama’s second term India-US ties began to lose momentum, disappointing those on both sides who had expected much more to emerge from the newly minted relationship of strategic trust. On the US side, apart from disappointment on the nuclear power front, there were strong hopes of the US obtaining a sizeable part of India’s defence procurement pie. That the US has bagged almost $ 9 billion worth of defence contracts in the last five to six years, whether for C-130 and C-17 heavy lift aircraft, advanced maritime reconnaissance aircraft, attack, heavy lift and VIP helicopters, and in that period became India’s top defence supplier, is not seen as sufficient strategic reward for the reversal of US nuclear policies towards India.

During President Obama’s second term India-US ties began to lose momentum, disappointing those on both sides who had expected much more…

The UPA government baulked at signing the three foundational agreements with the US- the LSA, alogistics agreement, BECA for access to high defence technology and CISMOA, an interoperability agreement that would supposedly make India more eligible for transfer of advanced defence technologies. Its concern was to avoid being seen as moving too far into the US defence orbit, as that would cause an imbalance in its relationships with other powers, but this reticence has been balanced by numerous joint military exercises.

The naval exercises in the Indian Ocean area have been particularly elaborate, involving submarines and aircraft carriers, which sends an important strategic message as these waters are crucial for the trade and energy flows of China and other East Asian and Southeast Asian countries. Under the Defence Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI), the US has offered to co-develop and co-produce some ten defence items in collaboration with Indian partners, including the Javelin anti-tank missiles. The Indian response has not been particularly enthusiastic, with the BJP government rejecting the Javelin programme for price escalation reasons and choosing an Israeli missile instead. The US is still hoping to make progress on the DTII.

US specialists, as well as some Indian ones, have also explained the diminution of White House’s interest in India because of her reluctance to solidify a strategic partnership with the US and cling instead to a renewed version of nonalignment represented by the concept of strategic autonomy. While US leaders officially express understanding of India’s desire to preserve its strategic autonomy and do not expect India to choose sides, at unofficial levels India has been accused of fence sitting, of being a free-loader on security provided by others, of not wanting to assume responsibility as a growing power for upholding the global system. The dialogue on global commons- air, space, sea and cyber- is intended to steer India towards burden-sharing and to ensure that, as far as possible, as India rises and seeks a change in the international rules defined by the West so far, it does so in close concert with the US so that any disruptive initiatives can be forestalled or controlled.

At unofficial levels, India has been accused of fence sitting, of being a free-loader on security provided by others…

In the maritime domain, freedom of navigation and securing the Sea Lanes of Communication are areas of particular interest in partnering India, given India’s dominating position in the Indian Ocean Region and the steady expansion of its naval power. With cyber security becoming a major international concern, India’s emergence as a major IT power and the vast expansion of its telecommunication network makes it a choice partner to develop new rules of the game with as much consensus as possible, including on the contentious issue of internet governance.

India has been cautious about the US pivot towards Asia as its capacity and willingness to curtail the expansion of Chinese power is doubted, not the least because of the huge financial and commercial interdependence that has been forged between the two countries. India has its own reasons to seek stable and economically productive relations with China and wants to avoid the risk of being manipulated by the US to serve the latter’s China strategy that appears uncertain even to US allies in Asia. China is acutely sensitive about what it sees is a US bid to co-opt India in its policy of containing China. While this should not deter India from forging strategic ties with the US to the extent it serves its interests, there has been reluctance under the previous government to provoke China by veering too much towards the US. Under the Modi government, however, India, while opening up to China, is also less inhibited about sending strategic signals to it aimed at restraining its conduct. India has decided to “Act East”, to strengthen strategic ties with Japan, Australia and Vietnam, conduct more military exercises bilaterally with the US armed forces and trilaterally with Japan in naval exercises.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Kanwal Sibal

is the former Indian Foreign Secretary. He was India’s Ambassador to Turkey, Egypt, France and Russia.

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One thought on “Evolving Dynamics of Indo-US Relations

  1. Clear and perceptive. The western legacy media doesn’t touch the subjects outlined in this article, so reading well-measured thoughts on India’s geopolitics is illuminating. India needs its best and brightest to engage in diplomacy with the US.

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