The Arc of the India-US Partnership
Star Rating Loader Please wait...
Issue Vol. 27.2 Apr-Jun 2012 | Date : 29 Sep , 2014

US and India-Pakistan-Afghanistan

The set of issues involving terrorism, religious extremism and Afghanistan, which are vital for Indian and US security, could delineate the arc of the India-US partnership more sharply but here too, while concerns are shared, the way to deal with them reveals serious gaps in thinking. The US has travelled a long way from ignoring Pakistan’s use of terrorism as an instrument of state policy – despite India clamouring against this for years – to Admiral Mullen acknowledging this in his Congressional testimony before retirement. India has been charging Pakistan with duplicity, an accusation that the US now makes liberally against Pakistan. India has long called Pakistan an epicentre of terrorism and now the US recognises Pakistan as such. Yet the US has continued to arm Pakistan and this even when General Kayani, who is now regarded with less admiration by the Pentagon, insists on his India-centric strategy. The US has just announced a $2.4 billion aid package for Pakistan that includes a sizeable chunk as military aid.

India has long called Pakistan an epicentre of terrorism and now the US recognises Pakistan as such. Yet the US has continued to arm Pakistan…

India and the US have successfully overcome some early differences of opinion about India’s role in Afghanistan. The US now supports India’s development assistance to Afghanistan to the point that the two countries are discussing joint projects there. The US has not viewed negatively the declaration of a strategic partnership between India and Afghanistan and the provisions relating to India providing training the Afghan security forces and contributing to the enhancement of their combat capability. This implies acceptance by the US of India’s legitimate long term interests in Afghanistan and reduced concern about Pakistan’s India-related sensitivities about that country.

The problem area is US’s exit strategy axed on reconciliation with the obscurantist Taliban leadership so long as it breaks links with Al Qaida and confines its Islamist agenda to Afghan territory. The decision to allow the Taliban to open an office in Qatar gives respectability to this retrograde movement as a political interlocutor. To begin to obfuscate the reality of what the Taliban represents, as Vice-President Biden’s recent statements suggest, in order to have some kind of an orderly exit from Afghanistan may serve US political needs but it does not serve India’s interests. India cannot be comfortable with such a US strategy. Our problems arise from the strength of Islamist ideology in our region, embodied all along by Pakistan and now set to gain strategic depth in Afghanistan. It is this Islamist ideology that has given nourishment to political confrontation with non-Islamic India with its large Muslim population. Whatever the likelihood of potential problems between the Taliban Pashtuns and Pakistan, India cannot manoeuvre in a Taliban-influenced political dispensation in Afghanistan. A ‘Talibanised’ Afghanistan will also obstruct India’s efforts to build any meaningful relationship with Central Asia. Afghanistan’s membership of SAARC will also become problematic from India’s point of view as this membership is predicated on a constructive Afghan role, not a disruptive one.

The US has not viewed negatively the declaration of a strategic partnership between India and Afghanistan and the provisions relating to India providing training the Afghan security forces and contributing to the enhancement of their combat capability.

India needs a moderate Islamic government in Kabul with no religious bias against India and not vulnerable to manipulation to serve Pakistan’s anti-Indian obsessions. What India would worry about is a US-Pakistan deal that gives the Taliban a role in the Afghan political structure as a guarantee for its self-defined interests as against fuller Pakistani cooperation to help in the US/NATO exit from Afghanistan without the Afghan house crumbling in its wake.

India-US bilateral cooperation in combating terrorism is now acknowledged as being helpful. It appeared earlier that this was more in the nature of enhancing India’s technical capabilities rather than joining hands to curb Pakistan as a source of terror directed at India. But now it seems actionable intelligence is being shared, though the Hadley episode has created a trust deficit. In the area of homeland security, India can gain much from US expertise, systems and equipment.

The China Factor

The US has been exhorting India to move from a “Look East” policy to an “Engage East” policy. Now the call is for an “Act East” policy, in consonance with the presumed wishes of the South-East and East Asian countries. In actual fact, India does not need such exhortation as its Look East policy has always meant engaging the East and acting in that direction. India’s trade and investment profile in South-East Asia has grown enormously; we have signed FTAs or CEPAs with ASEAN or individual countries such as Thailand, Singapore, Japan and South Korea. India plays an active role in the ARF. It is part of the East Asia Summit where it intends to work closely with the US and others. If India’s eastwards activity does not match China’s, it is balanced by the fact that we are not perceived as a threat either.

India has question marks in its mind about the US’s China policy…

As part of its eastwards oriented concerns, India has been conducting numerous naval exercises with the US to ensure the security of the sea lanes of communication in the Indian Ocean through pass trade and energy supplies of China, Japan and South Korea. Naval exercises have been held in a larger format with Japan, Australia and Singapore. India has tried to engage the navies of South-East Asian countries to build goodwill in what are called the ‘Milan’ exercises. Now a decision has been taken to have tri-lateral exercises involving India, US and Japan, as well as a tri-lateral dialogue amongst these three countries at the foreign office level. These are signs of a developing a hedging strategy against the rise of a more economically and militarily muscled China that is already causing anxiety in the region with its claims in the South China Sea.

India supports the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, a position aligned to that of the US. India would support enhanced US presence in the Asia-Pacific region as a factor of stability and therefore, the pivot towards Asia announced by President Obama would be viewed without any misgiving. The US alone is in a position to exert pressure to contain China’s ambitions even as the profound American economic linkages with China as well as US’s debilitating mistakes in West Asia feed these ambitions.

India’s rise invites attention from the developed world, but the development challenges facing it are enormous…

Yet here again, India has question marks in its mind about America’s China policy. Some flow from the unhealthy mutual financial and economic inter-dependence that has developed between the two countries. Too much is at stake in China for the US to risk a confrontation with that country. China is playing a subtle, long-term game of extracting the maximum it can from the relationship with the US until it steadily builds up its capacity to counter US power in Asia and beyond. It, therefore, takes in its stride, US criticism of its human rights record and even while resorting to rhetoric, continues its systematic engagement of US political and economic circles.

US capacity to moderate China’s conduct is being steadily eroded and in time, as the power equations change in China’s favour, the US will have even less of a capacity to influence China’s behaviour. India will, therefore, have good reason not to allow its China relationship to deteriorate on account of some assumptions about US-China tensions, given the likelihood that US and China would work out mutual arrangements over the heads of others if the circumstances so warrant. If the US is obliged to engage China even as it develops hedging options as a precaution, India should be called upon to do likewise.

The major sources of constraint are the mismatch between US interests and India’s as a regional power…

India must also take into account that its real problems with China are in South Asia, not in East Asia, with renewed strident Chinese claims on Indian territory, the lack of movement in border negotiations despite 15 rounds of talks at the level of Special Representatives, the questioning of India’s legal position in Jammu and Kashmir, the continued transfers of nuclear and missile technologies to Pakistan, Chinese presence in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir and its involvement in major infrastructural projects there even as China protests against the India-Vietnam agreement on oil exploration in the South China Sea and continues the militarisation of Tibet.

On these issues of strategic importance to India the US is silent. Not that India wants the US to intrude into these problems we have with China, though the US could have a clearer policy on the China-Pakistan nexus directed at India. On the contrary, the US seems to suggest that China is now behaving as a responsible nuclear power. In the past, the US has spoken of working together with China for peace and stability in South Asia, a thinking reiterated recently by Admiral Wilard. Xi Jinping, has noted in an interview that the China and the US have “actively coordinated” their policies in South Asia. India, on the other hand, sees China as a strategically disruptive power in South Asia. The US repeatedly endorses the principle of China’s territorial integrity, accepts Tibet as part of China, but does not support the principle of India’s territorial integrity or formally accepts J&K as part of India, in deference to the sensitivities of Pakistan and China. The US expresses no view on the militarisation of Tibet that not only suppresses the Tibetans but threatens India’s security. Here there is a serious strategic gap in the relationship and bridging it will not be easy.

If India, as a rising power, is now being accommodated in leading global groupings, the expectation is that it will endorse the broad thrust of western policies.

The US, as the world’s most powerful nation, is used to shaping the international environment in conformity with its values and interests. India has to live in an international environment shaped by others; it seeks changes but does not have the capacity to enforce them. The political configurations it is involved in – the RIC, BRICS, IBSA, the Group of four for the permanent membership of the Security Council – give it room to politically manoeuvre outside a framework dominated by the US/West but without altering the current balance of power. The US and some other western countries criticise India for being a freeloader in benefitting from the efforts that western powers put in to make the global system work, without sharing responsibility.

If India, as a rising power, is now being accommodated in leading global groupings, the expectation is that it will endorse the broad thrust of western policies. The assumption is that India must change its thinking and approach, and contribute to enlarging the consensus behind these policies, not that India’s views will be taken into account in modifying them. It is this assumption that explains the ire at India for its voting in the Security Council on Libya and Syria that has goaded some to question the rationale of US support for India’s permanent membership of the Security Council. India’s latest positive vote on Syria has, of course, earned favourable notice.

If India is asked to assume greater responsibility for upholding the international system, then some genuine attempt has to be made to remove its present deficiencies. Military intervention and the right to protect are products of mindsets habituated to the use of military power to advance national or alliance interests.

India’s rise invites attention from the developed world, but the challenges of development are enormous. Its interests converge as well as collide with the West.

India’s rise invites attention from the developed world, but the challenges of development are enormous. Its interests converge as well as collide with the West. We have difficulties over US polices towards Iran and earlier towards Myanmar, not the least because the US has enlarged the geo-political space for China around us. Similarly, the US enlarged the space for religious extremism and terrorism in our region by supporting the Islamists against the Soviets, adopting a soft posture towards the Taliban when they took over in Afghanistan and wanting to accommodate them even now, and overlooking Pakistan’s use of terror at the state level and its clandestine nuclear programme that today gives Pakistan the confidence and capacity to defy the US even when vital US stakes are involved.

On the economic side, US exports to India have increased rapidly; the US is India’s largest economic partner as an individual country, though purely in terms of trade in goods China has become our largest partner to some discomfiture of policy makers and specific sectors of the economy in view of the mounting trade deficit and commercial practices of Chinese companies. The US is pressing for further reforms of the Indian economy, especially in the financial, retail and labour sectors. India will move at its own pace because of the limitations of its system, coalition government, domestic distractions and slow decision-making in the government. On climate change and WTO-related issues, India and the US have differences but these are not bilateral issues and should not be allowed to become one.

To sum up, the report card of the Indo-US partnership is a mixed one. The strategic relationship has to be imparted greater content. The backlog of past misunderstandings is being steadily removed. Anti-US political opinion and instincts exist but they are now secondary. There is general goodwill for the US though some aspects of US policies continue to cast a shadow on the relationship. The main drivers of the relationship on the Indian side are the acceptance that the relationship is vital and that no other relationship can substitute for it in its entirety; the people-to-people relationship is unmatched; educational linkages are very important; the India-American community is a positive force; India has hopes for access to high technology. On the US side, India’s large market, its human potential, shared values and the China factor are driving elements, but India figures less prominently in US calculations than the US does in India’s external relations.

The major constraints are a mismatch between US interests and priorities as a global power and India’s as a regional power; outdated conditionalities linked to arms supplies, the negative activity of American non-proliferation die-hards, the complexity of export controls especially on dual technology items, US desire to shape the Indian system to suit the requirements of its companies, which is a long-term exercise. Others relate to policies towards Pakistan and on issues of terrorism and religious extremism as well as uncertainties about the end-game in Afghanistan, in particular a deal with the Taliban brokered by Pakistan.

India is neither a historical ally like the UK nor is it a fractious one like France…

The India-US relationship is supposedly strategic but it is being judged too much on a transactional basis especially as what India can now deliver to the US in return for the nuclear deal, forgetting that the deal was highly controversial in India. US limitations in conducting its China policy even when it pivots towards the Asia-Pacific keeping the future China threat in mind are factors India has to keep in mind. The declining US economic strength and its inward pre-occupations are other constraints on US policies.

In the next decade or beyond, much will depend on how the US reforms its economic and political functioning to give a new élan to the country; the general belief is that the reserves of US strength will surface even though the US will not be in a position to dictate as much as before. It is important that the liberal international order underpinned by the US remains intact with needed reforms; undiluted by the authoritarian Chinese model.

Click for IDR Subscription

The eventual India-US model of partnership will neither be that of US-Britain, US-Japan or US-France. India is neither a historical ally like the UK nor is it a fractious one like France, and it is not security dependent as Japan. India will seek to maintain its independence in decision-making as much as possible but also seek convergence with the US. It will be a unique model as India is sui generis and US believes in its own exceptionalism.

1 2
Rate this Article
Star Rating Loader Please wait...
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.

More by the same author

Post your Comment

2000characters left

2 thoughts on “The Arc of the India-US Partnership

  1. So, India wants to be friends with USA? That’s funny! All the while, though, all that Indians do is chastise and criticize and blame USA for every problem and ailment in the world. Indians also disrespect the voices and opinions of NRI Indians settled overseas, which I think is out of pure jealousy. This is not the way to run a partnership. You can’t claim to be friends or want to be friends if you hate Americans and America. This is true hypocrisy which is seen through by the Americans. That is why USA can’t seem to trust India and the relationship has faltered. The true transformation in friendship will only come when Indians in India have a change of HEART.

More Comments Loader Loading Comments