India-US since 1991 and divergences of 21St century
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 21 Feb , 2023

The Kicklighter proposals of 1991 initiated the process of bringing India and US closer. Till 1991 the two democracies were described as the “estranged democracies”.However, the world order in the 1990s was extremely unipolar and due to which the United States had become overconfident both politically and academically. Politically, the United states was not willing to heed to the serious troubles which India faced due to terrorism, which was having its roots in Afghanistan. The United States remained aloof from the Pakistan backed terrorism in Kashmir. Academically, the western political scientist referred to the dissolution of the Soviet Union as “The end of history”. Francis Fukuyama believed that after 1991, no new ideology will be created and democracy will become the fundamental form of governance making liberalism the defining element of the polity.Although other scholars like Samuel Huntington did anticipate  that new threats will emerge even in an unipolar world. However, Huntington’s writing in  “The Clash of Civilizations” were devoid from Hinduism or any other Indic religion and the Indian civilization was missing in majority of the research. He also acknowledged this void in the preface of the book.He focussed much more on Islam, Western civilization, orthodox Christianity and Confucius beliefs. This lack of understanding by political scientists and over confidence of the politicians in Washington didn’t allow any serious negotiation to happen between India and the United states during those times.

When India tested thermonuclear weapons in 1998, the United states imposed a set of sanctions on India. The United States attitude was extremely abrasive it didn’t consider the compulsions that pushed India to become a nuclear power.

The first sign of change in the US policy towards India came in aftermath of the 9/11 attack. The US for the first time realized the international repercussion of terrorism and found some common interest with India. The 9/11 also ensured that the US policies concerning West Asia since the second world war, can’t be pushed under the carpet anymore. This changed approach of successive US administrations came in the form of “global war on terror”. Billions of dollars were poured in Afghanistan and later in Iraq, Libya and Syria without achieving any significant results. All these mindless interventions created failed states one after another causing death and displacement to millions. 

For India the visit by US President Bill Clinton in 2000 actually started a benevolent process of cooperation. The civil nuclear deal of 2005, which recognised India as a nation possessing significant nuclear capability was the first milestone of the partnership. The nuclear deal  led to a renewed push to find more common grounds for bilateral cooperation. In the aftermath of 26/11 attack, India US built enough appetite to co-operate in countering terrorism and thus formed the Counter Terror Cooperation initiative in 2009. The main idea behind this initiative was to provide “for strengthening capabilities to effectively combat terrorism; promotion of exchanges regarding modernization of techniques; sharing of best practices on issues of mutual interest; development of investigative skills; promotion of cooperation between forensic science laboratories; establishment of procedures to provide mutual investigative assistance; enhancing capabilities to act against money laundering, counterfeit currency and financing of terrorism; exchanging best practices on mass transit and rail security; increasing exchanges between Coast Guards and Navy on maritime security; exchanging experience and expertise on port and border security; enhancing liaison and training between specialist Counter Terrorism Units including National Security Guard with their US counter parts”. It is debatable that how much of the stated objectives are actually achieved through this initiative.

Since the Counter-terror initiative of 2009, India and US has become much more aligned. In 2012, the defence trade and technology initiative (DTTI) was signed but the results of DTTI are unsatisfactory. In 2016, India became a major Defence partner of the US. India has also signed three foundational agreement LEMOA, COMCASA, ISA and BECA. These agreements are meant to strengthen interoperability and communication between the armed forces of both nations.In 2018, India was also provided with“Strategic Trade Authorization” tier 1 status, which allows India to receive license-free access to a wide range of military and dual-use technologies regulated by the Department of Commerce”.The Indo-US partnership is becoming extremely important for the entire Indo-Pacific region, with QUAD becoming more encompassing by including cyber security, trade benefits among other issues into its primary concern.

All these steps of past and the current approach of both the nations is turning India US relationship more consequential. However, everything is not hunky dory between India and the US. There exists some real problems which require urgent attention.

The First roadblock in the India-US partnership is the US relationship with Pakistan. Even after losing Afghanistan with humiliation, the US still describes Pakistan “as the key to peace in Kabul”. It is baffling to predict the true motive of the US vis-a-vis India. Indian leadership finds it extremely difficult to accept that the US continues to support -politically, financially and militarily- a rogue state, which continues to bleed India on daily basis. In September 2022, the US approved USD $450 million to Pakistan for upgrading the fleet of 85 F-16 fighter aircrafts. This step of the US doesn’t augurs well in New Delhi. What rationale can be deduced from such a step?

The US shall deeply contemplate that such irrational steps may sabotage the Indo American partnership, which the US itself describes as “one of the most consequential partnerships of 21st century”.

The second factor which hinders the growth of India and US relationship is the ambiguous reactions emanating from the Washington DC. In October, 2022 the US ambassador to Pakistan David Blome visited the Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK). He did so with full media coverage and kept on updating the world through his Twitter account. Ambassador Blome referred to POK as “Azad Kashmir”, throughout his visit. What does this indicate? Surely, that India should not trust the US and West.  The US was sending India amessage by sending it’s ambassador to POK and ‘upgrading’ PAF F-16 fighters, that if India remains adamant on its stance in Russia-Ukraine war then the US too has options. New Delhi should be clear that Washington is also an avaricious power just like China. As the US is illegally occupying  the Chagos archipelago which as per the international court of justice (ICJ) and the UNGA is a Mauritius territory. Is this the democratic values looks like? Certainly not for India.

The charade of Human Rights forms third important roadblock in Indian American partnership. The United States commission on international religious freedom (USCIRF) claims that India is “a country of particular concern”, regarding the religious freedom. The website of USCIRF reads that India has taken a “drastic turn downward, with national and various state governments tolerating widespread harassment and violence against religious minorities”. In past several US officials including the Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who in April 2022 after the 2+2 dialogue said, we are “monitoring human rights….. abuses in India”, have raised human rights issues in India. The Indian response to these allegations has been scathing, with the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) calling the USCIRF as “an organization of particular concern”. The MEA along with ministers and diplomats have denied all  allegations of HR violation in India. The Indian government have been placed under tremendous pressure by other media houses also regarding the HR.

India is an extremely large nation encompassing tremendous diversity. It is indeed possible that on certain occasions the human rights of some people may have been compromised. But labeling the entire government as “against religious minorities”is nonsensical. The US shall understand that no democracy is perfect, including the US. All form of governments have their own flaws.  With cooperation such flaws are dealt and not with pointing fingers by using duplicitous media reports. Can the US claim itself to be a perfect democracy with having $31 trillion in debt? Or by putting entire nation on Surveillance under Project Prism? Or for funding and fuelling the war in Ukraine thus making millions homeless?

Also, if human rights is so dear to the US then how came Iraq was bombed for 42 days before being invaded by the ground forces? How come the Serbians were bombed for more than two months in Yugoslavia conflict of 1999? Why the human rights of Hindus and Sikhs living in Pakistan never shakes the US conscience?

Hardly, so-called Liberal Universities of the US discusses the human rights of Punjabis and Bengalis arising due to Partition of India, or that of the Tibetan migrants due to Chinese invasion of their homeland or that of Kashmiri Panditsdue to Islamic radicalism imbibed in Valley by Pakistan. Why these double standards by the self proclaimed oldest democracy?

It is clear from biased approach of the US that Human Rights means nothing to them. It is just a tool used by the US, which becomes extremely potent due to western control over media. New Delhi should not care to listen to any Western hypocrisy regarding Human Rights.

The last issue concerning India-US partnership is ambiguity regarding the very nature of partnership. Is India-US partnership only about India importing military hardware’s from the US? From DTTI to STA 1 status, all have failed to transfer any important Technology to India. The catchy euphemisms have made India a net importer of arms from the US. Since 2008, India and US have signed arms deals worth more than $20 billion creating jobs and making investments both in the US with India getting nothing in return. Is this a kind of partnership which is sustainable? It is one side, India, which is doing heavy lifting and other enjoying the ripe fruits. The recent agreement between Air India and Boeing for 220 commercial aircrafts is only helping one side disproportionately. In the US it will generate jobs and investment in research and development (R&D) and will be ready for more orders utilizing this money of TATA group. While, we in India given our increasing demand will need more aircrafts in future and will be forced to buy once again from US and France due to our own negligible investment in R&D.

New Delhi must press for technology transfer in all military and non military deals. We should also be ready to do reverse engineering to design and manufacture at home to realise Atmanirbhar Bharat. The Indian government shall closely observe the US designs for the region, while maintaining healthy ties with all nations.

The US is indeed an important partner of India but the relationship is clearly mutual. The US need India to ensure balance of power in Indo-Pacific and India need the US for economic progress and technological development. With working together both can end up in win-win situation and with working against one another both will lose monumentally. Hope better sense prevail in both capitals, particularly in Washington to end this war in Ukraine and focusing on real threat emanating from China.

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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

Prashant Sharma

holds a bachelor’s degree in physical science and a postgraduate degree in defense studies. He was previously employed as an intern with the New Delhi-based National Maritime Foundation. Sharma hasalsoqualified the UGC NET Examination.

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