What Strategic Ties with The US?
Amb Kanwal Sibal

We must make a distinction between “improved”, or even “transformed”, relations with the US and a “strategic partnership” with it. We have moved from a relationship traditionally riddled with mutual suspicion and distrust to one of increasing openness and promise. The comfort levels with America have greatly risen amongst the business and managerial class, the young achievers, the modernizers, the professionals and opinion makers. The new political readiness to broaden the engagement with the US- natural in the changed international scenario and India’s own growing capacities- does not ipso facto set aside major differences that remain on several key issues. The qualitative change in our bilateral relationship should not lead us to believe uncritically in the rhetoric of a “strategic partnership”.

Enhanced trade and investment, stepped up cooperation in sectors such as health, energy, clean technologies and agriculture is a consequence of India’s growth story and the potential opportunities that the US sees in the world’s fourth largest economy. Such economic prospects do not by themselves translate into a “strategic partnership”. If they did, US and China now “fused” economically and financially would be true strategic partners, irrespective of differences over Taiwan, US containment of China in the Pacific Ocean, its defense ties with Japan etc.

Growing India-US defence exchanges also do not automatically elevate bilateral ties to a strategic level. US defence firms naturally seek a sizeable share of the highly lucrative India defence market in consonance with improved political ties. India is now less resistant politically to US defence supplies even though they are conditions-laden, vulnerable to unpredictable interruptions in conflict situations and overlaid with stringent technology transfer constraints. That the US arms our most pernicious adversary- Pakistan- is strategically incongruent. The argument that the US is providing us platforms with superior performance than those it gives to Pakistan suggests that the US wants double benefit. The other argument that arms supplies to Pakistan do not change the arms balance in South Asia, apart from being self-serving, is disingenuous in the background of a long standing US belief that an India-Pakistan arms balance is stabilizing. The US has not been insensitive to Pakistan’s shrill advocacy of a conventional arms balance in South Asia.

Democracy may have been a strategic cement between US and Europe in West’s confrontation with the Soviet Union, but it has weighed insufficiently in US’s strategic policies towards India. In our neighbourhood, US policies towards China and Pakistan demonstrate the limits of the democracy calculus. In Pakistan the US has given primacy to its short term interests in securing Pakistan’s support and cooperation to combat specific challenges even at the cost of boosting the Pakistani military at the expense of the civil authority and thwarting the country’s democratic aspirations. The contrast between US political hectoring of Russia on democracy issues and tolerance of Chinese authoritarianism is vivid. While the spread of democracy, not the least in Pakistan and China, is in India’s interest, and while the democratic bond did serve to temper misunderstandings between India and the US during the Cold War era, there are limits to the extent to which India can make common cause with the US to promote democracy world wide. The US often uses democracy as a political weapon against its adversaries, while ignoring, as a strategic choice, glaring democratic deficits in friendly countries.

The Indo-US nuclear deal, however critical in building trust between the two countries, is a building block for an eventual strategic partnership, not the consummation of one. The deal largely lifts the US-led sanctions on India for its decision to remain outside the discriminatory Non-Proliferation Treaty and overtly becoming a nuclear weapon state. Unless we accept that we infringed international law and merited retribution, and should therefore be grateful to the US for pardoning us, we should view the deal essentially as a welcome act by the US to redress a wrong, facilitated by significant pragmatic concessions from our side to allay US’s overblown nonproliferation concerns pertaining to India. It is politic to acknowledge the huge political scope of the US decision to adjust its non-proliferation policy to accommodate India, but we should not have put ourselves politically and psychologically at a disadvantage by viewing the deal as a major favour by the US to us,. The deal’s core significance lies in the dramatic change of thinking under President Bush’s watch, not the realisation by India of its mistaken nuclear policies. We should not be beholden to the US to the point that they and some our own opinion makers are allowed to use the perceived generosity of the nuclear deal as a shield to deflect any criticism about the thrust of US policies in other areas that work against our interests.

The nuclear deal has been controversial both in India and the US. While the deal protects India’s nuclear weapon programme, it is also structured to “island” it and the stringent non-proliferation provisions attached are intended to prevent our strategic programme from benefitting in any way from international civilian nuclear cooperation- a red herring in view of the autonomy of India’s weapon programme. On the NPT itself, and issues such as CTBT and FMCT, there is an adjustment of thinking but no “strategic partnership” between India and the US. On the issue of nuclear terrorism, while there are no Indo-US differences in principle, US reluctance to expose the full dimension of the A.Q.Khan affair and Pakistan government’s complicity in it, not to mention China’s involvement in building currently a plutonium reprocessing plant in Pakistan even as concerns about the Talibanization of Pakistan have been widely expressed in western circles, points to the absence of any “strategic” understanding between us and the US on this serious issue. In this background, for the US to seek, even for tactical reasons, to keep open the doors for a US-Pakistan nuclear deal on the lines of the India-US deal, given Pakistan’s record, its internal fragility and the rise of religious extremism in the country, should raise questions in our mind about US geo-political objectives in not probing to the hilt a known case but placing future threats from nuclear terrorism on the forefront of its agenda.

The reality of our “strategic partnership” with the US has to be tested primarily in our neighbourhood as that is where we face our most serious “strategic” problems. If US policies towards Pakistan, Afghanistan, extremist Islam, terrorism, China et al are incompatible with our interests, claims that the two countries are “strategic partners” will remain unpersuasive. Reconciliation with the Taliban means expanding the political space for this extremist Islamist ideology in our region, with all its potentially adverse implications for India. The readiness to accommodate Pakistan’s destabilizing ambitions in Afghanistan for short term reasons, oversensitivity to Pakistan’s inflated concerns about India’s role there, arming of Pakistan even though this would encourage Pakistan to continue confronting India, differentiated view of Pakistan based terrorism targetting the West or India, and an assessment of China’s South Asian role that ignores India’s concerns- are all issues on which a strategic understanding between India and the US remains unforged.

Article published on dated 7th April 2010
The writer is a former Foreign Secretary([email protected])

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