Indo - Us Ties will see better days
Amb Kanwal Sibal

Public readings of the temperature of the India-US relationship keep fluctuating depending on assessments of the moment. Doubts are being raised again whether the relationship has reached a plateau and enthusiasm has waned on both sides. Lack of delivery on US expectations in the nuclear and defence fields as well as its inward preoccupations because of recessionary and employment concerns and the upcoming Presidential elections have suppposedly taken American eyes off the India story.

Neither India nor the US need, however, to be too narcissistic about the condition of their ties. These will find a natural equilibrium based on the enlightened self-interest of both sides based on their longer-term political, economic and security congruence.

More important than any immediate material results of the changed relationship is the change in Indian thinking about America. The educated Indian middle class is positively oriented towards the US and so is the business community and the media. There is no real political cost today in being seen as pro-American. It is widely accepted that good relations with America is a good thing.


The changing defence relationship with the US is a tangible sign of this. To a country that arms Pakistan, the opening India has given reflects an altered appreciation of national interest. The US has currently secured the largest number of arms contracts, despite intrusive end-use monitoring requirements. India no longer allows fears of a cut-off of US arms supplies in the event of regional tensions to block an enhanced defence relationship. The elimination of US fighters from the competition for the MMRCA contract is not a defining decision.

The Indo-US nuclear agreement has symbolized the changed India-US relationship, though its parturition was politically painful. The attention now is on realizing actual commercial benefits from it. The Indian Nuclear Liability Act had stultified the US nuclear suppliers in particular, but the rules drafted under the Liability Act limiting supplier liability to a manageable period should deblock the situation. In any case, if the nuclear deal was strategic in intent it should not be reduced to a transactional one of repayment to the US for ending India’s nuclear isolation.

On issues involving terrorism, religious extremism and Afghanistan, which are vital for Indian and US security, while concerns are shared, their treatment reveals serious gaps in thinking. The US no longer ignores Pakistan’s terror affiliations and its duplicity. But it has not found a way to translate its frustrations with Pakistan into a policy that meets both indian and American demands.

India is not comfortable with US willingness to promote reconciliation with the obscurantist Taliban leadership provided it breaks links with Al Qaida and confines its Islamist agenda to Afghan terrirtory. 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. Whatever the likelihood of potential problems between the Taliban Pashtuns and Pakistan, India cannot manoeuvre in a Taliban influenced political dispensation in Afghanistan. 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.

The US has been exhorting India to strengthen its Look East policy. In actual fact india’s Look East policy has been deepened over the years with trade agreements with Asean as well as individual Asian countries, an active role in the Asean Regional Forum and participation in the East Asia Summit where it intends to work closely with the US and others.

India has been holding numerous naval exercises with the US to ensure the security of the sea lanes of communication in the Indian Ocean through which trade and energy flows of China pass, not to mention those of Japan and South Korea. Naval exercises have been held in a larger format with Japan, Australia and Singapore. Now a decision has been taken to have trilateral exercises involving India, US and Japan, as well as a trilateral dialogue between these three countries at the Foreign Office level. These are signs of a developing hedging strategy against China’s rise that is already causing anxiety in the region with its claims in the South China Sea etc.


Yet, here again, there are question marks in India’s mind about US’s China policy with its mixed messages on account of the limits imposed on US choices because of the unhealthy mutual financial and economic interdependence that has developed between the two countries.

India must also take into account that Chinese protests against the India-Vietnam agreement on oil exploration in the South China Sea apart, its real problems with China are in South Asia, not in East Asia. These relate to its claims on Indian territory, Jammu and Kashmir’s legal status, transfers of nuclear and missile technologies to Pakistan, Chinese presence in POK, the militarization of Tibet etc. On these issues the US is silent.

Democracy cannot be a geo-political glue for Indo-US ties as India has, over the years, benefitted little from the democracy dividend in its relationship with the US. If this factor has been peripheral to the relationship all this while, it cannot easily become central now.

If India is accommodated in leading global groupings the assumption should not be that it must or should endorse decisions taken by western powers and help enlarge their consensual basis without expressing differences. It is this assumption that explains the ire at India for its recent voting in the Security Council on Libya and Syria.

India’s history, its thinking, its cultural instincts, the working of its political system do not allow it to endorse western policies unquestioningly, whatever the importance of the US factor today in policy making. Our differences over Libya and Syria are not because we owe anything to the leaders of these countries, but because we owe something to our own vision of living together and overcoming differences.


The report card of the Indo-US relationship is a mixed one. The strategic relationship has to be imparted greater content. The backlog of past misunderstandings is being steadily removed. 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.

The major sources of constraint are the 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 diehards, the complexity of export controls especially on dual technology items, policies towards Pakistan and on issues of terrorism and religious extremism, the uncertainties about the end-game in Afghanistan and US limitations in conducting its China policy even when it steps up its Asia-Pacific commitments and seeks more Indian commitment keeping the rising China threat in mind.

The eventual India-US relationship will have unique aspects as India is unique and US exceptionalism is a reality.

Published in Mail Today 22nd November - 2011

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