The Arc of the India-US Partnership
Amb Kanwal Sibal

US-India Geo-political Convergence?

Is there a geo-political coherence in the India-US partnership that can be delineated on the ground by tracing a curving line across the globe or a sizable part of it that connects points of convergence? Where will this arc begin? In what we call West Asia? Will it begin in Afghanistan and go eastwards? Or will it begin in Thailand and go right through South-East Asia and end up in Japan? Does the arc begin in the Indian Ocean and go right up to the South China Sea? Such a line would confine the scope of the India-US relationship to the Asia-Pacific region largely, now the focal point of US geo-strategic interest in the wake of China’s rise.

president-obama-pm-manmohanWhat about the so-called global issues? Can they be connected coherently with an arc of partnership? Issues connected with climate change concerns, environmental issues, democracy, human rights, non-proliferation, terrorism and religious extremism. Is there enough convergence between the two countries on these issues?

In many ways, India’s most difficult relationship with any country has been with the US, the foremost global political, economic and military power. Over decades the US has curbed India strategically by imposing sanctions in the critical areas of nuclear and space technologies, and high-technology in general. India has felt US pressure on the issue of human rights. Our democracy may have shielded us from the worst, but on the positive side it has brought no particular bonus.

The US has bolstered Pakistan. Its strategic outreach to China from the 1970s added to our problems by exposing us to joint pressure from Pakistan and China, with the US overlooking some of the worst proliferation activity by the two that today puts constraints on US efforts to restrain Pakistan’s conduct on issues of terrorism and religious extremism.

The US approach to terrorism and religious extremism had been ambivalent until 9/11, at India’s cost because the US has, over the years, ignored Pakistan’s use of terrorism as an instrument of state policy because India, not the US, was principally the victim. India’s view, that terrorism had to be viewed and fought against as a global phenomenon, obtained no support.

Shift in US-India Perceptions

Today, the India-US relationship is a transformed one with the change in Indian thinking about America being the most important element. Being ‘pro-American’ is not a stigma any longer whether in politics or business. The wider public accepts that establishing good relations with America is a desirable objective. Pragmatic thinking in India supports the inclination of the government to bring India and the US closer, though not at the cost of becoming subservient to the latter.

The urbanised Indian middle class is very positively oriented towards the US, and so is the entrepreneurial class, especially that section involved in the knowledge economy. The business community as a whole, that today wields far more influence on policy making because of the liberalisation of the Indian economy and the declining role of the state sector, is an engine for the growth of Indo-US ties. The media devotes a lot of attention to the US. In any report card of the relationship over the last decade this change in attitude is not only very important, it is key to a progressively enhanced relationship with the US in the years ahead.

The evolving defence relationship with the US reflects this change in attitude. The US continues to arm Pakistan, and India, though unhappy, is willing to take a broader view of shared interests. Currently, the US has bagged the largest number of arms contracts - about $8 billion worth in the last five years - despite the stringent and intrusive end-use monitoring requirements. India is likely to order more C-17s and P-8I aircraft. The contract for attack helicopters and light howitzers could well go to the US too. India no longer allows fears of a cut-off of US arms supplies in the event of regional tensions to stand in the way of enhanced defence ties.

lockheed-martin-c-130j-supeThe elimination of US fighters from the competition for the MMRCA contract, which continues to rankle feelings in the US, is not a defining decision. The US expected a political decision in its favour, whereas India wanted to insulate the decision from politics and base it primarily on technical and financial considerations. Despite our exceptionally close ties with Russia historically, the Russians too were eliminated from the MMRCA competition. In the area of military-to-military cooperation India and the US have organised numerous exercises, over 50 in the last seven years. With no other country have the Indian armed forces engaged in so many joint exercises. This is an important building block of mutual confidence. In the larger security related context, the US decision to liberalise export controls for India and lifting sanctions on some of our entities are important steps towards building a partnership.

India’s Stand on India-US Congruence

Despite these positive trends India, however, remains cautious about developing operational cooperation with the US because of its political implications, both in terms of domestic politics and India’s external ties. India wants to develop broad-based mutually beneficial relations with various global power centres rather than being seen as excessively leaning towards one power centre. No doubt there are many values that draw India and the US together such as the spread of democracy, pluralism, respect for human rights and entrepreneurial freedom.

The problem lies in the methods used to promote these positive values. The West, led by the US, is prone to use military means to promote or even impose these and often selectively. Authoritarian friends are protected and authoritarian adversaries targeted. India does not want to be caught in a situation in which it becomes party to a selective application by the US of principles that are, in themselves, positive. As it happens, it is Russia and China that are the principal hurdles in the United Nations Security Council in denying the US and her allies a free hand to change regimes they dislike for geo-political reasons.

Often these regimes are unsavoury but the issue is not that they might be disreputable, it is the management of international relations in a consensual and equitable manner, with due respect accorded to sovereignty and the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of countries. If governments should not have total immunity for heinous crimes against their own populations because of the sovereignty principle, neither should such crimes be exaggerated and amplified by the West-controlled international media to justify intervention, nor should other reasons be trumped up for mobilising support for regime change.

India is therefore unwilling at this juncture to sign some pending defence agreements with the US that might be construed as opening the door for operational cooperation. The LSA for logistics, CISMOA for inter-operability and BECA for geo-spatial cooperation have been shelved for the time being. India does not perceive any particular advantage in these agreements.

Recent Developments in Iran

Developments relating to Iran illustrate the kind of problems India can be confronted with if certain expectations of India-US congruence in policies are raised with an expanded defence relationship. India has no reason to support either US military action against Iran or steps at economic strangulation. Even on the central issue of Iran’s nuclear programme, India can hardly view the situation in as catastrophic as the US would want us to. US hands on the nuclear issue with India have not been clean. Worse, it has deliberately overlooked Pakistan’s nuclear activity in connivance with China in the past and continues to do so even today.

However reprehensible Iran’s conduct, Pakistan’s has been far worse from our point of view as it directly affects our security, which the Iranian programme does not. Already our efforts to preserve our energy relationship with Iran have become a contentious issue with the US. So long as the strategic visions of India and the US in our region in particular are not sufficiently aligned, our defence relationship will be subject to political limits.

Impediments in Indo-US Nuclear Cooperation

The Indo-US nuclear deal has been at the fulcrum of the changed India-US relationship, though the process was politically painful. Despite the non-proliferation caveats it contained and the sharp controversy they provoked at that time, that criticism has subsided. Now the attention is on realising actual commercial benefits from the nuclear agreement.

Here, the Indian Nuclear Liability Act has put a spoke in the wheel for US nuclear suppliers. India believes its act is compliant with the Convention on Supplementary Compensation, whereas the US does not. The US has been pressing India to ratify the CSC which India has committed to doing by the end of the year but the US demand that this be done in active consultation with the IAEA has not been acceptable to India. It is by no means clear that with such ratification India’s international obligations will override its domestic law. In any case, India has failed to ratify the CSC as promised. On the other hand, India has drafted the regulations under the Liability Act and placed them before the Parliament.

These regulations limit supplier liability financially and in duration, but their finalisation awaits the disposal of an amendment that has been proposed. It appears that the US is still not satisfied with the effective dilution of the liability provisions of the Act in the regulations that have been framed and would want India to still conform to the so-called international practice of placing all liability on the operator. Meanwhile, an ‘early works agreement’ between US companies and NPCIL is being proposed but substantial progress on setting up US supplied plants can only be made after commercial negotiations are completed on a viable tariff for the power produced.

The problem of liability has been compounded politically by the Fukushima disaster and anti-nuclear protests in India that threaten even to delay the commissioning of the almost ready Russian-built nuclear power plant at Kudankulam. The French site at Jaitapur has run into problems with local communities. Another Russian site at Haripur in West Bengal has been abandoned. The India-Japan nuclear negotiations too have suffered because of Fukushima. All this does not augur well for US companies.

The lack of progress on the nuclear power front has raised the issue of deliverables by Indian in return for US leadership in bringing India out of the nuclear cold. To some extent, this is regrettable because if the nuclear deal was strategic in intent, it should not be reduced to a transactional one. In other words, it should not be seen that the deal was primarily intended to open doors for US companies to secure lucrative Indian contracts, even though this would have been a natural outcome. While it is legitimate for US companies to actively push their commercial interests, to assume that India is obliged to reward the US through its companies and failure to do so in time is grounds for grievance, would be a mistaken notion. Lack of progress should not, hopefully, cause the US to slow down in the implementation of the other steps envisaged to normalise as far as possible India’s status as a responsible non-NPT nuclear power by making it a member of the NSG, MTCR, the Australia Group and the Wassenaar Arrangement.

The US attitude towards China’s decision to supply two additional nuclear reactors to Pakistan, is troubling for us. India has refrained from making an issue of it to avoid differences on nuclear issues with the US when after decades of contention both countries have resolved their bilateral differences over India’s nuclear programme. India has also wanted to avoid a diplomatic dispute with Pakistan as well as China on this issue for its own reasons, namely, to avoid disrupting the on-going dialogue with Pakistan and in recognition of the futility of raising the issue with China. With the US/West showing complacency over this China-Pakistan agreement, India, as a non-member of the NSG, had additional reason to avoid inviting a diplomatic rebuff in agitating the issue.

In view of US concerns about the safety of nuclear materials and the world-wide initiative it has taken to galvanise action on this front globally, one should have expected the US to have shown more concern than it has about the security of the fast expanding Pakistani nuclear arsenal, particularly as the country is falling prey to religious extremism and terrorism. The US should be fearful of the danger of nuclear material falling into the hands of extremist elements not necessarily from outside the system. The powerful anti-US wave sweeping Pakistan should intensify these concerns. The US could have, therefore, done more to oppose this inopportune China-Pakistan deal. Critics construe the relatively complacent attitude of the US as intended to allow Pakistan some satisfaction through China to balance the nuclear deal with India in the face of persistent Pakistani demands for a similar deal from the US for itself.

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 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.

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.

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.

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.

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, set to take over the reins from Hu Jintao, has noted in an interview in advance of his visit to the US in February 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.

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. 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.

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.

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.

Author is Member Advisory Board in Vivekananda International Foundation and Former Foreign Secretary

Published in Indian Defence Review March Issue 2012

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