The problem in a relationship with an unequal partner is that the weaker side always ends up doing more to keep the ball rolling. Such is the nature of the India-US relations, where Washington, with a global role, needs to balance its world-wide imperatives with a bilateral relationship with India. New Delhi, on the other hand, views the bilateral relationship with the US as a stand-alone achievement which could propel it onto the world stage. It is axiomatic that in such a relationship, India will sulk more than the US can care about. The deeper trouble is that India, over an extended period of time, will find it increasingly difficult to balance the relationship as it will not know how to retain its status, and importantly its security against China, without the US. And this is the biggest drawback of the unequal partnership which started with the 14 rounds of Jaswant Singh-Strobe Talbott interaction after the 1998 nuclear tests. The aim of the talks was both to understand each other’s concerns better, and to arrive at a mutually acceptable outcome. India’s main reason for nuclear tests was its security concern regarding China. Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee wrote as much in his letter to President Bill Clinton, and Jaswant Singh, in his first meeting, told Strobe Talbott. The US, on the other hand, could not allow India to undertake nuclear weaponisation, and more tests, to build a minimal credible deterrence meant for China, as this would tear its non-proliferation policy to shreds, and, according to the US, result in an unstable relationship between India, China and Pakistan bringing the region closer to a nuclear war.
The answer found was that India and the US become ‘natural allies.’ The Bush administration’s National Security Strategy 2002 elaborated upon the phrase by saying that ‘We share an interest in creating a strategically stable Asia.’ But, the question is, who would seek to destabilise Asia?
Writing in the prestigious Foreign Affairs magazine (January-February 2000 issue), Condoleezza Rice, who would, a year later, become US national security advisor, put her anti-China sentiments in a pro-Indian context: ‘What we do know is that China is a great power with unresolved vital interests, particularly concerning Taiwan and the South China Sea. China resents the role of the United States in the Asia-Pacific region. This means that China is not a status-quo power but one that would like to alter Asia’s balance of power in its own favor. That alone makes it a strategic-competitor and not a strategic-partner. China’s success in controlling the balance of power depends in large part on America’s reaction to the challenge. The United States must deepen its co-operation with Japan and South Korea and maintain its commitment to a robust military presence in the region. It should pay closer attention to India’s role in the regional balance. There is a strong tendency conceptually to connect India and Pakistan and to think only of Kashmir or the nuclear competition between the two states. But India is an element in China’s calculation, and it should be in America’s, too.’ According to Strobe Talbott, “I had heard something close to this (Rice argument) from Jaswant and other Indians in almost every round of the dialogue.”
It does not need a genius to conclude that ‘natural allies’, among other things, implies that India has offered, and would be pleased to be co-opted in the US strategy to countervail China. However, it does not conclude that the US has accepted such a role for India in its Asia-Pacific doctrine. What it means is that given the growing ‘inter-operability’ between the two defence ministries and the services, such an outcome may become a logical roadmap. The good thing about becoming ‘natural allies’ is that India did not annoy the US, and also did not spend its scare resources by increased nuclear weaponisation to provide a credible minimum deterrence against China. However, by not doing so, India has willingly mortgaged its national security regarding China to the US. This is the crux of the matter. Once this is understood, Indo-US defence relations and the frenetic pace that it has assumed become obvious. China’s military priorities are its ballistic missiles and the navy. To counter these, there is increased Indo-US naval cooperation, Special Forces and marine commando interactions, and talks on Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD). The latter is part of the dialogue that the US has with its military allies in the region; Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. The US deputy secretary of state, Richard Armitage had earlier visited India to explain BMD, which was interpreted to imply closeness between the two countries.