Bottomline | Common Interests

India needs to invest in strategic ties with the US for its own good

Pravin SawhneyPravin Sawhney

The United States ambassador to India, Richard Verma is exceptionally optimist about US’ relations with India. “I will put our relationship higher than strategic; at strategic-plus level. We are not allies yet, though that is what I wish to become.”

While addressing a select group of informed people at the United Services Institution (USI) of India — a defence services think tank — in Delhi recently, Verma flagged personal chemistry between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the reason for the upwards bilateral trajectory.

According to him, Modi’s US visit in September 2014 and Obama’s return visit in less than four months as the chief guest at India’s Republic Day energised the two bureaucracies to accomplish aplenty. The civil nuclear deal, where both sides had invested enormous political capital was finally sealed. “The legal and administrative issues like tracking of nuclear material and the liability issue were resolved.” In less than six months, under the Defence Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI), the two sides “agreed to consider six co-production projects.” This has “strengthened the security cooperation which is a pillar of our relationship.” On economic and trade side, “the two have set a target of USD 500 billion for themselves.” Both sides are interacting in “diverse areas like science, space, cyber, counter-terrorism, health, education and so on with a total of nearly 100 bilateral connects between the two sides. I want the two-page document on joint vision for Asia-Pacific to be transformed into a concrete roadmap with creativity and imagination,” he added.

The ambassador further averred, “If the US and India are close partners, the world will be a prosperous and safe place.” In his concluding remark, he urged “the momentum should be maintained.” Interestingly, as a response to what the moderator (a retired foreign secretary) had said earlier, or perhaps as an afterthought, Verma thought it appropriate to inform the audience that “your foreign secretary (S. Jaishankar) told me that we (India) want to be a global player.” The unsaid part was that the US would help India in this endeavour. This sounded familiar.

A decade ago, the US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice had on her maiden visit to India, on 16 March 2005 told an incredulous nation that “the US will help India become a major power.” This led to a flurry of activity: the bilateral Next Steps in Strategic Partnership (which was progressing well) was stopped in the track and replaced with the 18 July 2005 agreement, which, to the US, promised movement in the fast lane. Meant to be a total embrace between the two nations (akin to allies), the agreement, besides multitudes of issue, had the civil nuclear deal and the Defence Framework (DF, signed in April 2005) as its centre pieces. The agreement was energised by the personal chemistry between President Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, which was the same if not better than the present heads of the two governments.

Problems, however, erupted even before the ink had dried on the agreement. The US made it clear that its prime motive in intensely engaging India was non-proliferation, while India, ducking the truth, informed its people that the nuclear deal would help India with its energy needs. The US, while working with its Congress for the passage of bilateral 123 Agreement and with the IAEA for special status for India, could not abandon its responsibility as the leader of global non-proliferation regimes. Given the twin menace of terrorism and proliferation, Bush urged the NSG to tighten its export rules making India’s entry into the exclusive restrictive regimes difficult. Then, India and the US were constantly bickering over the nuclear reactors separation plan; India accusing the US of regularly shifting goalposts. To cap it all, the US while signing the 123 Agreement made it known that it would eventually abide by its domestic Hyde Act which made it incumbent on India to align its policies in the region with those of the US.

The gone-wrong nuclear deal also had its effect on the DF, whose slow pace was unacceptable to the US defence lobby that had invested its time, energy and perhaps finances in the passage of the 123 Agreement. If this was not enough, the two US platforms which participated in the mega MMRCA deal of the IAF lost in the competition; US analysts declared that India had failed to invest political capital in the bilateral relationship meant to assist its rise in the Asia-Pacific.

Herein was the rub. How does one lose anything when no homework had ever been done? India, unmindful of the importance of strategy and military power in nation-building has chosen to live in a fantasy land. For instance, few in India have questioned the Indian military’s premise that it can build capabilities to fight a two-front war (with Pakistan and China). Or the oft repeated threat, reiterated recently by senior minister Arun Jaitley that ‘if Pakistan does not stop cross border terrorism, it will have to face consequences.’ Or the belief that India can have strategic autonomy and strategic ties with the US at the same time. Or the notion that sloganeering without a tangible military muscle is enough to make China cower or get nations both in India’s backyard and in the Pacific region to pay deference to it.

India needs to invest in strategic ties with the US for its own goodMore to the immediate, the gathering which had assembled to listen to ambassador Verma asked mostly mundane questions. The burning question which the director of the USI himself thought fit to flag on behalf of many was the US’ duplicitous approach towards India and Pakistan. Why is the US giving Pakistan one billion dollars of military wares when it knows they would be used against India? What is the US doing about the China-Pakistan (clandestine) nexus? Verma gave the politically correct answers instead of saying that the US, unlike India, has a global role and global commitments. He could well have added that India’s refusal to understand this reality is what stymies the bilateral relationship which has enormous potential to deliver precisely what it has promised: India’s rise.

To be fair to the US, it had been working on a partnership with India since the end of the Cold War when it was clear that China in Asia-Pacific could be the next spoiler. Interestingly, all partnership initiatives have come from the US and none from India. It started with the 1992 Kickleighter proposals, leading onto the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership to the July 2005 Agreement, the DTTI and the need now for a robust maritime dialogue. Speaking with me in March 2015, the US Pacific fleet commander, Admiral Harry Harris had said, “We are looking at interoperability (between the US and Indian navies) as the endgame”, something that a strategic-plus relationship should have.

The US strategy for Asia-Pacific is rather simple. To meet the Chinese military challenge, the US’ re-balancing has three parts: to move a few more assets to the US Pacific Command; to strengthen alliances in the western Pacific; and to build new partnerships in Asia-Pacific.

India, given its geography rather than its naval might meets the requirements for a bigger role in the Indian Ocean Region which it considers its area of responsibility. This Indian assumption of calling the IOR its own has now been challenged by China, which, since 2009, under the garb of anti-piracy operations to Somalia, has made frequent forays in India’s backyard. What is more, the taking over of the Gwadar port by China and the deal over the economic corridor with Pakistan should have discomfited India. It is not enough for the Indian naval chief, Admiral Robin Dhowan to say that he is closely monitoring activities in the region. With little operational options in the Bay of Bengal and with fast closing options in the Arabian Sea where the Indian Navy will in the near future be facing the twin threat from China and Pakistan, India should be talking with the US Pacific Command.

Unlike the nuclear deal, which had duplicity build into it, the emerging military challenges in the IOR are the good reason for India and the US to put their heads together. So when Verma, cautioning the audience at the USI against complacency said, “The history should not be a drag on the relationship,” he was probably making an incorrect point. History is passé, what matters is national interest. The Indo-US joint vision document should seek bilateral convergence in the maritime lanes of the IOR. The US wants this and is ready to work towards it. As always, India has to make up its mind.

Can India afford to have military threats on both the land and sea borders from China and Pakistan combined? If not, it should seriously consider a genuine strategic-plus partnership with the US something that India, a non-aligned nation, had done before the 1971 war with the Soviet Union. This suggestion will not be scoffed if India decides to understand military power and also sincerely work towards it. Relationships with nations much like military capabilities take years to build.


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