Brahma Chellaney, India Abroad, June 10, 2016
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has built a personal rapport with U.S. President Barack Obama, and his fourth visit to the U.S. in less than two years highlights warming Indo-American relations. Few doubt that U.S.-India ties are better and closer than ever before. From being estranged democracies in the second half of the 20th century, the U.S. and India have become closely engaged democracies.
Besides a shared love of democracy, three elements drive the U.S.-India strategic partnership: money, military hardware, and Asian geopolitics. Their partnership promises to be a force for stability and security in the Indo-Pacific relations.
The blossoming of ties with the U.S. has become an important diplomatic asset for India. The new warmth in relations, however, has failed to ease Indian concerns over America’s regional policies, including on Pakistan, Afghanistan and terrorism, or address complaints of Indian information technology and pharmaceutical industries about U.S. practices, especially non-tariff barriers.
For the U.S., displacing Russia as India’s largest arms supplier has been a diplomatic coup. The success paralleled what happened in the early 1970s when Egypt switched sides during the Cold War by transforming itself from a Soviet arms client to a buyer of mainly American arms. But in contrast to the perpetually aid-dependent Egypt, India buys U.S. weapons with its own money.
Today, Washington is seeking to further open the Indian market for its businesses. And to suit U.S. corporate interests, it is pressing New Delhi to introduce regulatory and other legal changes, strengthen intellectual-property rights provisions, and initiate broader economic reforms.
Not content with the growth in arms sales — which have risen in one decade from $100 million to billions of dollars yearly — America is aiming to capture a bigger share of the Indian defense market. This objective has prompted its Congress recently to propose that India be treated on par with NATO members for defense sales. The U.S. is also seeking to revive its domestic nuclear power industry by selling commercial reactors to India.
India’s size, location and capabilities position it as a counterweight to China and to the forces of Islamist extremism to its west. Yet, as Obama nears the end of his second term, his India policy bears no distinct strategic imprint. Indeed, critics argue that he has no real Indian policy and that his administration has betrayed a transactional attitude toward engagement with India.
Although Obama’s 2015 New Delhi visit set a firm basis for moving the bilateral relationship forward, it was striking that, on his trip’s last public engagement, he lectured the world’s largest democracy on human rights. This was a subject on which he stayed mum at his next stop — tyrannical Saudi Arabia, which probably has the world’s most odious political system.
The complexity of the U.S.-India partnership is underlined by the fact that the U.S. has little experience in forging close strategic collaboration with a country that is not its treaty-based ally. All of America’s close military partners are its treaty-linked allies. India is a strategic partner, not an ally, of America.
The structural difficulties in India-US relations are not easy to overcome. From the Indian perspective, America’s reluctance to accommodate Indian interests on major regional issues, coupled with the fundamental challenge of managing an asymmetrical relationship, constantly test the resilience of the partnership.
For example, close counter-terrorism and intelligence cooperation between the U.S. and India remains hobbled by America’s continued mollycoddling of the Pakistani military and its rogue Inter-Services Intelligence agency. There are doubts whether the U.S. would fully share actionable intelligence on terrorist threats emanating from Pakistani soil against India because that would prompt India to pursue one of two options that Washington wouldn’t like — either India counteracted the identified threat on its own or urged the U.S. to do it.
Meanwhile, strategic weapon transfers, loans and political support allow China to use Pakistan as a relatively inexpensive counterweight to India. Yet, oddly, America also extends unstinted financial and political support to a Pakistan that has mastered the art of pretending to be a U.S. ally while hosting those that kill U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, including the Taliban and the Haqqani network. Under Obama, the U.S. has made a financially struggling Pakistan one of the largest recipients of its aid.
Take India’s other adversary, China, which also poses a geopolitical challenge for America. Both the U.S. and India are keen to work together to control the potentially disruptive effects of the rise of an increasingly assertive China.
The U.S., however, seeks to use the China factor to draw India further into the American-led camp while remaining neutral on China-India disputes, including shying away from holding joint military exercises in Arunachal Pradesh. Washington has not criticized China’s $46-billion infrastructure-building plan to use Pakistan as its land corridor to the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. It also ignores China’s egregious human-rights violations.
The U.S. seeks to counter China only where it directly challenges American power, as in the Pacific. In southern Asia, by contrast, U.S. policy regards China as a virtual partner, including on Pakistan and Afghanistan.
In Afghanistan, Washington treats terror-exporting Pakistan as part of the solution when, to Kabul and New Delhi, it is at the core of the problem.
On the other hand, the U.S. views Iran as part of the problem in the Af-Pak belt when the imperative is to co-opt Iran as part of the solution to help build stability in the volatile, terrorist-infested region.
Despite the U.S. recently assassinating Afghan Taliban chief Mullah Akhtar Mansour through a drone strike in Pakistan’s Balochistan province, Washington does not consider the Pakistan-backed Taliban as a terrorist organization. It is willing, as part of a peace deal, to accommodate the Afghan Taliban in a power-sharing arrangement in Afghanistan. It assassinated Mansour because he defiantly and doggedly refused, despite U.S. and Pakistani pressures, to enter into peace negotiations.
The assassination, ironically, exposes both Pakistan and America. The fact that the Taliban chief was killed inside Pakistan has contradicted years of denials by Pakistani officials that they were harboring Taliban leaders. Pakistan found its sovereignty violated again, after the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011, by the power that still showers it with billions of dollars in aid.
As for the U.S., it has yet to offer an explanation as to why it took almost 15 years to carry out its first drone strike in Pakistan’s Balochistan province, even though the Afghan Taliban leadership set up its command-and-control structure there after being driven from power in Kabul by the 2001 U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan.
Against this background, no realistic assessment can focus merely on areas where the U.S.-India relationship has thrived — such as U.S. arms sales to India and booming bilateral trade — while ignoring U.S. policies that compound India’s regional security challenges.
In fact, India’s one-sided defense relationship with the U.S., locking it as a leading American arms client, suggests that New Delhi has drawn no appropriate lessons from its protracted reliance on Russian weapon supplies earlier. Significantly, while U.S. arms to India fall mainly in the category of defensive weapons — which simply cannot tilt the regional military balance in India’s favor — Russia has over the years armed India with offensive weapon systems, including strategic bombers, an aircraft carrier, and a nuclear-powered submarine.
The paradox is that while India has emerged as the largest buyer of American arms, Pakistan is one of the biggest recipients of American alms. This suggests that U.S. profits from arms exports to India help to lubricate America’s aid-to-Pakistan machine. Such U.S. aid also bolsters China’s strategy to box in India while encouraging Pakistan to diabolically sponsor cross-border terrorism.
It is the task of Indian diplomacy to build a robust bilateral relationship while ensuring that it advances, not weakens, the country’s security interests in the region and beyond.
Indian diplomacy has failed to employ leverage from arms-import deals, greater market access to U.S. businesses, and broader geopolitical cooperation to persuade the U.S. to refine policies in southern Asia so that they do not adversely affect Indian security and to dismantle non-tariff barriers against Indian IT and pharmaceutical firms.
Indeed, New Delhi has not even tried to utilize the services of the large and increasingly influential Indian American community. The mistake Indian diplomacy has made is to put the emphasis on bilateral summit meetings and lofty pronouncements to showcase progress. The American side has been happy to pander to this Indian weakness.
In fact, one reason the U.S. is hosting Modi in the twilight of the Obama presidency is to help smooth ruffled feathers. After all, Obama earlier this year unveiled $860 million in new aid to Pakistan under the Overseas Contingency Operations fund, dubbed the “slush fund” because it is not subject to the same oversight as the regular Pentagon and state department budgets. Additionally, he decided to reward Pakistan with eight more subsidized F-16s, a subsidy burden the U.S. Congress hasn’t taken kindly.
Moreover, ever since the 2005 nuclear deal, Washington has been promising to help facilitate India’s admission to the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the Missile Technology Control Regime, and other U.S.-led export-control regimes — a promise reiterated when Obama last visited India. However, the U.S. has invested little political capital thus far to promote India’s inclusion in these cartels. An emboldened China has now emerged as the principal opponent to India’s membership, especially in the NSG.
And thanks to MTCR-related criteria in U.S. export-control regulations, Indo-U.S. space cooperation remains very limited.
In this light, the nice gesture of setting up Modi’s address to the U.S. Congress can be seen as an American attempt to pander to India’s collective ego. India must capitalize on the symbolism of the warming ties with the U.S. to expand the areas of bilateral understanding and cooperation while nudging America to be more accommodative of its vital strategic interests.
The promise of a strong, mutually beneficial partnership cannot be realized without concrete action.
Brahma Chellaney — Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi think-tank Center for Policy Research in New Delhi and a Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin — is one of India’s leading strategic thinkers.
© India Abroad, 2016.