Salaam, Washington

Navigating the nuances of the Indo-US relationship.

Much has been written about the impetus being given to the Indo-US partnership in the context of the strategic dialog between Secretary Clinton and Mr. Krishna in Washington, D.C.  For her part, Mrs. Clinton has tried to stay on message, terming Indo-US relations an “affair of the heart, not just of the head.”

As a precursor to the SM Krishna–Clinton moot, U.S. Under Secretary for Political Affairs William Burns spoke at the Council for Foreign Relations on Indo-US relations, attempting to dispel the notion that the Obama administration had “downgraded” ties with India or that the U.S. was attempting to “re-hyphenate” its relations with India and Pakistan.  Truth be told, while U.S. articulations are perhaps needed to temper the noise being generated by sections of the media, they may not have been altogether necessary for those studying Indo-US relations in the context of a rapidly changing world.  And despite the statements made by Secretary Clinton and Mr. Burns, a few points need elaboration.

First, while there is broad, bipartisan consensus on expanding Indo-US ties in the United States (a rarity in and of itself), there are differences on the specifics of what this should entail and how they should be operationalized. The Obama administration defines this partnership within the constructs of leveraging India’s growing global economic profile to tackle regional and global issues — climate change, nuclear non-proliferation, energy and trade security and ensuring checks and balances to China’s ambitions in the Indian Ocean.  In this respect, Mr. Burns’ comments on dialog between India and the U.S. on East- and Southeast Asia is important.

Second, it is important for India to understand the limits to this engagement, at least as far as the Obama administration is concerned.  Some of these limits are imposed by ideology and some by compulsion.  While sharing India’s concerns on jihadi terrorism emanating from Pakistan, the U.S., however, is constrained by its own involvement in the region and on how much it can prod Pakistan into taking any meaningful action on terror originating from its soil. The Obama administration is similarly unable to engage with India in a manner that would appear provocative to China.  And many will argue that given China’s importance to India’s own economy, neither would India.

What this means for India is that it cannot expect the U.S. alone to fully address its security concerns in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the larger region.  The folly of throwing your lot in with a singular power should be more apparent to India now than ever before. Affairs of the heart notwithstanding, securing India’s strategic interests in the region must be driven through multilateral engagement with like-minded regional actors, and not by blind faith in any one power.  In this regard, working with the Russians and Iranians on balancing power equations in Afghanistan is imperative.  It remains to be seen if Mr. Krishna’s recent visit to Iran helped in arresting New Delhi’s diminishing goodwill in Tehran.

Next, on defense procurement, India must be clear about where its defense gaps are best addressed by technical expertise possessed by U.S. companies and must resist the temptation to be over-enthusiastic in trying to please Washington.  Across the services, our weapons are primarily of Russian origin and there isn’t an immediate need to drastically alter this.  Russia is able to offer Indian defense companies opportunities that perhaps the U.S. is unable to — from Technology Transfer Agreements (TTAs) to joint production.  However, U.S. technology and systems can play a pivotal role in the development of India’s power projection capabilities –  from refuellers to transport and surveillance aircraft — and it is here that a meaningful and mutually beneficial partnership can be forged.

That the Obama administration appears to be redoubling efforts to engage with India is encouraging (providing access to David Headley is an important first step); but this is no different from either the Clinton or George W. Bush administrations in their initial years, where preoccupation with the economy and the war on terror allowed for limited bandwidth on Indo-US relations.  This has, in the past, resulted in the necessity to “re-boot” (to borrow an IT expression) Indo-US relations each time a new president took the oath of office in the White House.

Even today, U.S.’s India policy is being driven by people who are not India-experts; indeed, officials in the Obama administration charged with policy formulation and operational aspects relating to Indo-US relations are mostly either experts on East Asian affairs or on Af-Pak.  As India and the U.S. aim to significantly upgrade co-operation on regional and global issues, U.S. administrations must ensure that their India policy teams are appropriately staffed.  Neither India nor the U.S. can afford the extended learning curve each time a new administration comes into office.

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