The Arc of the India-US Partnership: Part 2

Analysis on the US-India relationship with regard to Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India’s own nuclear ambitions. Pragmatic thinking supports the government’s inclination to bring India and the US closer, though not at the cost of becoming subservient to the latter.

This is the second in a series of three articles. Read part 1 here.

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 Iran’s economic strangulation. Even on the central issue of Iran’s nuclear programme, India can hardly view the situation in as catastrophic a light as the US would want. The 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 India’s point of view as it directly affects India’s security, which the Iranian programme does not. India’s efforts to preserve the energy relationship with Iran have already become a contentious issue with the US. As long as the strategic visions of India and the US are not sufficiently aligned, the 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, the 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 whether 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 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 Nuclear Power Corporation of India (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 by anti-nuclear protests in India that threaten 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 what India can deliver 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 via its companies, and that failure to do so in time is grounds for grievance, would be a mistaken notion. Lack of progress should not cause the US to slow down the implementation of other steps envisaged to normalise India’s status as a responsible non-NPT nuclear power. The US can do this by making India a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), the Missile Technology Control Regime (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 India. India has refrained from making an issue of it to avoid differences with the US when after decades of contention, both countries have resolved their differences over India’s nuclear programme. India has also wanted to avoid a diplomatic dispute with Pakistan and 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 by 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 significant 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. 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 $2.4bn 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 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 the US exit strategy which is based on reconciliation with the Taliban provided the latter 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. Obfuscating the reality of what the Taliban represents in order to secure an orderly exit for the US 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. Whatever the likelihood of potential problems between the Taliban Pashtuns and Pakistan, India cannot manoeuvre in a Taliban-influenced political situation 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 one not vulnerable to manipulation to serve Pakistan’s anti-Indian obsessions. What India should worry about is a US-Pakistan deal that gives the Taliban a role in the Afghan political structure as a guarantee towards Pakistani cooperation during the US/NATO exit from Afghanistan. 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 that 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.

Read part 3 here.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

*[This article was originally published by Indian Defence Review.]

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