The Arc of the India-US Partnership: Part 3

Analysis on the US-India relationship with regard to China and eastern Asia. 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 third in a series of three articles. Read part 1 here and part 2 here.

The China Factor

The US has been exhorting India to move from a “Look East” policy to an “Engage East” policy. Now the call is for an “Act East” policy, in consonance with the presumed wishes of the south-east- and east Asian countries. In actual fact, India does not need such exhortation as its Look East policy has always meant engaging the East and acting in that direction. India’s trade and investment profile in south-east Asia has grown enormously; we have signed Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) or comprehensive economic partnership agreement (CEPAs) with ASEAN and individual countries such as Thailand, Singapore, Japan, and South Korea. India plays an active role in the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). It is part of the East Asia Summit where it intends to work closely with the US and others. If India’s eastwards activity does not match China’s, it is balanced by the fact that we are not perceived as a threat either.

As part of its eastward concerns, India has been conducting numerous naval exercises with the US to ensure the security of the sea-lanes of communication in the Indian Ocean through pass trade and energy supplies of China, Japan and South Korea. Naval exercises have been held in a larger format with Japan, Australia and Singapore. India has tried to engage the navies of south-east Asian countries to build goodwill in what are called the ‘Milan’ exercises. Now a decision has been taken to have tri-lateral exercises involving India, US, and Japan, as well as a tri-lateral dialogue amongst these three countries at the foreign office level. These are signs of a developing hedging strategy against the rise of a more economically and militarily muscled China that is already causing anxiety in the region with its claims in the South China Sea.

India supports the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, a position aligned to that of the US. India would support enhanced US presence in the Asia-Pacific, as a factor of stability and therefore, the pivot towards Asia announced by President Obama would be viewed without any misgiving. The US alone is in a position to exert pressure to contain China’s ambitions even as the profound American economic linkages with China as well as the US’s debilitating mistakes in West Asia feed these ambitions.

Yet here again, India has question marks in its mind about America’s China policy. Some flow from the unhealthy mutual financial and economic inter-dependence that has developed between the two countries. Too much is at stake in China for the US to risk a confrontation with that country. China is playing a subtle, long-term game of extracting the maximum it can from the relationship with the US until it steadily builds up its capacity to counter US power in Asia and beyond. It, therefore, takes in its stride US criticism of its human rights record and even while resorting to rhetoric, continues its systematic engagement of US political and economic circles.

US capacity to moderate China’s conduct is being steadily eroded and in time, as the power equations change in China’s favour, the US will have even less of a capacity to influence China’s behaviour. India will, therefore, have good reason not to allow its China relationship to deteriorate on account of some assumptions about US-China tensions, given the likelihood that US and China would work out mutual arrangements over the heads of others if the circumstances so warrant. If the US is obliged to engage China even as it develops hedging options as a precaution, India should be called upon to do likewise.

India must also take into account that its real problems with China are in South Asia, not in east Asia, with renewed strident Chinese claims on Indian territory, the lack of movement in border negotiations despite 15 rounds of talks at the level of Special Representatives, the questioning of India’s legal position in Jammu and Kashmir, the continued transfers of nuclear and missile technologies to Pakistan, Chinese presence in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir and its involvement in major infrastructural projects there even as China protests against the India-Vietnam agreement on oil exploration in the South China Sea and continues the militarisation of Tibet.

On these issues of strategic importance to India the US is silent. Not that India wants the US to intrude into these problems we have with China, though the US could have a clearer policy on the China-Pakistan nexus directed at India. On the contrary, the US seems to suggest that China is now behaving as a responsible nuclear power. In the past, the US has spoken of working together with China for peace and stability in South Asia, a thinking reiterated recently by Admiral Wilard. Xi Jinping, set to take over the reins from Hu Jintao, has noted in an interview in advance of his visit to the US in February that the China and the US have “actively coordinated” their policies in South Asia. India, on the other hand, sees China as a strategically disruptive power in South Asia. The US repeatedly endorses the principle of China’s territorial integrity, accepts Tibet as part of China, but does not support the principle of India’s territorial integrity or formally accepts Jammu and Kashmir as part of India, in deference to the sensitivities of Pakistan and China. The US expresses no view on the militarisation of Tibet that not only suppresses the Tibetans but threatens India’s security. Here there is a serious strategic gap in the relationship and bridging it will not be easy.

The US, as the world’s most powerful nation, is used to shaping the international environment in conformity with its values and interests. India has to live in an international environment shaped by others; it seeks changes but does not have the capacity to enforce them. The political configurations it is involved in - the RIC, BRICS, IBSA, the Group of four for the permanent membership of the Security Council - give it room to politically manoeuvre outside a framework dominated by the US/West but without altering the current balance of power. The US and some other western countries criticise India for being a freeloader in benefitting from the efforts that western powers put in to make the global system work, without sharing responsibility.

If India, as a rising power, is now being accommodated in leading global groupings, the expectation is that it will endorse the broad thrust of western policies. The assumption is that India must change its thinking and approach, and contribute to enlarging the consensus behind these policies, not that India’s views will be taken into account in modifying them. It is this assumption that explains the ire at India for its voting in the Security Council on Libya and Syria that has goaded some to question the rationale of US support for India’s permanent membership of the Security Council. India’s latest positive vote on Syria has, of course, earned favourable notice.

If India is asked to assume greater responsibility for upholding the international system, then some genuine attempt has to be made to remove its present deficiencies. Military intervention and the right to protect are products of mindsets habituated to the use of military power to advance national or alliance interests.

India’s rise invites attention from the developed world, but the challenges of development are enormous. Its interests converge as well as collide with the West. India has difficulties over US polices towards Iran and earlier towards Myanmar, not the least because the US has enlarged the geo-political space for China. Similarly, the US enlarged the space for religious extremism and terrorism in Asia by supporting the Islamists against the Soviets, adopting a soft posture towards the Taliban when they took over in Afghanistan and wanting to accommodate them even now, and overlooking Pakistan’s use of terror at the state level and its clandestine nuclear programme that today gives Pakistan the confidence and capacity to defy the US even when vital US stakes are involved.

On the economic side, US exports to India have increased rapidly; the US is India’s largest economic partner as an individual country, though purely in terms of trade in goods China has become our largest partner to some discomfiture of policy makers and specific sectors of the economy in view of the mounting trade deficit and commercial practices of Chinese companies. The US is pressing for further reforms of the Indian economy, especially in the financial, retail and labour sectors. India will move at its own pace because of the limitations of its system, coalition government, domestic distractions and slow decision-making in the government. On climate change and WTO-related issues, India and the US have differences but these are not bilateral issues and should not be allowed to become one.

To sum up, the report card of the Indo-US partnership is a mixed one. The strategic relationship has to be imparted greater content. The backlog of past misunderstandings is being steadily removed. Anti-US political opinion and instincts exist but they are now secondary. There is general goodwill for the US though some aspects of US policies continue to cast a shadow on the relationship. The main drivers of the relationship on the Indian side are the acceptance that the relationship is vital and that no other relationship can substitute for it in its entirety; the people-to-people relationship is unmatched; educational linkages are very important; the India-American community is a positive force; India has hopes for access to high technology. On the US side, India’s large market, its human potential, shared values and the China factor are driving elements, but India figures less prominently in US calculations than the US does in India’s external relations.

The major constraints are a mismatch between US interests and priorities as a global power and India’s as a regional power; outdated conditionalities linked to arms supplies, the negative activity of American non-proliferation die-hards, the complexity of export controls especially on dual technology items, US desire to shape the Indian system to suit the requirements of its companies, which is a long-term exercise. Others relate to policies towards Pakistan and on issues of terrorism and religious extremism as well as uncertainties about the end game in Afghanistan, in particular a deal with the Taliban brokered by Pakistan.

The India-US relationship is supposedly strategic but it is being judged too much on a transactional basis especially by what India can now deliver to the US in return for the nuclear deal, forgetting that the deal was highly controversial in India. US limitations in conducting its China policy even when it pivots towards the Asia-Pacific keeping the future China threat in mind are factors India has to keep in mind. The declining US economic strength and its inward pre-occupations are other constraints on US policies.

In the next decade or beyond, much will depend on how the US reforms its economic and political functioning to give a new élan to the country; the general belief is that the reserves of US strength will surface even though the US will not be in a position to dictate as much as before. It is important that the liberal international order underpinned by the US remains intact with needed reforms; undiluted by the authoritarian Chinese model.

The eventual India-US model of partnership will neither be that of US-Britain, US-Japan or US-France. India is neither a historical ally like the UK nor is it a fractious one like France, and it is not security dependent as Japan. India will seek to maintain its independence in decision-making as much as possible but also seek convergence with the US. It will be a unique model as India is sui generis and the US believes in its own exceptionalism.

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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