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Engaging America

September 11, 2010 by  
Filed under Analysis, foreign policy, geopolitics

India and America, the two vibrant democracies of the world, should be the best of friends under any given global geopolitical scenario. The two are separated by two oceans and have no geographic worries to take care of. The rapid improvement in Indo-American relations over the last ten years has often led commentators to speak of the world’s two largest democracies as natural “allies” or even “natural friends”. “Obamania” can be expected to strengthen these hopes still further.

Their is a congruence in both the countries regarding their strategic interests in the Middle East, Central Asia and increasingly Southeast Asia, in contrast to India’s traditional misgivings about the US military presence in Asia. Both countries oppose having a single power dominate Asia, and both are carefully watching a rising China.

This though is not without attendant misgivings in the relationship. Many India watchers, argue for an Indian quid pro quo to US benevolence, if any. These questions are once again being raised in informed circles about the future of an enduring strategic relationship between India and America. While discussing the “Strategic Dialogue” we had argued that the dynamics of Indo US relations pass through China.

Ashley Tellis articulates in an article by him that to the degree that the American partnership with India aids New Delhi in growing more rapidly, it contributes – along with Japanese, Australian, and Southeast Asian power – towards creating those objective structural constraints that discourage China from abusing its own growing capabilities , even as Washington preserves good relations with Beijing and encourages all its Asian partners to do the same. American strategic generosity towards India, thus, remains an investment in its own geopolitical well being. And India’s success itself, so long as it is not used to undermine America’s vital interests, becomes New Delhi’s strategic bequest to Washington-and the answer to the question , “What will India give in return?”

Bhadra Kumar in a post strategic dialogue piece articulated that the intensity of US-China traffic was in sharp contrast with the virtual absence of high-level political exchanges between the Indian leadership and Obama. So much so that the former director for South Asia in the National Security Council in the George W Bush administration, Xenia Dormandy, penned an article on Wednesday in The Christian Science Monitor precisely focusing attention on the subject.Dormandy played a key role in coordinating the July 2005landmark visit of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to the US that led to the new US-India strategic relationship. Titled somewhat exaggeratedly – “India: America’s indispensable ally” – her article made an impassioned plea that “Obama’s team would be wise not to forget it [India]“. Dormandy pointed out that in foreign policy, “[The] Obama administration has started with a full sprint. Between the financial crisis and events in Afghanistan, Iran and Russia, and elsewhere, it’s had to. But in rushing ahead to confront one crisis after another, it risks forgetting a crucial friend: India.”

Indian policy, especially during the term of the Bush Government, had been predicated on the assumption that the “containment” of China had been, is and will for the foreseeable future be the cornerstone of the US’s Asian strategy. As a result, the US accorded a unique, enduring status to India as a “counterweight” to China and as a “balancer” in the international system.In the initial stages of Obama’s presidency, American shift from the Bush era were dominant including issues such as outsourcing and statements on Kashmir to placate Pakistan.

The answer points in one direction: the China syndrome.

The unacknowledged, delicate geopolitical reality is that Beijing has always been the silent third party to the US-India “strategic partnership” during the past decade.

The clock seems to have reversed since the strategic dialogue after full impact of Chinese designs in controlling the “two seas” were absorbed by the administration. In her post titled “Partnership of Democracies”, Ms Clinton stressed upon the need for the two countries to come together on a range of issues

“India as an Asian power, and a secure, prosperous Asia is critical to a secure, prosperous world. The US wants to work with India to create an open and inclusive regional architecture that makes it possible for all countries in Asia to rise and prosper. Toward that vision, we are called to promote trade, protect vital sea lanes and respond to natural disasters. “

What though remained unsaid to be interpreted was to negate the rising influence of China on the two seas US needed India’s cooperation and support. Obama in his Dinner speech reiterated the importance of India in the global equation:

“The United States and India are building a strategic partnership that is under- pinned by our shared interests, our shared values as the world’s two largest democracies, and close connections among our people. India’s responsible advancement serves as a positive example for developing nations, and provides an opportunity for increased economic, scientific, environmental, and security partnership. Working together through our Strategic Dialogue and high-level visits, we seek a broad-based relationship in which India contributes to global counterterrorism efforts, nonproliferation, and helps promote poverty- reduction, education, health, and sustainable agriculture. We value India’s growing leadership on a wide array of global issues, through groups such as the G-20, and will seek to work with India to promote stability in South Asia and elsewhere in the world.”

American interests in the ASEAN are of significant importance to the west in countering the now assertive Chinese signature in the region. Shyam Saran opines that the ASEAN search for an appropriate regional security architecture in which the regional association retains its pivotal role, has led to the establishment of the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus Eight (ADMM+8) forum, the first meeting of which will be convened in Hanoi in October this year. This forum will have ASEAN plus the six members of the East Asia Summit — China, Japan, the Republic of Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand — and now the US and Russia as key stakeholders. Interestingly enough, there is a parallel move to expand the East Asia Summit to include the US and Russia as well. At a subsequent Asia-Pacific Round Table in Kuala Lumpur, there was much talk about the need to have an “open, inclusive and multi-layered” economic and security architecture in the region. India too has an important role to play here.

G Parthashastry claims that India must engage this opportunity to take the relationship to the next level by addressing other concerns also viz the existing sanctions on the Indian defence research and space organisations. A strategic partnership can have little meaning if such sanctions persist.

Harsh Pant argued that India needed to get more emphatic in its relationship wth US in an article in June after the Strategic Dialogue. According to him, “the Bush years were tough act to follow but the Obama administration has made some diplomatic gaffes that were clearly avoidable. New Delhi should be looking beyond rhetoric and should resist getting flattered by the atmospherics. It should not be afraid to raise issues that have complicated Indian ties with the Obama administration over the last year and a half.

Then there are suspicions on both sides as per an article in WPR, ” This flowery rhetoric(post Strategic Dialogue) masks the complex realities of what has been and continues to be a testy relationship between Washington and New Delhi. Even today, Indians worry that the United States is cozying up to Pakistan and China at their expense, while some in Washington charge that India is too caught up with its “neighborhood” concerns to assert its influence on the world stage. If the two countries hope to forge a stronger partnership in the 21st century, they will have to navigate past sharp disagreements and bridge wide perception gaps.


Most significantly, for this strategic dialogue to have any meaning, India will have to first figure out what it wants out of its relationship with the US. For far too long it is the US that has driven Indo-US relationship. It is now time for India to get some clarity on its strategic agenda.

Then there are the aspects of regional security concerning Af Pak policy and America’s stand on Indian role inAfghanistan. It is a tight rope walk here and US has to clearly take India on board in a future regional solution to the Afghanistan imbroglio. Obama may take a swipe at the big ticket issue of Water as a back door entry to the vexed Indo Pakistan quagmire, if hawks in India give in. However, US can not afford to pit India and Pakistan against each other for the favoured nation status.

Geographically, China controls the region and relationships and is spreading its rail, road and port systems to reach out to the Mediterranean, beat the Malacca Straits Dilemma and dominate the African continent in its search for resources. Iran and North Korea apart from Taiwan are thorns  US finds tough to deal with – with China asserting itself on all these counts. The Chinese Navy may still not be blue water but given time (20 -30 Years), it would have built, trained and operationalised this capability to challenge US in the IOR. The ‘all weather” Sino Pakistan relations are also working to the advantage of China against US and Indian interests in the region. America is seized of these issues and wants a lasting solution.

Of course then we have Russia – a trusted and reliable partner of India viewed with suspicion by America. India would do well to remember that at a time like this “old friends” can not be sidelined.

On the flip side, America has a dubious track record on the security dimensions in the region, especially after the first Afghan war. If the US had not dumped Afghanistan then, Taliban may not have come to power and 9/11 may never have happened. The plug and play relationship with Pakistan has a lot to teach India beyond the rhetoric of the visit.

Notwithstanding the rigours and strains of the past, Obama and Man Mohan Singh will have to evolve a meaningful relationship borne out of mutual trust and respect. Obama could also give a lesson or two to our parliamentarians while he is at it! Sumit Ganguly has a set of paradoxes defined in this article in WSJ.

Once Obama is gone India should have a decent enough quid pro quo from a position of understanding without underpinning too many hopes on the outcome of the visit – and least of all in vectoring Indian security paradigms in the sub continent.

In sum, the relationship between the two countries will have to be a compromise of a large number of their stated stands on these subjects. Both the leaders would do well to invest time and energy to lay the groundwork for future economic, military and global aspirations in an environment conducive to furtherance of the larger aim of peace and stability in the region.

The West in the meanwhile will have to consider what position to adopt towards this dynamic relationship between two great powers, which – together or alternatively with China – will exercise a significant influence on world politics, shifting the focus increasingly onto the Asian-Pacific region instead of the transatlantic region.

As we were posting this came the Indian Express article quoting a plea to US by Lisa Curtis – Restrain China. “The US should keep close tabs on the simmering Sino-India border friction and continue with plans to enhance US-India defense cooperation, through coordinated maritimesecurity programmes, joint military exercises, and defense trade deals that assist India in accessing advanced military technology,”  - a good pitch!

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6 Responses to “Engaging America”
  1. Atul Lele says:

    Af Pak, China and Iran are three issues on which India and America have to find congruence to take the relationship further.

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