In the run up to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Mattis’ visit to Delhi for the 2+2 Dialogue, I was watching a multi-panelist news debate where one of the participants (I think he was affiliated with an opposition party) began to criticize the ruling party for its US policy. He used the very familiar talking points noting that India needs to maintain its strategic autonomy, why is Modi so accommodative of the US, the US cannot be trusted, the relationship is uneven with Washington having the upper hand, look at how the US is going after India on trade issues while still maintaining ties with Pakistan, and so on.
It’s worth noting though that I’ve heard the same complaints from those outside the political-left too. I’ve found that while many times the view is politically influenced, there are those who have a conspiratorial view of the US. After hearing these complaints for years, I thought it may prudent to provide the counter-narrative and something to think about.
First, to those who say closer ties with the US undermines India’s autonomy, I would ask them what they think of India’s proximity to Russia throughout the Cold War. Because lets be honest, despite the rhetoric of being non-aligned, India was very much aligned with Moscow on numerous issues. If the answer is that India had no choice given its interests and the global reality of the time, then what’s different now? If near ally like ties with Moscow in the 1970s was necessary for India’s interest, and no one saw that as contradicting India’s need for independence, and if proximity with the US is also beneficial for India now, then there is no room for citing “autonomy” as a reason to distance the country from the US or hindering closer ties.
Even US policy makers understand and appreciate India’s need for independence, thus why they too do not bring up the “alliance” word, ever. But the pursuit of autonomy should not become so ideological that it gets in the way of sound policy making, relationship developing, and India’s longer-term interests. In other words, real politik needs to make space for both autonomy and advancing India’s needs through strong partnerships, the US included.
Second, lets be clear about whether this is actually an uneven relationship. There is a view in some sections of the polity that the US demands, demands, demands, and gives nothing in return. They cite India’s rapid increase of US weapons. That’s a fair point, India has increased its purchases and the US should recognize this as its not easy for India to just turn away from Russian weapons.
But the US policy towards India has come a long, long way since the Cold War and “hyphenation-policy” days of the 1990s. My goal is not to absolve the US of any blame, or make it appear to be completely altruistic, but to simply note some additive counter-points.
In recent years, the US has paved the way for a civil nuclear deal, which was not easy within US policy circles as it required the administration to address why this was in the interest of US taxpayers and citizens, why India was being given this carve out, and why politicians should back a deal that went against the spirit of UN agreements. The US also lobbied the world to have India admitted into the Nuclear Suppliers Group, was one of the first to back India’s entry into the United Nations Security Council, has ramped up its rhetoric against Pakistan, unilaterally named India a “major defense partner,” has noted that it is willing to supply just about any level of defense technology that it otherwise gives to allies without India having to be an official ally, and has essentially approved the shifting of fighter jet assembly lines to India. The US has done things for India it has not for other nations.
So, to say the US has not done anything, is a bit short of facts. If anything, concerns of unevenness may percolate in the US, if it begins to feel that this heavy lifting is not transpiring into any momentum on the Indian side, and begins to ask what India has done for the US lately.
If the counter-argument is that India is weary of the US because Washington gone after trade with India and continues to maintain ties with Pakistan, while this is understanding, we should explore two sub-points.
No relationship will be devoid of disagreements, just look at the US ties with the UK, Australia, and Japan. Inevitably, there will be some sticking points and given how aggressive the current administration has been with its own allies on trade, India does not have it bad at all. Furthermore, its not as if India and Russia have not had their own issues, e.g plans to jointly develop a fighter which ran aground. So, if commentators want to use trade disagreements as a reason to question the US, can the same not be applied to India’s relationship with Russia?
Also, asking the US to completely abandon Pakistan is unrealistic. Again, the evolution of US policy towards Islamabad has come a long way. But US troops are still in Afghanistan, and whether anyone likes it or not, the road to Afghanistan cuts through Pakistan. By revoking all aid to Pakistan, and raising questions around an IMF bailout of Pakistan, the US has sent a clear signal, which could result in significant strategic blowback. Just like India needs to maintain ties with Iran despite global pressure, the US needs to have some linkages with Pakistan.
The point is not that India should roll over to the US. India rightfully needs to maintain its independence and a policy that best suits its needs. At times that will translate to working with the US and accepting its requests, and at times it will require India to rebuff the US. A true partnership is one of maturity where both sides can disagree at times but understand the broader benefits of the relationship. Accordingly, India’s relationship with the US should not be dictated by those who have either set inconsistent rules for engagement, sets a different standard, or fails to recognize that the US has done things for India that have not been easy. This is imperative because if ideological voices crowd out others, then the broader relationship could be at risk, and India’s real interests will not be met.
Shailesh Kumar is director, South Asia at Washington-based Eurasia Group and analyses political and economic risks and developments in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.
First Published: IST