Testing diplomacy

Print edition : October 31, 2014

Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks after a meeting with the congressional leadership at Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on September 30. Photo: JIM WATSON/AFP

U.S. President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at a press conference in New Delhi on March 2, 2006, when they announced that they had agreed to the terms of an accord that would give India access to U.S. nuclear power technology. Photo: BLOOMBERG NEWS

THERE was much hype in India, particularly in the media and in New Delhi’s strategic community, around Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the United States in late September. It was not only because Modi was visiting the U.S. after a decade-long visa ban imposed on him for his failure as the Chief Minister of Gujarat to stop the communal riots of February 2002 but also because analysts expected that the visit would turn around Indo-U.S. ties that hit a low during the final months of the Manmohan Singh government. But the visit hardly stood up to these expectations. To be sure, Modi got a grand welcome at New York’s Madison Square Garden where close to 18,000 Indian Americans flocked to listen to him. But the outcome of the bilateral summit between Modi and President Barack Obama was less tangible. Both the vision document and the joint statement issued after the summit speak volumes about Indo-American partnership and the need to strengthen cooperation in different fields, but hardly offer a strategic road map to take the ties ahead in the face of bilateral and geopolitical challenges. There were also no big-ticket announcements, not even a Modi-Obama joint press conference.

Needless to say, the visit was a disappointing one for the strong advocates of Indo-U.S. strategic cooperation. India has been slowly moving closer to the U.S. since the 1990s. The nuclear deal reached between Manmohan Singh and President George W. Bush in 2005 was one of the defining moments of India’s tilt towards the West. Still, the pace at which India reoriented its foreign policy, which is historically anchored to the principle of non-alignment, was slower than what the pro-U.S. lobby in New Delhi expected. This is not because Indian policymakers did not want an immediate warming up to the U.S., but there were other challenges that delayed India’s pivot towards the West. Lisa Curtis, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, calls New Delhi’s approach towards Washington “standoffish”. In her paper titled “US-India relations: Are they still strategic?”, she discusses India’s strategic options to “maximise” its security in the complex post-Cold War global order.

Lisa Curtis’ paper is one of the 11 chapters in India-US Partnership: Asian Challenges and Beyond, edited by former diplomat P.P. Shukla, which helps one understand the challenges both nations face in upgrading their bilateral ties. The chapters, written by academics, and former and current civil servants such as Kawal Sibal and Ajit Doval, look at the strategic potential of Indo-U.S. ties through the Asian prism. Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had described India and the U.S. as “natural allies”. Obama had said that Manmohan Singh was his “guru”. And now, a joint opinion piece written by Obama and Modi in The Washington Post during the Indian Prime Minister’s visit calls for a “renewed U.S.-India partnership for the 21st century”. All these remarks point to a renewed push from both sides to take the ties to a higher level, but will it be a reality? The foreign policy of a nation is shaped not only by its leaders but also by several other factors, which include geopolitics and economic and security interests. Here, while there is no doubt that the leaders on both sides want enhanced ties, the question is whether other factors are in favour of an Indo-American strategic cooperation.

The China factor

Jeff M. Smith, in his chapter “The China factor in Indo-U.S. relations”, argues that China has always been an important defining factor of Indo-U.S. ties. When the first clashes erupted on the Sino-Indian border in 1959, the U.S. moved quickly to answer India’s appeal for aid. “By 1962, the U.S. had become… the largest provider of economic aid to India averaging some $75 million a year.” Though it refused to defend India during the border war of 1962, six months after the conflict, President John F. Kennedy told his Cabinet Secretaries that the U.S. would come to India’s defence if it was attacked again. “When Defence Secretary Robert McNamara replied that this would ‘require the use of nuclear weapons by the U.S.’, Kennedy responded: ‘We should defend India, therefore we will defend India’.”

But the U.S.’ policy priority was not stronger ties with India. When China fell out with the Soviet Union, the U.S. moved to persuade the Chinese to join hands with them against the Soviets. While U.S.-Chinese ties were improving after State Secretary Henry Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy, the Pakistani military was carrying out a brutal crackdown in the then East Pakistan (Bangladesh). China had already entered into a strategic partnership with Pakistan after the 1962 war. India wanted assurances from a super power before it intervened in East Pakistan. “In August 1971, it signed a mutual defence treaty with the Soviet Union,” writes Smith.

Since then and until the disintegration of the Soviet Union, New Delhi leaned towards Moscow, though its non-alignment policy gave it a diplomatic rationale and space for not joining any Soviet-led military alliance. The non-alignment policy was largely successful, writes Smith. “Delhi got conditions-free aid from the U.S. and USSR in times of need without ever having to make any formal commitments or much of substance in return. India won all the benefits of a superpower patron without incurring any of the costs or responsibilities.” But the end of the Cold War forced India to reorient its foreign policy doctrine. It started moving closer towards the U.S. But the first Clinton administration was hardly interested in India’s overtures. But by the late 1990s, the U.S. started looking at China as a future competitor, and therefore, turned towards India. “President Bill Clinton visited India in March 2000, a first by an American President in 22 years. This was cemented during the Kargil War, where America was seen to have backed the Indian position…,” writes Shukla in his chapter titled “The economic and political dynamics of the Asia-Pacific region”.

The U.S. is now keen on improving its ties with India. But this strategic embrace is conditional. It wants India to play a larger role in its strategic game plan for the East and the West Asian regions. India has already made great compromises in its policy to win the confidence of the U.S. It voted thrice against Iran, a traditional ally, at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). (After it voted against Iran in 2005 and 2006, Tehran cancelled a 25-year $22 billion liquefied natural gas deal with terms that were favourable to India.) India has also backed off from a gas pipeline project that would have shipped Iranian gas to India via Pakistan. But the U.S. wants more. It wants India to become a “strategic global partner”, perhaps similar to what Pakistan was for the U.S. during the Cold War. And until it gets such an assurance on this, the U.S. is unlikely to throw its strategic weight behind India. Its support for India’s United Nations Security Council (UNSC) membership bid is a case in point. The U.S. has said that it supports India’s bid, “without, however, taking any practical step so far to push for this at the international level”, writes Ambassador Sibal in his chapter, “Balance of power and Indo-US relations”.

To be sure, the U.S. is a major trade and defence partner for India. It is the second largest trade partner after China (bilateral merchandise trade stood at $61.64 billion in 2013-14, compared with $65.85 billion with China), and the largest defence supplier.

India also seeks larger investments from U.S. corporations as it is pushing for a private investment-driven development model at home, and wants better cooperation in Afghanistan whose stability is an imperative for India. But to achieve this, should India become a partner in the U.S.’ global strategic games?

Lisa Curtis says: “A close relationship with the U.S.—not a military alliance—will help India maintain its long-held tradition of exercising strategic autonomy…. This will deter the Chinese from pursuing a more aggressive posture towards India.” In the views of Sibal, India should have strategic autonomy but not “strategic confusion”. The former Foreign Secretary adds: “India should not appear to be rushing to embrace the U.S. strategy in Asia, though India’s need to put constraints on Chinese ambitions is greater than that of the U.S.” Sibal notes that the “diplomatic challenge” India faces is “very complex”. The Indo-U.S. cooperation faces both structural and peripheral challenges.

While the China factor and the U.S.’ continuing strategic relationship with Pakistan make up the structural challenges, India’s efforts to reassert itself economically—such as the passage of the nuclear liability law, issuance of compulsory licences to Indian generic drug-makers to manufacture patented drugs at lower prices, and the defence of subsidies at the World Trade Organisation—lead to the peripheral issues. Unless at least the peripheral issues are immediately addressed, a jump-start in Indo-U.S. ties looks improbable.

But the Modi government’s options are limited when it comes to addressing these two types of challenges. On the structural side, the Asian geopolitical landscape is changing fast, and India cannot afford to antagonise a rising China by joining the U.S. military bandwagon. China, on the other side, has indicated that it is ready to have stronger ties with India. Also, with the situation in Afghanistan far from stabilised, the U.S.’ strategic ties with Pakistan is set to continue, which means India’s concerns are unlikely to be accommodated by the U.S. in the near future. As Shukla notes, “America has never provided consistent backing to India” vis-a-vis Pakistan. On the peripheral side, any decision from the Indian government to end food subsidies or revoke the drug licences it issued to generic pharmaceutical companies will be highly unpopular, something which the new government is unlikely to consider immediately. No wonder, there was no major breakthrough in Modi’s U.S. visit.

The book generally advocates a measured approach towards this “very complex diplomatic challenge”. While the authors want India to go slow and with clarity in enhancing its ties with the U.S., they are more or less convinced that China poses a strategic threat to India. This theory is based on a post-Cold War mentality and will actually prevent India from unleashing the real potential of its foreign policy in a multilateral world. The world has changed a great deal since the end of the Cold War and is more dynamic now than what it was during the unipolar years.

There are three dominant trends in today’s international politics—a geopolitical contest in Asia between a rising China and a declining U.S.; a growing strategic competition between a resurgent Russia and its former rival, the U.S.; and efforts by developing nations to build institutions and alliances to strengthen multilateralism and thereby end the Western hegemony.

India should play its cards cautiously. It should get out of its post-Cold War mentality like the way it came out of the Cold War mentality, and put Asian security, stability and a multilateral global order not dominated by Western powers at the heart of its foreign policy doctrine, instead of allying with any super power. It is perhaps time for non-alignment 2.0.

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