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Moving closer

Print edition : Jul 13, 2012 T+T-
Indian and U.S. soldiers participate in the Yudh Abhyas 2012 military exercise at Mahajan in the Rajasthan sector on March 13.-SAM PANTHAKY/AFP

Indian and U.S. soldiers participate in the Yudh Abhyas 2012 military exercise at Mahajan in the Rajasthan sector on March 13.-SAM PANTHAKY/AFP

High-level visits, joint statements, war games and strategic dialogue point to a growing India-U.S. relationship on the military and other fronts.

Relations between India and the United States seem to be going from strength to strength if high-level visits and joint statements are anything to go by. In recent weeks, the U.S. Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defence were in India. This was followed by the third U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue in Washington in the second week of June. The Strategic Dialogue, now an annual event, is a reflection of the extremely close ties that have developed between the two sides since the signing of the landmark nuclear agreement in 2008. External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna led Indias high-level ministerial delegation to the Strategic Dialogue. Indian officials said that a gamut of issues were up for discussion, ranging from education to the promotion of democracy.

The main purpose of the Strategic Dialogue was to further enhance military and strategic ties between the two countries. Nancy Powell, the U.S. Ambassador designate to India, said that the U.S. expected to sell $8 billion worth of arms to India in the coming years. As the U.S. pivots militarily to the Asia Pacific, an important role is being assigned to India. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta described India as the linchpin in the American strategy of rebalancing towards the Asia Pacific.

At the Shangri-La meet in Singapore in early June, which was attended by Panetta and Indian Defence Minister A.K. Antony, both sides expressed a similarity of views. Both Panetta and Antony stressed the freedom of navigation in the Asia-Pacific region. China, embroiled in territorial disputes with its pro-U.S. neighbours, suspects that the new U.S. strategy is to convert the South China Sea into a U.S. lake and control key choke points such as the Malacca Straits, through which most of the oil it imports is transported.

American waiver

But what grabbed international headlines was the American decision not to penalise India and close U.S. allies such as Japan, South Korea and Turkey for continuing to import oil from Iran despite the Washington-imposed sanctions on that country. The decision was announced by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton just before the start of the Strategic Dialogue. She said the countries were being granted waivers from financial sanctions for significantly reducing their oil imports from Iran. Hillary Clinton said the announcement underscored the success of the Obama administrations sanctions policy against Iran.

Since the Obama administrations draconian sanctions against Iran, India significantly scaled down its economic ties with Iran. From being one of Indias biggest suppliers of crude, Iran is now in the third place, after Saudi Arabia and Iraq. In the third week of June, the U.S. State Department, however, clarified that the waiver was valid only for a month. The Obama administration will continue to keep a strict watch over Indias dealings with Iran.

China, along with Singapore, was among the countries not given an exemption. China imports a fifth of its oil from Iran. This oil is blended in Singapores refineries. The U.S. has only threatened sanctions against China, but given the interdependent nature of economic relations between the U.S. and China and the perilous nature of the world economy, it is unlikely that the U.S. will take action against the Chinese banking sector. Singapore is a close political and military ally of the U.S., besides being a key international trading entrepot.

Indian officials insisted that they did not ask for an American waiver and claimed that U.S. pressure had very little to do with the sharp reduction of import of oil from Iran. They claimed that the decision to look for oil from other countries was dictated by strategic calculations and market forces.

Trilateral talks

The second important development was the signing of an agreement between the U.S. and India to hold regular trilateral talks involving Afghanistan. For some time U.S. officials have wanted India to play a bigger role in the training of Afghan security forces as American military forces prepare to leave the country in 2014. Both the U.S. and India already have separate strategic agreements with Afghanistan.

According to reports appearing in the American media, it was the sharp deterioration of the U.S ties with Pakistan that prompted the Obama administration to rope in India. The U.S. evidently hopes that India will act as a counterweight to Pakistan in the post-2014 scenario in Afghanistan.

On June 14, Pakistan Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani said that the government of Afghanistan was his countrys most important partner. Pakistans worst-case scenario is an increased Indian footprint in Afghanistan, which it considers its backyard. Until 2010, the U.S., on Pakistans request, had agreed to keep India out of conferences involving Afghanistans immediate neighbours. With relations between Washington and Islamabad going downhill since then, New Delhis role in Afghanistan was given more importance by the Obama administration. At the Strategic Dialogue, the role of Pakistan in Afghanistan was disparaged, with U.S. officials highlighting Islamabads role in harbouring and supporting terrorists.

The joint statement issued after the conclusion of the dialogue reiterated that success in Afghanistan and regional and global security require elimination of safe havens and infrastructure for terrorism and violent extremism in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In 2011, India was invited to a conference in Turkey attended by Afghanistans neighbours.

New Delhi is also hosting, in late June, an international conference whose objective is to encourage investments in Afghanistan. Pakistan has been given an invitation. Speaking in Washington, S.M. Krishna said the new agreement on Afghanistan had a security component. Security would certainly form an important segment, he told the media.

Panetta, during his recent visit to New Delhi, raised the issue of increased Indian involvement in Afghanistan. In a speech delivered at the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), he stressed the need to further deepen the military relationship between the two countries. He declared that the two countries had opened a new chapter in their relationship and expressed his confidence that the new relationship would become more strategic, more practical and more collaborative.

India has been involved in infrastructure projects in Afghanistan and has given $2 billion as development aid to the war-ravaged country. India has been very supportive of the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan and was initially apprehensive about the consequences of the American troop withdrawal from the country.

During his visit to the subcontinent, Panetta harped on the point that his countrys patience with Pakistan was fast running out. The Defence Secretary was not at all apologetic about the drone strikes that the U.S. had unleashed on the hapless residents of Afghanistan and Pakistan. New Delhi seems prepared to play along with Washington to an extent, but Indian officials insist that there is no question of any physical deployment of troops in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of the Western forces.

Other countries, too, are keen to play a big role in Afghanistan after 2014. At the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in June, member-countries pledged to play a bigger role in Afghanistan. Chinese President Hu Jintao, who hosted the summit in Beijing, said the SCO would play a bigger role in the peaceful reconstruction of Afghanistan. Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who was present at the summit, said China would play a very significant role in bringing Afghanistan and Pakistan together to jointly fight the war against terror and extremism.

The India card

Robert Grenier, a retired senior official of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and an expert on South Asia, wrote that Panettas gambit in New Delhi is merely a new form of coercion against Pakistan. Grenier observed that Americas strategic relationships with Israel and India have more in common than is often appreciated. The U.S., he said, was cautious of the practical use to which its alliance with Israel had been put and it should likewise exercise great caution in playing the India card against Pakistan.

Panetta, during his visit to India, was careful to avoid discussing controversial issues such as the Logistic Support Agreement (LSA), the Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum Agreement (CISMOA) and the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-Spatial Cooperation (BECA). The LSA allows the reciprocal use of maintenance, servicing and communications, among other things.

On previous high-profile visits, U.S. officials tried to pressure India into signing these agreements. Americas close partners have all signed these agreements. India has been saying that the agreements will jeopardise its strategic independence and imperil operational autonomy while operating American-supplied military equipment.

Panetta said in New Delhi that signing these agreements was unnecessary. Not signing these agreements is no barrier to further military relations, he said. New Delhi has also so far refused to sign the end users agreement, which allows the U.S. to inspect the weaponry it has sold to India.

Panetta said the U.S. was firmly committed to selling the best defence weaponry to India. Over the long term we will transition our defence trade beyond the buyer-seller relationship to substantial co-production and eventually high technology joint research and development, Panetta said.

India has conducted the largest number of military joint exercises with the U.S. since 2001 to ensure functional interoperability between the two armies. They have jointly conducted counter-insurgency exercises in sensitive areas such as Kashmir and the north-eastern region of the country. Indeed, the military embrace of the two countries is getting tighter by the day.