Saving India-U.S. Partnership

Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis

19th July 2009

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addressed the U.S.-India Business Council in Washington D.C. on 17th June rekindling hope that India-U.S. relations could regain some of the traction lost under the Obama administration. She is now on a visit to India and it would be keenly watched for the actions she would take to match her words, especially since there is a growing uneasiness at the U.S. insensitivity to some of India’s important concerns. And the list of issues that could poison India-U.S. relations is getting longer.

The proposal to withdraw tax concessions to companies that ship jobs abroad, restrictions on H1B visa and the renewal of U.S. interest in mediating on Kashmir are only some of the issues that have morphed many hopefuls of closer India-U.S. relations into skeptics. Among these, the last has the greatest potential to derail the relationship as India would decidedly not countenance any outside intervention in the settlement of the problem. Another major concern for India is the large-scale U.S. supply of sophisticated weapons to Pakistan ostensibly to enhance its capacity to fight terror. On the contrary, the whopping U.S. $ 8.79 billion(around Rs. 42000 crores) overt military assistance that Washington gave Islamabad from 2002 to 2008, has helped Pakistan to militarily strengthen itself vis-à-vis India, as U.S. weapons have done in the past. Pakistan has been permitted to use these Foreign Military Financing (FMF) funds and its own resources to buy U.S. arms including P-3C maritime aircraft, naval guns, air-to-air missiles, anti-ship missiles and an anti-submarine frigate. And as Michele Flournoy, U.S. Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, said before the House Armed Services Committee in April this year, Pakistan has “focused most of their equipment acquisitions on their deterrent capacity vis-a-vis other neighbors, particularly India” and not on “counterinsurgency”1. Yet, security assistance to Pakistan for FY 2010 (October 1, 2009 to September 30, 2010) under the Obama administration could see an increase of above 45 percent over the previous year (US$ billion 2.62 vs. 1.80). And such U.S. insensitivity to India’s concerns could send their relations on a downward spiral.

If this were to happen, the relations between the world’s two largest democracies could once again become frosty. It would be a chance lost, a moment ignored. The foundation that Bush and Singh had so passionately laid should be prevented from cracking.

Both nations have suffered at the hands of terrorists. And the breeding ground of this threat is India’s neighbour, Pakistan. Thus, when South Asia, described as the world’s most dangerous place and where India, Pakistan and Afghanistan are situated, is boiling, who can be the stabilizer? It can only be India which has a Muslim population that is almost five times that of Afghanistan and almost equals Pakistan’s.

When Obama calls for an inclusive world community and a “new beginning” with Muslims, India is the example that he may like to cite. It is where secularism is in resplendent display despite a few aberrations. It is a secular democracy that elected three Muslim Presidents. Its current Vice President is another distinguished Muslim and the newly constituted Council of Ministers of Manmohan Singh has five of them. The Indian society could give Muslims the world over, the hope of achieving their highest potential without any threat to their religious belief or material betterment even outside a theocracy.

The U.S. has much to lose if its relations with India suffer. The Af-Pak policy can only succeed with the active cooperation of stable India, which stands like a rock in a tumultuous sea of extremism and intolerance. Especially when an overstretched U.S. leaves the region, there needs to be an Asian power to promote stability and peace in the region.

For the Bush administration, the forging of a strategic partnership with India was an important priority. A ten-year defence framework agreement and numerous joint military exercises to achieve interoperability were among the unprecedented steps taken to strengthen the sinews of the strategic partnership. For the first time since independence, India is also looking to the U.S. for big ticket defence items--a rather bold step for a nation used to the virtually unquestioned reliability of Russia as its main defence supplier. Since 2006, the U.S. has sold defence items valued at around U.S. $ 3.2 billion and is in the race for what could be the mother of all contracts, one that would be worth over U.S. $ 10 billion (around Rs. 48000 crores) for the supply of the 126 fighter aircraft for the Indian Air Force. But these are only baby steps. When India, whose economy is expected to be the second largest in three decades, is poised to play a major role in the “post-U.S.” order, further strengthening of the India-U.S. partnership would contribute immensely to international security.

India is placed strategically in the Indian Ocean region which is critically important for world trade. This geographical location makes it easier for its expanding navy to keep these waterways free for trade and commerce.

At a time when the U.S. is feeling the heat of the economic meltdown, it may have greater stakes in keeping China in good humour. But there is a limit to how much the U.S. can depend on a nation whose core values are at variance with its liberal democratic tenets and whose motive behind promoting a greater military capability is already baffling Washington, as it is many others.

Whether it is to combat climate change or pandemics, nothing can be achieved without India. Its population of 1.1 billion is too large to be ignored. With an economy that has largely defied the economic meltdown, it could grow at a rate of 8 to 9 per cent in 2009-102. India’s rise is inevitable and can benefit both nations. The purchasing power of India’s swelling middle class could provide an attractive market that the U.S. sorely needs. India-U.S. trade in goods has also more than doubled in the four years from 2004-08. Interestingly it increased by more than a quarter in percentage points than Sino-U.S. trade in the same period. And if this growth in trade is any indication, then there is more promise in the relationship between the two democracies.

India and the U.S. are “natural allies”. Both are secular democracies with the rule of law and the inalienable rights of man at the centre of the foundation of both nations. In fact, the cause for a stable world order would be better served when helped by a durable strategic partnership between the two nations that have so much in common.