India and America Need a Real 'Strategic Alliance'

India’s relationship with the United States has been notable for its recent bonhomie. President Barack Obama has visited India twice – the only American president to do so – and the bilateral relationship has been touted as the “defining partnership” of this century in both Washington and New Delhi.

Yet, India was not able to prevent Washington from selling eight fighter jets to Pakistan – a country that continues to raise discomfort in Washington and New Delhi. Dismayed that the sale was on even as India was pressing Pakistan to act on the perpetrators of the Pathankot terror attack, India summoned the US envoy to New Delhi to register its protest.

But that has only been followed by a statement from the Pentagon arguing that the sale of aircraft to Islamabad shouldn’t bother New Delhi. “We think these are important capabilities for Pakistan to go after terrorists,” the Pentagon’s spokesperson said.

America’s decision to sell fighter planes to Pakistan, despite New Delhi’s protests, exposes a basic flaw in India’s strategic alliance with the United States. The strategic alliance has thus far failed to perform the basic function of any ‘strategic alliance’ – that is, to coordinate and guide foreign policy actions between allies for mutual benefit; something that would have probably prevented the recent aircraft sale (or the continued increase in funding) to Pakistan.

To be sure, Pakistan is a tough hurdle to overcome for both New Delhi and Washington. America has its own reasons for pursuing a more accommodative policy towards Islamabad, largely due to its commitments in Afghanistan, and Washington has been conscious about treating both India and Pakistan at par. That is part of why President Obama decided to invite both Prime Minister Modi and Prime Minister Sharif to Washington for next month’s nuclear summit (Modi, on his part, will be hoping to use the summit to push for action against Pakistan’s ever-growing nuclear arsenal).

India, on the other hand, has long yearned for America to follow a sterner foreign policy towards Pakistan. New Delhi’s strategic alliance with Washington was largely framed in the context of South Asian regional politics, and that is why America’s dealings with Pakistan have a significant bearing on the strategic partnership. Yet, it is hard to envision India and America following a coordinated foreign policy towards Pakistan any time soon. If India wants to build a true strategic partnership with America therefore, Pakistan is not the place to start, even if getting Washington to act tough on Islamabad is the desired end point.

The dynamics of South Asian politics dictate that New Delhi starts looking elsewhere in the world for strategic cooperation with America, before asking Washington to be its partner in its neighborhood. Look down south and far into the east, for instance, where India and the United States share many a common interest which call for coordinated policy action. Free navigation and safety in the waters of the Indian Ocean, South China Sea and other parts of Asia Pacific are some of those interests which call for coordinated joint policy action. Security concerns in Africa, where Indian investments are rising consistently, represent yet another such opportunity.

Even in the quagmire of the Middle East, India and the United States can find many a common interest: India, for instance, was a direct beneficiary of America’s nuclear deal with Iran, and both countries depend greatly on the stability of the Middle East for their own energy security, shale or no shale. Terrorism is another field for cooperation where the two countries are yet to achieve policy coordination.

Yet, even outside South Asia, New Delhi and Washington have failed to back up ambitious declarations with workable measures. Take the Indo-US joint vision for the Asia Pacific, released on the occasion of President Obama’s visit to New Delhi last year. On economic integration, the statement vowed to promote “economic development in a manner that links South, Southeast and Central Asia, including by enhancing energy transmission and encouraging free trade and greater people-to-people linkages.” But India was later omitted from Washington’s Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) pact which aimed to do exactly some of those things.

On the South China Sea, both sides affirmed “the importance of safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and over flight throughout the region”. But this declaration hasn’t quite been backed up by coordinated policy action either, apart from the odd joint exercise. This year, New Delhi put an end to speculations that the two nations were planning to carry out joint patrolling of the South China Sea, thereby prolonging the stagnation.

India’s inability to agree on policy coordination with the United States is therefore clearly not a simple manifestation of differences on Pakistan; it is instead a manifestation of New Delhi’s past troubles with Washington. India and America developed a great deal of mistrust through the course of the Cold War, with relations reaching a nadir in 1971.

Arguing vociferously in favor of backing Pakistan in its war against India that year, President Nixon in private conversations with the then Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, called the Indians “devious” and “a slippery, treacherous people”, in contrast to the “straightforward Pakistanis.” Kissinger concurred, saying, “I don’t understand the psychology by which the Russians can pour arms into India but we cannot give arms to Pakistan.”

India often returned the favor. Despite India’s professed practice of ‘strategic independence’ and ‘non-alignment’, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi found no qualms in concluding a strategic treaty with the Soviet Union (one that actually did coordinate the two nations’ foreign policies in the region) in the 1970s, adding to Washington’s long-standing ire.

Events such as those in 1971 greatly eroded mutual trust between the two nations, making India particularly uncomfortable with the idea of strategic cooperation with the United States. But India and America have to recognize that history does little to negate the many overlapping interests of the two nations in the modern era. With its global power significantly diminished since the immediate post-Cold War era, America is in real need of collaboration with a democracy which swears by the same values and believes in the same ends. For India, eradicating terrorism in Pakistan will never become a reality without cooperation from the United States.

The yearning for a fruitful strategic partnership can’t be doubted at all. On his visit to India last January, President Obama said, “This new partnership will not happen overnight. It’s going to take time to build and some patience. But it’s clear from this visit that we have a new and perhaps unprecedented opportunity, and deepening our ties with India is going to remain a top foreign policy priority for my administration.”

The framework for achieving such ties would be to start small – outside the South Asian neighborhood – and be realistic about what the bilateral relationship can achieve. Small and specific issues of policy coordination – whether in the Pacific or in Africa – will help heal old wounds of mistrust over time, thereby allowing the two countries see together even on South Asian affairs. The declaration of a strategic alliance has little meaning if it does nothing on the ground.

(c) 2016, Swarajya