Prime Minister Narendra Modi departed from the United States after an unprecedented fourth state visit earlier this month. During the visit, Modi delivered a historic speech to a joint session of the US Congress, in which the prime minister reiterated his belief that India and the United States are “natural allies” who have “overcome the hesitations of history”.
Modi went on to invoke the shared values of the world’s largest and oldest democracies as he called for the fulfillment of President Obama’s vision for the “defining partnership of the 21st century”.
But platitudes and rhetoric have graced the India-US bilateral relationship for years now with little impact on the ground. In an interview ahead of Modi’s meeting with President Obama in Washington, foreign affairs columnist Fareed Zakaria said, “[Obama and Modi] have had lots of nice meetings. Obama has said several times that he thinks the chemistry is good. [But] now there needs to actually be a chemical reaction.” He then added, “I think the Americans would be ready, willing and able [to cooperate]. The problem is more on New Delhi’s side.”
Zakaria spoke for many in the US foreign policy establishment when he voiced frustration against New Delhi, and the impatience is understandable. For years now, America has wanted to prop up India as a counter-balance to Chinese power in the Asia-Pacific (and New Delhi has hoped to find Washington’s support for its own security interests vis-à-vis China). In New Delhi Washington sees a functioning democracy, which it relates to and wants to embrace.
India also represents a gateway for America into the developing world. All of Washington’s long-standing strategic alliances have been in the developed world – whether in Western Europe or East Asia.
India, by contrast, provides Washington a valuable ally in the developing world. A functional strategic alliance with India would therefore be new ground for Washington, and consequently significant for US foreign policy.
In all fairness, America has walked a fair distance in the pursuit of this goal, making a series of concessions in India’s favour. Nuclear cooperation is one of those: America set aside its rigid policy of nuclear non-proliferation in order to publicly advocate India’s membership in the exclusive Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) – a group that was formed, ironically, in response to India’s own nuclear tests in the 1970s.
Earlier this year, Washington also proposed a Logistics Exchange Agreement for the sharing of military facilities between the two countries, while inviting New Delhi for joint patrols in the South China Sea, and late last year, Manohar Parrikar became the first Indian defence minister to visit the strategic US Pacific Command headquarters in Hawaii.
Yet, despite these significant overtures, India has admittedly proven hard to get. New Delhi turned down the joint patrol offer, and the logistics exchange agreement is yet to be signed. Even the much-touted nuclear agreement is stuck in arguments over suppliers’ liabilities, despite Modi and Obama proclaiming finality to the dispute early last year. All of this has caused further impatience in Washington.
These are only symptoms of the real challenges to India-US strategic cooperation. The realities of India’s foreign policy mean that strategic cooperation won’t take off any time soon.
Start with Pakistan; despite repeated objections from various senior senators and diplomats over Pakistan’s links to terror groups and the risk associated with its nuclear arsenal, Washington continues to contribute aid to the Pakistani military, and treats it as a valuable ally in the fight against terrorism. Modi’s call in the US Congress for the isolation of those who “preach and practice” terrorism was articulation of India’s frustration towards America’s policy towards Pakistan.
India is also rightly miffed at being clubbed alongside Pakistan in American discourse on nuclear non-proliferation, given the two countries’ contrasting records.
Then, there is also China. Geography and history mean that New Delhi and Beijing will inevitably be geopolitical rivals, giving India and America room to cooperate. Yet, New Delhi does have common ground with Beijing where it differs with Washington: on economics. India and China often find themselves on the same side of the table in global economic disputes, whether on climate funding or in the World Trade Organization.
That means that New Delhi has far less room to counter China geopolitically than Washington does, lest the dispute should spill over onto economic cooperation where India is still the junior partner to China. No matter how many Chinese soldiers infiltrate Indian territory therefore, economics is likely to take precedence at least for the near future.
The greatest hurdle to strategic cooperation between India and the US is India’s foreign policy itself. Given its preoccupation with internal development, New Delhi has never formulated a coherent policy stance on most strategic issues in contemporary international politics, be it Syria, Iraq, North Africa or Palestine. Even on the South China Sea itself, New Delhi has been overly cautious in ensuring that its relations with China’s neighbours don’t ruffle feathers in Beijing.
All of this ambivalence makes it difficult for New Delhi to align its foreign policy alongside Washington’s. Iran is a case in point, where America had to fight hard in keeping India on board during the sanctions regime (New Delhi was later among the earliest to begin collaboration with Tehran post the nuclear deal, causing fears in Washington over whether India was jumping the gun).
Until New Delhi manages to take coherent stands on issues of strategic and geopolitical interest, it will be difficult for India and the United States to align their foreign policies enough in order to allow for meaningful strategic cooperation.
To be honest, the signs aren’t encouraging. Only a week after Modi’s visit to Washington, the US Senate rejected amendments to the National Defence Authorisation Act, aimed at recognising India as a “global strategic and defence partner” and modifying defence export control regulations – a clear indication that Washington still isn’t sure of how far this relationship can go.
This is arguably the most important of all bilateral relations in contemporary international politics – even ahead of ties between the US and China – simply because of how much can be achieved between India and the United States, and how little is being done at present. But no matter how events unfold in Washington, this relationship will likely play out according to India’s foreign policy rules, at least for the near future.
(c) 2016, India Today Group