Opinion » Lead

Updated: July 18, 2013 02:12 IST

Crosscurrents in India-U.S. ties

Kanwal Sibal
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The growing convergence of views on many issues is not enough to iron out the divergence arising from different priorities, as Secretary Kerry’s recent visit proved

Doubts persist both in India and the United States on the substance of their strategic partnership. High-sounding declarations about the partnership being one of the defining ones of the 21st century, or one between “natural allies,” have not erased uncertainties in the two countries about the capacity and willingness of each side to meet the expectations of the other.

Growing India-U.S. convergence on several issues has not eliminated significant divergences emanating from huge disparity in power, different priorities, conflicting regional interests and differing views on structures of global governance. India has moved from distrust to positive engagement and greater acceptance of basic U.S. goodwill towards it. The U.S. is devoting higher attention to India than ever before in recognition of its growing international importance. But this improved atmosphere in bilateral relations is not sufficient for ironing out real differences.

Wide gaps

While there is like-mindedness on issues of democracy, pluralism, human rights, economic liberalisation, terrorism, religious extremism, non-proliferation and the like, their treatment in concrete situations exposes wide gaps in the thinking of the two countries. India notes the selective manner in which “universal values” are promoted, sparing friends who spurn them and sanctioning adversaries for similar repudiation. Even in the case of terrorism, the conduct of some is condoned while that of others invokes steps to bring about regime change.

On Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, Climate Change, the Doha Round, sovereignty issues, global governance, etc., India and the U.S. have different perspectives. While differences between the U.S. and some of its allies on important issues do not call into question the basic assumptions about their mutual relationship within an alliance system, in India’s case the “strategic relationship” gets stress-tested in public opinion each time the two countries are in discord.

Our strategic partnership with the U.S. cannot presume identity of views on contentious international issues or adjustment of Indian policies to suit American preferences alone. Yet when India speaks of strategic autonomy, U.S. votaries and Indian champions of a strong India-U.S. friendship decry such thinking as mired in India’s defunct nonaligned credo. If the Indian Parliament passes a nuclear liability law imposing supplier liability on nuclear vendors, particularly after Fukushima, U.S. and Indian strategic affairs specialists become petulant. Similarly, if U.S. companies are excluded from defence contracts, there is interrogation about India’s commitment to a strategic partnership with the U.S. Elements in India characterise genuine policy differences as fence-sitting, reluctance to accept burden-sharing in upholding the international order and free-loading by India on the back of those powers who make hard choices, sometimes at the cost of their own immediate interest, to maintain peace and security.

Recurrent doubts in India about the quality of its U.S. relationship are fuelled by the inconsistency, lack of steadiness and even transparency of U.S. policies. The U.S. can change gears to suit its interests at a particular juncture, shaped by electoral considerations or lobbying. It is adept at giving varying spins to its policies as circumstances demand. The U.S. policy towards Pakistan, despite its terrorist affiliations and disruptive role in Afghanistan, exemplifies this. Washington’s military and economic aid to Islamabad continues despite Pakistan’s complicity in sheltering Osama bin Laden. Notwithstanding Pakistan’s abetment of terrorism in India and the strategic headaches it causes to the U.S., the American tendency to equate India and Pakistan resurfaces from time to time.

On Afghanistan, the U.S. first questioned India’s role there, then supported it and is now disregarding India’s fundamental strategic doubts about politically rehabilitating the Taliban by dialoguing with it. The U.S. now seems open even to the Haqqani network’s participation in the political end-game in Afghanistan. On China, the signals waver, with the declaration of a pivot towards Asia with China’s rise in mind, which is then diluted to “re-balancing” detached from China-related fears and, finally, the wisdom of any beefed-up Asia-Pacific policy is questioned by the would-be U.S. Secretary of State.

Secretary Kerry’s visit in June for the fourth round of the strategic dialogue illustrated these cross-currents moulding the India-U.S. strategic partnership. The joint statement issued on the occasion omits any mention of Pakistan, even in the context of the Mumbai attack. The references to terrorism and “violent extremism” and to dismantling of terrorist safe havens in the region are worded to avoid finger-pointing at Pakistan. There being no risk of any other political force being excluded by design or choice, the reference to “inclusive” Presidential and Provincial elections in Afghanistan in 2014 is puzzling, as it suggests that India too is advocating the “inclusion” of Taliban in these elections. The rhetoric about the reconciliation process being Afghan-led and Afghan-owned sounds hollower with the U.S. decision to talk directly to the Taliban at Doha, as Kabul will not dictate the negotiating script to Washington. The red lines drawn by the international community for any deal with the Taliban have been blurred in the joint statement which speaks in general terms about preserving “the historic political, economic and social progress made over the last decade,” though in Mr. Kerry’s speech at the Habitat Centre these red lines are reiterated. It is not clear how Salman Khurshid could say in his joint press conference with Mr. Kerry that the U.S. “will ensure that none of the concerns of India is overlooked or undermined,” when the very act of talking to the Taliban under General Kayani’s benign oversight subverts India’s interests.

The joint statement omits any mention of China, the South China Sea or U.S. “re-balancing” towards Asia, though Mr. Kerry affirmed in his press statement that the U.S. leadership considered India a key part of such a re-balance. There is only a general reference — in the paragraph dealing with the Indian Ocean and the Arctic Council — to maritime security, unimpeded commerce and freedom of navigation! Iran and Syria are absent from the statement. The India-U.S. strategic dialogue thus ignores or obfuscates key strategic issues.


Mr. Kerry pushed India unreasonably on the civilian nuclear front by unilaterally affirming in the joint press conference with Mr. Khurshid — beyond the joint statement’s non-committal language — that the two sides had agreed that a commercial agreement between Westinghouse and the Nuclear Power Corporation of India should be reached by September this year. This is hardly possible when highly complex issues such as capital investment, financial mechanisms and the per-unit tariff rate have to be finalised, besides meeting other regulatory requirements. Is Mr. Kerry suggesting that the “full and timely implementation of the civil nuclear deal” requires India to hasten the finalisation of nuclear contracts with U.S. firms, irrespective of any consideration? Perhaps this arm-twisting is related to the Prime Minister’s expected visit to Washington in September.

The extraordinary emphasis on climate change issues by Mr. Kerry during his visit unnecessarily risks converting a complex global issue into a contentious bilateral one. Mr. Kerry waxed eloquent on the new energy market being the “biggest market ever seen on earth ... a $6 trillion market with 4 billion users,” suggesting powerful commercial considerations behind his push. The wisdom of creating a working group headed by Mr. Kerry and Mr. Khurshid to intensify bilateral efforts to address “forcefully” this “urgent” issue — which means increasing the weight of non-technical foreign policy considerations into bilateral discussions — is questionable.

Positive features were, of course, not missing from Mr. Kerry’s visit, given the much improved tenor of India-U.S. ties and the extraordinarily rich agenda of bilateral cooperation which in many unspectacular ways can be productive for India. The short point is that the cogs of the strategic partnership still grate with each other and the machine is not adequately lubricated yet by the diplomatic grease of coherence, clarity, balance of interests and a sense of true partnership.

(The writer is a former Foreign Secretary)

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A partnership in which one partner is considerably stronger and
influential than the other and so much so that the other has absolutely
little say in it is no alliance at all. U.S being the stronger of the
two is using India to further its own objectives in the region.India's
considerable dependence on U.S coupled with gutlessness of the governing
party it wont be long before it damages its strategic interests with
other important nations.

from:  Sai
Posted on: Jul 17, 2013 at 22:50 IST

There is more similarities and commonalities in the relation between the US and India, than serious differences between the two countries. While the US made the terrible mistake of directly negotiating with the Taliban at Doha, after de-facto recognition of Taliban, considered as terrorists. But this has nothing to do with the relationship with India. The Indian preoccupation with the defunct Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), supporting of China and Russia in international affairs against the US as members of NAM, and the support of dictators in Russia, China, Venezuela, Cuba, Ecuador, Iran and other countries by the most populous democratic country in the world, the trade protectionism of India, and the song and dance between India and China in spite of serious unresolved territorial disputes are so some of the issues that bewilder the US. The only foreign policy of India appears to be trade only, without any foreign policy principles that other countries can understand.

from:  Davis K. Thanjan
Posted on: Jul 17, 2013 at 02:01 IST

The US will always think of its interests first. In its parochial
views US has always equated India with Pakistan-a folly that is
being propagated even to day. The US has always turned a blind
eye towards Pakistan-otherwise the latter would not be a nuclear
power today. We can never and should not ever trust the
Americans. They are the ones who brought seventh fleet to the Bay
of Bengal to intimidate India. They have double standards-
democracy at home but they are not ashamed of supporting
dictators, army generals abroad.The US politicians are
hypocrites. We should better shun them or befriend them keeping
our interests, the interests of India at heart. Otherwise leave
them where they are--far from us.

from:  Raj Behl
Posted on: Jul 16, 2013 at 23:38 IST

I think the key question should be what level of partnership we need
with the USA. Do we need a skeletal partnership with a general
consensus to come together on issues of mutual interest or do we need
a strong partnership with a commitment to partner and support each
other in issues mutual and otherwise?
Engagement with the USA must be done on the basis of the strength of
the partnership. If we do need a strong partnership (and looking at
China's muscle-flexing with Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines on the
high seas it does seem we need a strong partner) we need to send a
strong overture to the Americans that we are 1.a reliable alternative
to Pakistan; and 2.a dependable ally. If need be we might have to
shift ever so slightly from our official policy of non-alignment.

from:  Aritra Gupta
Posted on: Jul 16, 2013 at 23:23 IST

What the author has called "natural allies" is in fact "natural common enemies". The only thing India and America have in common is enemies. Both are enemies of China and political Islam. Any policy differences are either a facade or minor priorities rather than policy issues.

from:  Tipu Qaimkhani
Posted on: Jul 16, 2013 at 23:17 IST

India's does not have the military (or other) influence to do anything in the political
theatres mentioned in the article - Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Syria. If India shows
the world an example of making a decision (any decision) and following it through,
only then will the world sit up and take notice of India's opinions on world matters.

The current soft-touch approach (using back-channels) that India has advantages.
And, as we see here, dis-advantages.

from:  Anoop
Posted on: Jul 16, 2013 at 22:56 IST

In foreign affairs,only national economic interests should guide the
path.USA has shown inclination towards India because of growing Indian
economy and therefore global impact.Recently,India is again moving
towards economic crisis, consequently, other nations are bound to move
away as their economic interests are not met.If India improves its
economy,all nation will be attracted and will definitely hide their
problems in order to meet their economic interests example despite human
rights violation in china,USA is attracted towards it...

from:  anoop kumar bhardwaj
Posted on: Jul 16, 2013 at 22:40 IST

i don't think we should be having any special trade treaties with any countries. it must be based on supply/demand and free market capitalization. And don't forget we have reached $70 billion trade with China when compared to $60 billion with USA - we are not in 1960's any more - so anything we deal with USA will affect us in indo-chinese trade which has huge potential to grow in coming years.

from:  Thennarasu
Posted on: Jul 16, 2013 at 22:24 IST

India must sort out its relationship with its own neighbours before running after the US.

from:  John
Posted on: Jul 16, 2013 at 21:39 IST

Who benefits most in the US-INDIA "strategic cooperation" ?
The real question is who is left stranded holding the short straw in this "partnership" which thankfully is taking its time finding its way into implementation ?

Consider this: Every one knows that the annual billion US dollar aid to Pakistan is critical for Pakistan to maintain its military and keeping many American Arms exporters in the green.

Also the current civilian goverment in Pakistan acting "towards better ties with India" has actually donated millions to a dodgy "humanitarian aid" organisation with links to terror modules that ran havock in India. Difficult to achieve this without American Aid.

India's Defence Import bill with US means significant billions legally pledged by US Arms lobbies to American politics.

So is the Indian tax payer ultimately and indirectly funding the terror modules that operate with such impunity in India and outside?

US and more importantly India must act to stop funding terrorism.

from:  r n iyengar
Posted on: Jul 16, 2013 at 20:16 IST

Blaming USA is a time-pass activity of many individuals and governments around the world. This may be because US knows what it wants and works for it including orders for its Nuclear Companies and defence companies. But India and Indians dont know what they want from US and do not work for it; assuming it to be something akin to selflessness. India has to define clearly what it wants and work for it and avoid sitting on fences. Habit of expecting charity from our government or from Other countries should be abandoned.

from:  masa
Posted on: Jul 16, 2013 at 14:47 IST

Even if due to globalization world economy have integrated but still nation is priority for each leader. It is correct from both sides to pursue self interest first. But they should also consider that they are not harming others. India has to stay in hostile condition where Pakistan n Afghanistan are centre of terrorism so India's stand corrected if it does't favour America in its stand on Asia. After all it is we who have to work more to make friendly envio. for us not them in long run. Pursue America where we benefit without harmed and harming others.

from:  Abhishek
Posted on: Jul 16, 2013 at 12:00 IST

President Obama and Secretary Kerry want to help and address Pakistan's concern to exit from Afghanistan as soon as possible. By sidelining India in the context of Afghanistan , the United States is protecting Pakistan's interest.
But, India is not any more seeking American aid as in the 1960s.So India does not have to sign anything before September nor award any defense contract to the United States unless it is India's interest. Unfortunately ,both secretaries are very pro-Pakistanis, Kelly being the author of Kerry-_Lugar bill providing multibillion dollars yearly aid to Pakistan despite the state being the epicenter of terrorism.

from:  Nirode Mohanty
Posted on: Jul 16, 2013 at 05:14 IST

The issues are complex indeed. U.S wants to take care of its interest
in Asia in its own devious ways. But India has greater things at stake
in Asia than U.S. So for India it is important to make sure that
decision making on these important issues are not 2-dimensional but it
includes other concerned countries from time to time in dialogues as
well so that there is inclusive strategic decision-making in this
turbulent continent. Which way will India go should be as per nation's
and Asia's interest and not the U.S interest.

from:  Abhi Ranjan
Posted on: Jul 16, 2013 at 02:31 IST
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