Laying down what India should seek from its strategic partners may be useful in theory, but unrealistic in practice.

“Strategic relationship” is one of the most frequently used phrases in foreign policy discussions today, but perhaps one of the least understood. Scholars have traced its appearance in international relations to the end of the Cold War. Countries that were until then arranged in blocs allied to one of the two superpowers suddenly found themselves on their own and began to cast about for new bilateral alliances, usually with states more powerful than themselves.

Nations define their relations with other countries variously — partnership, alliance — but when two countries describe their relations as strategic, their ties are deemed to have risen to a new level.

In the last decade, India has signed strategic partnership agreements with over a dozen countries. This is seen as a natural consequence of India's arrival on the global stage as a growing economic power; the acknowledgement of its democracy and its shared values with the democratic world; its neighbourhood, with the Afpak region on one side, China on the other; as well as it having the second largest population in the world.

Defining the concept

But foreign policy wonks are still struggling to define the concept — what exactly does it mean? The Oxford Dictionary defines strategic as anything relating to long term interests and goals; a strategic partnership, by extension, would relate to long term shared interests and ways of achieving them.

Strategic partnerships are commonly associated with defence or security related issues, but a survey of formal strategic partnerships around the world reveal they can also be quite a hold-all, covering a wide range in bilateral relations, from defence to education, health and agriculture, and quite commonly, economic relations, including trade, investment and banking.

Some scholars of international relations theory have argued against a set definition, arguing that each agreement belongs to a specific time and context, and thus has its own meaning. Some have even argued that the phrase is nothing more than nomenclature, and parties use it to project a higher status to their ties.

Assessment study

The latest attempt to better understand the concept comes from a New Delhi-based think tank, the Foundation for National Security Research. A study conducted by the organisation assesses India's strategic partnerships, and has sought to identify what New Delhi should seek from these partnerships, thus aiming to provide a home-grown definition of the king of bilateral relations. Titled “India's Strategic Partners: A Comparative Assessment,” it was carried out by a group of foreign policy and strategic analysts associated with FNSR, which shared the findings with The Hindu.

Specifically, the study has assessed India's strategic partnership with six countries — United States; Russia; France; United Kingdom; Germany; and Japan — by grading them on the dividends these partnerships have yielded for India in three areas of co-operation: political-diplomatic ties; defence ties; and economic relations. Using these three parameters, each partnership has been graded on a 10-point scale for present performance, sustainability, and potential.

The Russia-India partnership comes up tops on the scale — Russia consistently backs India on Kashmir, Pakistan, Afghanistan and terrorism, and according to the study “is most comfortable with India's rise” while sharing Indian “concerns on the implications of China's rise”. On nuclear issues, its 2009 India-Russia civilian nuclear pact is much better than the deal that New Delhi got from United States. Defence co-operation too is in good health. India sources most of its military hardware from Russia. But of all the six countries Russia scores least on trade relations. The total annual trade between the two countries is just slightly over $5 billion.

U.S. comes second

The United States, with which India's strategic partnership goes back to 2004, comes second, having fared poorly on FNSR's political-diplomatic scale. The study describes U.S. support for India on Kashmir, Pakistan, Afghanistan as “insubstantial and inconsistent”. It sees U.S. support for India's candidature to the U.N. Security Council as the “weakest” among the six nations. In contrast to Russia, India-U.S. trade relations are the best, with greater potential for the future.

The study sees the 2006 strategic partnership with Japan as the least developed, making only 34 points. Japan's support for India in international fora has varied, the study points out grimly, and notes that while there is scope for co-operation in maritime security, Japan's lack of interest in India's concerns over Kashmir and terrorism, its deep reservations on nuclear co-operation with India and a limited capacity to play a meaningful role in India's UNSC bid “would suggest that the potential in their strategic relationship will be slow to realise”. There is “virtually nothing to say about India-Japan defence ties” in the past, the study notes, and not much for the future either. As for trade, it could be much higher.

The conclusion: India should not bestow the “respectable nomenclature” of a strategic partner on one and all, but only on those countries with which there is “a strong and mutually beneficial relationship” in all three sectors — political-diplomatic; defence and economic co-operation. For India's so-called strategic agreements with a host of other countries, the study suggests finding a “less serious” nomenclature.

What the study ignores is that India's main “strategic partners” have other strategic partners. Welcome to the big, bad promiscuous world of international relations. The most glaring example of how strategic partnerships collide with each other is the U.S.-India partnership on the one hand, and the U.S.-Pakistan one on the other. Should India ditch its partnership with Russia if there is a chance it will improve the strategic content of the partnership with the U.S.?

Balancing conflicting interests

In reality, how a strategic partnership evolves has much to do with how successfully one or both parties balance the conflicting interests of its various partners, and keep differences to a minimum. It sounds unrealistic to lay down the line to other actors and expect them to behave as if they have no other interests.

In fact, it says something about strategic partnerships that the U.S. has such deals going all across the world. But it has no formal strategic partnership agreement with its most important strategic partner, Europe, and its relationship with Britain is described as just “essential”, or “special”.

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