On this highway, proceed with caution

India needs to carefully weigh the pros and cons of having too close a relationship with the U.S. Despite the warmth, the objectives in each country still remain far apart, be it on Pakistan, Afghanistan or global trade

June 18, 2016 01:42 am | Updated October 18, 2016 01:42 pm IST

Illustration: Keshav

Illustration: Keshav

Prime Minister >Narendra Modi’s event-filled visit to the United States , from June 6-8, has just ended, though his oratorical flourishes during his address to a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress still reverberate across the globe. The 3,800-word Joint Statement is available with the public. Ignoring the euphoria is not easy but due diligence about outcomes may be in order. We need to make a distinction between good copy and finite results.

The Prime Minister came through as more restrained this time when compared to previous occasions. An exception was his address to the U.S. Congress. Even here, the Prime Minister was more statesman than politician. For instance, Mr. Modi displayed a high degree of strategic wisdom in not launching an attack on China by name. Nor was there any criticism of the U.S. for implicitly acquiescing in Pakistan’s employment of terror as a strategic instrumentality vis-à-vis India. The Prime Minister was also careful not to highlight the difference in approach between Capitol Hill and the U.S. administration with regard to Pakistan’s record on terrorism, and the sale of F-16 fighter aircraft to that country.

Analysing the main components of the Prime Minister’s visit viz. his bilateral meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama, >his address to the U.S. Congress , his meeting with the U.S.-India Business Council and also the contents of the Joint Statement, it is undeniable that a great deal of ground was covered. Nevertheless, it would be difficult to endorse the sentiment set out in the Joint Statement: of the two countries providing “global leadership on issues of shared interest”. Visuals of the high-level bilateral meeting between Mr. Modi and Mr. Obama — though visuals do not necessarily reflect the atmosphere at such meetings — also give the impression that it lacked “the spark” of previous encounters.

Some of the takeaways The length of the Joint Statement notwithstanding, the many specific takeaways are not many. Important among these are: (i) creation of a $20 million U.S.-India Clean Energy Finance initiative and a $40 million U.S.-India Catalytic Solar Finance Program, with equal financial contribution from the two countries and (ii) an announcement that the U.S. recognises India as a “major defense partner”.

In both cases, the benefits are not as unalloyed as they may seem. The former could impede India’s efforts to obtain funds from non-U.S. approved sources, while the major defence partner label is unlikely to lead to a firm commitment by the U.S. to part with the entire range of “dual-use technologies”, as export of sensitive U.S. technologies is solely dictated by U.S. law. The coincidence of India of being admitted into the 34-member Missile Technology Control Regime during the Prime Minister’s visit to Washington adds little to India’s hopes of securing the entire range of “dual-use technologies”. Announcement of the start of preparatory work in India for six Westinghouse nuclear reactors does mark a significant thaw in civil nuclear matters after the deep freeze of many years. When completed, this should substantially raise the share of nuclear energy in India’s energy mix. However, while the Joint Statement avers that this had become possible on account of India ratifying the Convention on Supplementary Compensation for Nuclear Damage, it left unsaid whether it also takes into account the specific obligations imposed under India’s draconian Nuclear Liability law.

Language and interpretations A degree of opacity and vagueness surrounds the language employed with regard to some key issues, lending itself to differing interpretations. One relates to India’s commitment to ratify the Paris Climate Change Agreement by this year end, which, according to a U.S. spokesman, indicated a more ambitious approach on India’s part when compared to its previous timeline. If indeed India has committed itself to work towards “shared objectives” within the 2016 timeframe, then the Prime Minister has obviously ceded ground, and this was possibly intended to enable Mr. Obama to achieve his legacy of global climate change.

Similarly, uncertainty exists regarding the signing of the bilateral Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA). The wording is delightfully vague, viz . that it would now be inked after “finalization of its text”. This could either mean it stands deferred or that it is a done deal.

The absence of specific mention of the South China Sea (SCS) in the Joint Statement, though the SCS had found specific mention in the 2014 and 2015 summit statements, could have been passed off as a concession to Chinese concerns. Yet, enigmatic references to a purported “road map” — which is not to be disseminated — and which U.S. officials claim contains specific actions relating to advancing the “joint strategic vision” of India and the U.S. in the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean, are highly intriguing.

In his address to the U.S. Congress, Mr. Modi spoke eloquently of “India having moved beyond the hesitations of history”. Against the backdrop of past India-U.S. relations, it signifies that India and the U.S. are no longer “Estranged Democracies”. It is a moot point though whether they are willing to acknowledge that they are “natural allies”. Steps outlined during the Prime Minister’s current visit do, however, suggest that India plans to jettison its long-held belief in “strategic autonomy”, in favour of a “close partnership” with the U.S.

Taking on China All this of course involves hard choices. Care has to be taken to see that the price paid is not too high. Just ahead of Mr. Modi’s visit to Washington, the Obama administration had pronounced that the U.S. is “committed” to help India build its defense capabilities until it can be the “net provider of security in Asia”, regardless of whether or not there is a formal U.S.-India alliance. Senator John McCain, Chairman of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, in a recent op-ed piece, observed that “India must begin acting like a close partner and ally”. In sum, the U.S. expects India to act as a kind of bridgehead for an “anti-China alliance” in Asia.

The paradox is that all this is taking place when evidence shows that many countries are moving closer to China. Even the U.S. is seen taking several conciliatory postures notwithstanding its periodic declamations against Chinese “expansionism”. At the recent Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, U.S. Defence Secretary Ashton Carter went out of his way to acknowledge that Washington and Beijing have a shared view on many global issues apart from a commonality of interests. He even talked about the many available areas of cooperation with China. The U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, for instance, is today an important plank for bettering Sino-U.S. ties.

Vietnam, a country which India has developed close relations with, is currently making overtures to China. At this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue, considerable bonhomie was noticeable between the Chinese and Vietnamese delegations. Russia has more recently gone much closer to China. This was again in evidence during this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is already on record as saying that the Russian-Chinese partnership had grown into a strategic relationship in terms of ensuring global and regional security and stability.

Not on the same page Given this backdrop, India needs to carefully weigh the advantages and disadvantages of having too close a relationship with the U.S. Despite the current warmth in India-U.S. relations, the U.S.’s and India’s objectives still remain far apart. U.S. dependence on Pakistan is unlikely to shift substantially due to continuing U.S. interest in Afghanistan and Central Asia.

While New Delhi would like Washington to consult it more actively on Afghanistan, there is little evidence that this was on the agenda during the recent Obama-Modi meeting. India and the U.S. also remain far apart on global trade. The U.S. is neither favourably inclined to accommodate India in the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations nor has pressed strongly for India’s membership of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation.

Arms sales and security dominate the U.S. agenda. India’s objectives are very different. It is not in India’s interest to be involved in any kind of showdown in the South China Sea, which involves an established superpower and a presumptive one, or to align with the U.S. to prevent China from dominating Asia. It is far from certain that this is the key issue in global geopolitics today.

M.K. Narayanan is a former National Security Adviser and former Governor of West Bengal.

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