US-India partnership turns boisterous
By Ehsan M Ahrari
As much as the American and Indian strategic thinkers emphasize the commonality of democracy in the United States and India to emphasize the prospect of a strong and "natural" alliance, the fledgling alliance itself, if it were to be called that at all, is an unruly and rambunctious one.
From the US side, the chief reason for that is their old habit of attempting to dictate a "code of conduct" to its allies for them to live by. Needless to say, of all the countries in the world, India is the last country to be expected to behave like a supplicant, especially of a declining superpower. From India's side, the chief reason is the very rambunctious nature of its democracy, which has a long tradition of being suspicious of the United States.
In the heyday of the Cold War years, the United States made the mistake (from India's vantage point) of siding with Pakistan in the
long-standing "cold war" of South Asia. Consequently, aside from developing its own stout framework of dependence on a highly accommodative Soviet Union for its defense needs, India also found the leadership of the "non-aligned movement" (NAM) to constantly lecture the mandarins of the United States' foreign policy about the "immorality" of the Cold War.
That Indian role was music to the ears of every single Soviet dictator. India's "payback" to the former Soviet Union for its strategic partnership was a sustained manifestation of affinity and friendship toward it, even the former Soviet Union committed the worst faux pas of its existence by invading and occupying Afghanistan in 1979. India was the only democratic state that was not critical of that action.
A long period of antipathy and mutual distrust of the Cold War years finally ended after India became a nuclear power in May 1998. The roots of the US-India friendship were nurtured during the administration of president Bill Clinton. A series of "strategic dialogues" in the aftermath of its emergence as a nuclear weapons power served as the background for that friendship.
The United States, at first, attempted to talk India into unraveling its nuclear weapons program. Failing that, a decision was made in Washington to accept that fate accompli and make it the basis for an intricate strategic partnership between the two democracies. It was during that period that one started hearing the phrase "natural partnership" between the long-standing and largest democracies.
Some pro-Indian politicians and strategic thinkers inside the United States have dwelled on the irrelevance of a "hyphenated" foreign policy between the United States and India, whereby the former traditionally approached India within the highly contentious framework of "Indo-Pak" affairs. Indian leaders always resented that, because they felt that their country was not only morally superior to Pakistan as a democracy, but also was definitely more important than Pakistan in the arena of great power politics. The Clinton administration concurred with that "pro-Indian" argument.
One of the chief reasons for that concurrence was timing. US-Pakistan relations were experiencing a new low during the Clinton presidency. General Pervez Musharraf not only had ousted the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, but also had him imprisoned. There were no outstanding strategic reasons at that time for Washington to assign any significance to the Pakistani Army for its sustained sabotaging of democracy, which was manifested in three coups by that time.
Pakistan became important to the United States once again when the US was getting ready to invade Afghanistan in 2001, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on its homeland. The US cajoled Pakistan into joining its ranks by threatening to "bomb them back to the Stone Age," if they refused to cooperate with the Bush administration's then impending invasion of Afghanistan.
Consequently, and to India's deep resentment, Pakistan became the "frontline" state in America's "global war on terrorism". However, General Pervez Musharraf, the then dictator of Pakistan, deftly used the playbook from the days of another ignominious Pakistani dictator, General Zia ul-Haq - when he unabashedly demanded massive economic payoffs and military assistance for supporting the American-sponsored Jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s - by seeking and receiving a hefty US economic and military price for it.
Through Pakistan's "unrequited" alliance/friendship with the United States, the US permanently treated Pakistan as the "useful idiot" of South Asia - buying its support by offering massive economic and military assistance when needed, but discarding it when it no longer served its purpose.
India, on the contrary, was about to start reaping enormous benefits in the form of the lifting of long-standing US sanctions against the supply of dual-use technologies and high-tech weapons to that country, as a result of the "US-India strategic Partnership" that formally began in 2005.
However, the aspirations of all well-wishers for India's transformation into a formidable ally were not likely to be fulfilled. The chief reason, stated above, was its refusal to play a faithful implementer of US strategic preferences in the region, especially allowing itself to be used as a "card" for Washington to use in order to "trump" China's intricate and frequently undecipherable maneuvers throughout its contiguous areas.
As a declining hegemon, the United States has increasingly become too China-centric in its strategic maneuvers in Asia. In almost all instances regarding China, the element of confrontation/alienation plays a dominant role, notwithstanding America's frequent disclaimers. India, as a "risen power", on the other hand, has increasingly manifested its ease toward managing its own intricate ties with China. The economic affairs between India and China become progressively important, since their bilateral trade for 2015 is expected to be over US$100 billion.
As the two strongest of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) economies, New Delhi and Beijing are increasingly finding themselves on the same side in solutions to global economic issues. At the conclusion of their last meeting in July 2014 in Brazil, the BRICS nations decided to establish the Development Bank, now known as the New Development Bank, which promises to become an alternative source for providing loans for building new infrastructures in developing countries.
That bank also aspires to serve as a "potential rival to the World Bank, and the currency swaps [under that bank] will work in parallel to the International Monetary Fund, the two Washington-based institutions that embody the US-led economic order created at Bretton Woods in 1944". On the contrary, the current US-India disagreements involving the World Trade Organization promise to add further friction between the two before the anticipated trip of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Washington in September of this year.
India's ties with Iran and Russia also are expected to cause tumult in India-US relations in the near future. Tensions over Iran and the Russia conflict loom large in the coming months. India has its own intricate strategic agenda with Iran that includes energy trade and use of the Iranian port of Chabahar as an entry point into Central Asia for the purpose of exploiting vast trade opportunities. Regarding energy trade with Iran, the United States is likely to impose severe restrictions, which the new government in New Delhi is likely to reject.
Washington is not at all interested in accommodating the fact that India's energy needs and its high aspirations for escalating its strategic presence in Central Asia are primary driving forces underlying its sustained close ties with Iran. Thus, one should expect this issue to ignite tensions between Washington and New Delhi.
However, India's support of Russia's military takeover of Crimea has raised a lot of eyebrows in the global arena. An India official stated, "We hope that whatever internal issues there are within Ukraine are settled peacefully, and the broader issues of reconciling various interests involved, and there are legitimate Russian and other interests involved. ... We hope those are discussed, negotiated and that there is a satisfactory resolution to them."
Through such diplomatic gobbledygook, the government of India has signaled its lack of interest about abandoning its old friend, Russia. It is worth noting that even China decided to "subtly rebuke" Russia on this issue by cryptically stating that unilateral action (ie, a military annexation of Crimea) tends to threaten "regional and global stability". It will be interesting to see how the government in New Delhi develops its diplomatic position regarding the US-Russia conflict in the coming days.
As the grip of Western sanctions tightens on Russia, India will be expected to tow the line by curtailing its own business with that country. However, if the past is any indication of its future behavior, chances are that India is likely to avoid abandoning Russia, but then it will have to be ready to pay the price for such a foreign policy posture. Unlike during the Cold War years - when India was more dependent and was thus more prone to supporting the Soviet Union - today's India has become an important part of Western economic arrangements. Thus, such a reality will force India to reexamine its blind support of Russia, unlike what it did in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in 1979.
The most challenging part of the US-India strategic partnership involves Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Obama administration expects India to play a visible role in stabilizing Afghanistan after the US withdrawal of its forces from that country. Such an expectation is highly objectionable to Pakistan, which continues to consider Afghanistan very much part of its own sphere of influence. The question then emerges as to whether India would be willing to pay the price of antagonizing Pakistan by fulfilling America's expectations to stabilize Afghanistan. The easy and rational answer seems to be, no.
The United States expected great things from the return of Nawaz Sharif to the premiership of Pakistan. There were hopes of some innovative policies from Islamabad toward Afghanistan aimed at lowering tensions between the two countries and a lot of coordination between Islamabad and Kabul on eradicating the increasing terror campaign of the self-styled jihadists in both countries. The greatest US disappointment has been that Sharif acts as if he has not learned from his past mishaps in dealing with power, or maybe he has learned to survive in power at all costs. Thus, he seems to have unabashedly allowed the Pakistani Army to be fully in charge of his country's security policy.
By the same token, despite his impressive electoral victory, Narendra Modi acts like he is permanently lost about governing a country of the size and complexity of India. Thus, he is not expected to come up with any surprising overtures toward Pakistan in the foreseeable future. That includes his refusal to escalate India's presence in Afghanistan for fear of antagonizing Pakistan. Consequently, Indo-Pak ties are expected, at best, to be without any positive or dramatic developments. It also may be argued that the greatest achievement of both Nawaz Sharif and Narendra Modi in the coming months would be their success in avoiding another conflict. Such are the low state of expectations on both sides of the Indo-Pak border.
After the withdrawal of US forces, Afghanistan is likely to continue its downward slide into chaos, with the Taliban winning a Pyrrhic victory. However, Pakistan, as much as it would like to interfere in Afghanistan, is likely to be busy with its own Taliban, who seem to have escalated their resolve to further terrorize that country.
The enormous complexity and the highly combustible nature of Indo-Pak relations demands innovative and bold leadership. Such leadership is sadly absent in both countries. Once out of Afghanistan, the United States is likely to be too busy with other obdurate and explosive aspects of its interests in the Middle East and Russia to be that much focused on South Asia. For South Asia itself, one can only hope that its dark days are really behind it, because there is little to expect from Sharif or Modi. In the same vein, don't expect any spectacular rise in the US-India strategic partnership in the coming months.
Dr Ehsan Ahrari ([email protected]) is CEO of Strategic Paradigms, Defense and Foreign Affairs Consultancy.