The current phase of India’s relationship with the United States took root in the early 1980s, when Indira Gandhi abandoned her socialist pretensions and moved to reconcile with the power she believed had tried to overthrow her in the run-up to the Emergency.
From the Indian side, there came a search for investments and technology; from the US, a desire to displace the Soviets and, after the Tiananmen Square massacres, a durable partner to balance China. Thereafter, there were many ups and downs, but in the past decade it has largely been up, coinciding, no doubt, with China’s trajectory.
Earlier this month, Kenneth I. Juster, the new US ambassador to India, delivered his first major speech to foreign policy wonks in New Delhi. Speaking to assembled think-tankers, columnists, journalists and a phalanx of retired Indian diplomats, Juster spoke about the goal of building a durable partnership between India and the US in the 21st century. Such speeches are not new, but the value of Juster’s remarks are in the fact that they were delivered by the envoy of Donald J. Trump, the 45th President of the US, whose mission seems to be to upend everything the US has stood for and done.
Being the seasoned diplomat that he is, Juster punched all the right buttons—his personal friendship with India, our common values and interests, the Indo-Pacific Region, the strategic partnership, defence and counter-terrorism, economic and commercial relations, energy and environment, science & technology and health, and regional cooperation.
India has been lucky that it has got an ambassador of Juster’s calibre, someone who knows India and has played a significant role in altering the texture of the India-US relationship for the better. He has a profound understanding of the dynamics of this relationship as he was a key official in the Department of Commerce when India and the US established the ‘Next Steps in Strategic Partnership’ that worked its way into the India-US nuclear deal.
Juster highlighted the important element of trust. But, in all fairness, it is not immanent in the relationship as it is, say, among the ‘Five Eyes’. It is something of a work in progress, requiring detailed legal commitments on the part of India, as on the case of the 123 Agreement, or the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) and the Logistic Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), as well as the ones that are still pending—the Communications and Information Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA) and the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) for geospatial intelligence.
US ambassador to India Kenneth I. Juster
Since World War II, the US has largely worked in an environment where its allies and friends have also been states for whom it is the net security provider. India, a nuclear weapons state with a large military, does not quite fall into that category. The Americans are now beginning to understand this and have gone along with tailoring many of their “foundational” agreements to suit their Indian friend.
Juster’s description of the process, involving “respect, trust, acceptance confidence and resilience and constancy” has not been easy, and neither has it happened overnight. It is an ongoing process that began with the Gandhi-Reagan Science and Technology Initiative of 1984.
That brings us to the idea expressed by Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar first, and more recently in the new Trump National Security Strategy (NSS), that India is “a leading power” in the Indo-Pacific region. Truth be told, at present India remains a “balancing power” and Jaishankar’s 2015 reference related to India’s aspiration to be a leading power, rather than an assertion of being one. Some Indian commentators have decided that India is already a leading power and a net security provider in the Indian Ocean Region. To act on this would be a grave error. Fortunately, the US wants us to only play a balancing role in the Pacific Ocean, and sees the “leading” role somewhere in the unspecified future.
We, too, want the Americans to be balancers in South Asia and the Indian Ocean Region. This is where the Indo-Pacific concept comes in. By stretching the Western Pacific into the Indian Ocean, China looks smaller. As is evident, even though China is a force in the Western Pacific, it is still some distance away from that position in the Indian Ocean Region. It is still useful to have its foremost power, the US in your corner, especially when your own military modernisation and reform are not going anywhere.
As I heard Juster, a question came to my mind, one that had been nagging me since the time we initiated a strategic dialogue with the US in 1989-90. He spoke of the entire gamut of India-US relations and referred to the US NSS. Yet there was complete silence about an India-US role in a region that is unarguably the most important for us—the region between Pakistan and Israel, call it West Asia or the Middle East. Sixty per cent of our oil comes from there, seven million of our nationals work there, sending back $39 billion per annum, much more than the self-anointed patriots of North America. Dubai, an entrepot, is India’s third largest trade destination, after China and the US.
By no metric is the Indo-Pacific as important for India as is the northern Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf. Issues like freedom of navigation and overflight are significant, but these are world order issues, important everywhere. In contrast, the volatility of the Persian Gulf region stands out. Just three years ago, India had to send its navy to rescue nearly 5,000 citizens from Yemen. We have had to launch similar operations in Iraq in 2003 and 2014, Lebanon in 2006 and in 1990 we carried out the biggest airlift in history to get 1,75,000 Indian nationals out of Kuwait.
This is also an area where Indian interests diverge from that of the US. The US is no longer critically dependent on the oil exports from the region, as we are. On the other hand, the US remains committed (it has an entire fleet and several military bases in the region) for three reasons—to ensure that the jehad virus (which it helped create) does not spread to Saudi Arabia or Egypt, to protect Israel and to ensure that the oil resources of the region do not fall into the hands of any combination of hostile powers. And then, there is Pakistan, which is sui generis.
India shares most US goals, but they are complicated by America’s Israel mission which, too would be okay, except that the US wants regime change in Iran, a dreadful prospect knowing what happened when it obtained one in Iraq. Iran is the most proximate major source of oil for India and has an anchor role in India’s Central Asian and European connectivity plans through its ports of Chabahar and Bandar Abbas.
The India-US agenda is larger than the Middle East, as Juster outlined. But the region looms much larger for us than for the US. Our differing goals are not unbridgeable, but if we are indeed to evolve a durable strategic partnership in the 21st century, we need to, at least, begin a conversation about this region. But all Juster did was to dust-off an old idea of posting Indian liaison officers to US combatant commands, here, the CentCom. Given the differing ways our militaries relate to government, this was a non-starter and remains one.
Juster detailed India-US cooperation in defence through joint exercises, defence trade and military exchanges. India is a Major Defence Partner of the US, which provides us access to technologies at a level equivalent of its closest allies and partners. Like all countries, the US would rather sell finished products than provide technology, no matter what it says. Like all countries, the US will not part with its technology crown jewels for anyone, even its closest allies. Incidentally, according to Reuters, President Trump is getting set to announce a new policy to further boost the sales of US military equipment around the world, using American embassies to “become a sales force for defence contractors”.
Modi and Trump shake hands in the White House in June 2017
In the mid-1990s, in a visit to the Pentagon, Commander Charley Dale explained to me the differing ways with which India and America approached the issue. They appeared to work on different algorithms. The Indians demanded technology from the US as proof of its friendship, while the Americans suggested that India prove the friendship before the US delivered on the technology.
We should not fetishise technology acquisition for its own sake. Exploiting the advanced technology the US or anyone else may be willing to transfer makes sense only if India has an R&D and manufacturing base which is capable of absorbing it. Right now we do not, and neither are we showing signs that we have a plan to create one.
Politically, we are at a fortunate intersection where India’s interests largely coincide with the US, which will remain the dominant global power well into this century. We are also lucky that our needs coincide. There are, as we have indicated, important areas where our interests are not entirely congruent. The onus is on us to work out ways to bring the US around.
The Trump administration offers us a strategic opportunity on par with that of the junior George Bush. Trump is not burdened by history, nor restrained by bureaucracy, and seems favourably inclined to India. He wants to distance himself from the Obama administration and his team has, in fact, picked up several formulations mooted by India, such as ‘Indo-Pacific’ and ‘leading power’. Indeed, even Rex Tillerson’s fulmination against China’s predatory economic behavior probably leads off from the Indian critique of the BRI.
There is one factor on which we need clearer thinking—time. Actually, the kind of relationship we need to foster is the one the Chinese developed in the period after 1972 when they used the US need to counter the Soviet Union to set themselves on to a trajectory which is taking them to a status of a true world power. But that process has taken the better part of a half-century.
Juster indirectly addressed this point when he said India should get over doubts about the durability of the India-US relationship. Reviewing his 17 years of experience, he said that “a strong foundation” had been laid and the time had now come to move beyond “our growing pains” and create a long-term relationship. In other words, we still have some way to go.
Whether the US can help us to become a great manufacturing power or a politico-military leading power, it can only happen in the span of the political lives of several prime ministers, and possibly political regimes. Hype and grandstanding are part of the process but, must always be subordinate to careful planning and a dash of modesty. The Americans can give us a leg up, but in the arduous path, there are no short cuts.
(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation)