April 03, 2020
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Post Partnership With US, How New Delhi Engages With Washington, Beijing Over Next Few Decades Will Be A Test

China factor has been a driver in India-US relationship since 1962. To see India as a junior military partner of the US will be misplaced, writes director of Society for Policy Studies C. Uday Bhaskar

Post Partnership With US, How New Delhi Engages With Washington, Beijing Over Next Few Decades Will Be A Test
Indian, US warships in the Malabar naval exercise in 2019
Post Partnership With US, How New Delhi Engages With Washington, Beijing Over Next Few Decades Will Be A Test

The maiden visit of US President Donald Trump to India (February 24-25), with the distinctive high visibility that was on display in Ahmedabad, has led to a semantically significant politico-diplomatic outcome, in that the two nations are now framing their bilateral relationship as a ‘Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership’ (CGSP).

This was publicly announced by PM Narendra Modi in the Motera stadium on Monday to a crowd of over 100,000, when  he described the texture of India’s relationship with the US and used the words ‘comprehensive’  and ‘global’  to precede the strategic partnership that had been mooted with the US as far back as 2004.

It was formally noted in the joint statement issued when Trump and Modi “vowed to strengthen a India-United States Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership, anc­hored in mutual trust, shared interests, goodwill, and robust engagement of their citizens”.

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India has almost 30 strategic partnership agreements, beginning with France in 1998, but this is the first time that such a lofty turn of phrase has been invoked and the contour and content of the freshly minted CGSP with the US merits preliminary scrutiny.

India-US bilateral ties have had a rem­arkable trajectory, given that the two nations had a bitter ‘estranged’ relationship for almost four decades (since 1965), with sharp and seemingly int­ractable divergences in their strategic orientation and security interests. The US was deeply invested in military alliances during the Cold War decades to contain the former Soviet Union, while India preferred to remain non-aligned. Regional security compulsions saw New Delhi signing a friendship pact with the former USSR even while being a recipient of US development aid in many sectors, including food. But even with the USSR, though the military inventory relationship was very substantive, India adhered to its principle of not becoming part of any military alliance.

Minus trade, the ‘comprehensive’ tag is more applicable to security. This has a clear maritime focus.

Partnership diplomacy with the US acquired traction after the end of the Cold War and was formalised after the Indian nuclear tests of May 1998 and the Kargil war of 1999. Under PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee the Indian nuclear opt­ion that had been kept ‘open’ was weaponised and India became a state with proven nuclear weapon capability. However as a non-NPT (nuclear non-proliferation treaty) signatory, Delhi remained outside the global nuclear framework . Yet the Indian rapprochement with the US began on the Vajpayee-Clinton watch and the phrase ‘natural allies’ was used.  

However, the nuclear nettle continued to bedevil India-US bilateral ties and it was the Bush administration that picked up the gauntlet and embarked upon a radical rewiring of the Washington-New Delhi rel­ationship. This began in early 2005 and a civilian nuclear agreement was outlined that allowed the complex nuclear circle to be squared. Thanks to the political perspicacity and resolve of President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the civilian nuc­lear agreement was finally brought to successful closure in late 2008 and had its share of high political tension involving not just the US and India but also China.

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The long estrangement between the US and India was finally over and a cautious, closer engagement began in 2009 with the Obama adminis­tration. Due credit must be given to the professionals on both sides who navigated choppy waters deftly to steer the relationship towards a positive orientation; over the past decade, relations have evolved into a stable partnership—albeit imbalanced.

In an insightful comment on the eve of the Trump visit to India, William J. Burns, the former US deputy secretary of state noted:  “The relationship was born of a shared sense of values, a shared economic stake in India’s modernisation, a shared (if usually unspoken) concern about China’s rise, and a shared realisation that Americans and Indians need to work tog­ether to tackle big, overarching challenges like climate change and transnational terrorism.”

The sub-text of the partnership was that India’s rise was welcomed and enabled by the US and its allies and the existential dimension of India as a vibrant democracy that had shared values with the liberal global constituency was acknowledged. The strategic partnership template acquired a visible military focus as India diversified its military acquisitions to include the US and over the last decade, this has reached a total of US $17 billion. Major military platforms acquired from the US include a landing ship, transport aircraft, helicopters and artillery guns, among other weapons.

Predictably, in the Trump visit, there was no significant breakthrough in the trade domain and this remains a discordant issue with the US president referring to Indian tariff rates in his press conference in New Delhi. A substantive ‘deal’ is expected later in the year to red­ress the trade deficit now in India’s fav­our (a modest $20 billion), but the Trump fidelity to the transactional and reciprocal remains unwavering.

China has been indifferent to India’s security concerns. Hence the criticality of the defence alliance with US.

Thus the comprehensive tag is more applicable to the security sector and here the focus is on the maritime domain. The joint statement notes that “a strong and capable Indian military supports peace, stability, and a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific” and locates the acquisition by India of the multi-role naval helicopters. Along with att­ack helicopters for the army, the Trump visit will add $3 billion plus to US military sales to India.

It is instructive to note that the CGSP prioritises deepening of “defence and security cooperation, especially through greater maritime and space domain awareness and information sharing” along with a broad spectrum of areas that had been first envisioned in mid-2005 in the Rumsfeld-Mukherjee defence cooperation agreement.

Strategic convergence in the Indo-Pacific is a section by itself in the joint statement and notes that “A close partnership between the United States and India is central to a free, open, inclusive, peaceful, and prosperous Indo-Pacific region. This cooperation is underpinned by recognition of ASEAN centrality.”

Acknowledging India as a net security provider and one that could render development and humanitarian ass­istance in the Indian Ocean region, the joint statement has one reference that will be carefully examined in Beijing. It adds:  “The United States and India took note of efforts toward a meaningful Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, and solemnly urged that it not prejudice the legitimate rights and interests of all nations acc­ording to int­ernational law.”

While the China factor has been a driver in the India-US relationship going as far back as 1962, what would be deeply ‘strategic’ for New Delhi is how to harmonise its complex engagement with both Washington and Beijing over the next few decades. A bin­ary choice which casts India as a junior military partner of the US would be short-sighted. Yet India has to contend with an assertive Beijing that has been indifferent to India’s security concerns—hence, the critical nature of the defence partnership with the US.

Harmonising ‘Make in India’ with the robust military supplies that the US is now providing will be both a challenge and opportunity for the Modi-Trump strategic bromance. And for both leaders, the manner in which they remain committed to the democratic principle that they have championed in public will be the core litmus test of the integrity and purpose that they can imbue to a strategic partnership that has truly global potential.

(Views are personal)

The author is director, Society For Policy Studies

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