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India-U.S.: More equal partners

As a welcome curtain-raiser to the third round of the Indo-U.S. Strategic Dialogue in Washington DC on June 13, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that India was among the eight countries exempt from sanctions to our financial institutions because of significant reductions to our imports of oil from Iran. While this is a relief, it does underline once again the unilateralism that makes it difficult for India to work with the United States despite wanting to do so.

The broad setting for the third round of the Dialogue is the global shift of economic weight eastward to Asia, and U.S. resistance to the outcome of its relative economic decline, military exhaustion and indebtedness to its greatest strategic rival, China. Along with a better economic performance and our more mature relations with other regional powers in Europe and Asia, India’s relationship with the U.S. has dynamically transformed over the last decade. That has raised Indian expectations of more mutuality in the bilateral exchanges with Washington.

The Asian strategic environment, already destabilized by the rapid rise of China and its military assertiveness in the region, is set to be further roiled by the impending withdrawal of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) from Afghanistan. While praising India’s support to Afghanistan through trade and investment, reconstruction and help (training) for Afghan security and police forces, the U.S. has not been sensitive to India’s Afghanistan-related security concerns while being overly protective of imaginary Pakistani fears of India-friendly regimes in Kabul. The U.S.’ antipathy towards Iran complicates its own approach and India’s response to developments in the Muslim world that no amount of dialogue can smoothen out entirely.

To our east, the U.S. is seeking to draw India and other non-treaty Asian powers like Vietnam into its “pivot to Asia” global strategy by promoting new nomenclatures like the ‘Indo-Pacific.’  Vietnam, along with the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei, are all facing-off against China in the South China Sea. While the U.S.’ treaty alliances with Japan, South Korea and Australia will remain the most important elements of its strategy to remain the dominant Asian power, it is also looking for new partners. For example, during her Asian swing last month, Secretary Clinton spoke of the importance of Bangladesh to the security of the Bay of Bengal.

India is already rubbing up against China on its north and north-eastern borders, the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean, and in the global hunt for natural resources to fuel economic growth. Having asserted the principle of freedom of navigation in international waters, for India greater naval cooperation with the U.S. is highly desirable. Especially so in the context of the massive planned Chinese naval expansion, its already heightened presence in the Arabian Sea and the claim to the whole south China Sea as a “core” interest.

Consequently there has never been a greater convergence in the interests and concerns of the U.S. and India: U.S.-Pakistan relations are sinking, and India and the U.S. both feel the economic and military heat from China. If U.S. President Barack Obama called India and the U.S. “natural allies” in 2010, that reality has happened only now – at a time when India is unfortunately held back by its economic and strategic weaknesses and political indecision.

Defense Secretary Panetta took up all the issues that will figure in the strategic dialogue during his visit last week to Delhi. India will have likely given assurances in private; but publically we have only spoken of freedom of navigation. India is clearly unwilling to antagonize China, even though the latter has shed its own past peaceful protestations. It would be unfortunate if in adapting to a multi-polar distribution of military and economic power, India continues to act out a ‘survival of the timid’ credo which other Asian powers will likely mimic to the detriment of India and the U.S. – leaving China the dominant player in Asia.

It is all the more essential then, for the two countries to take bold decisions in the forthcoming dialogue. The U.S. should shed its past shibboleths on the sharing of defense technologies (with or without the enabling bilateral agreements), and India should agree to a qualitative upgradation of defense ties. Then the two countries may achieve another shift – one that can be as much of a regional game-changer as the U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Agreement of 2008 was globally.

That it is possible to move forward is amply demonstrated by reports that the two countries are firming up an Early Works Agreement for the installation of the first 1,100 MW nuclear reactor to be installed in India by Westinghouse under the India-U.S. nuclear deal, without India changing its liability laws.

Movement in this sensitive area only goes to prove, yet again, that if the U.S. gets beyond the terms of its post-World War II NATO-type alliances with partners beholden to it, and India looks for equal partnerships in which it must learn to give and not just expect to take, then indeed the sky is the limit for our natural alliance.

Neelam Deo is India’s former ambassador to Denmark and Ivory Coast, and served in Washington and New York. She is the director and co-founder of Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. 

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