Does India need to maintain ‘Strategic Autonomy’ despite strides in Indo-US Strategic Relations?

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Dr. Manoj Kumar Mishra 8 June 2019

The American desire and interest in forging a close strategic partnership with India were clearly borne out by the Obama Administration’s pivot to Asia strategy and later the Trump Administration’s Indo-Pacific policy which were premised on a central role to New Delhi in the Asia-Pacific region. New Delhi and Washington issued the Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region in January 2015. The US declared India as a Major Defence Partner in December, 2016. Both countries held new bilateral Maritime Security Dialogue in April 2016 and signed Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) – one of the foundational agreements for strategic defence partnership allowing access to designated military facilities on either side for the purpose of refueling and replenishment. Defence trade between the two countries surged from $1 billion in 2008 to over $15 billion by the end of 2016. On September 6, 2018,both countries signed the second foundational agreement known as Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) during the 2+2 dialogue to facilitate Indian military platforms’ access to encrypted, cutting edge and high-end secured communication equipments from the US.

At the same time, India perceived its interests being served from international trade arrangements that favored and met the requirements of developing countries as long-years of colonial exploitation, late-industrialization and neo-colonialism (subtle forms of exploitation by developed countries through international financial arrangements favoring their interests) placed it on a platform shared by other third world countries. On March 4, this year, President Trump announced that the US intends to terminate India’s designations as a beneficiary developing country under the GSP program once the two-month notice period ended on May 3. Later, President Trump issued a proclamation ending the trade benefits effective June 5. Over the years, India’s interests differed from those of many developed countries including the US on the issues of patent rights over producing generic medicines to cater to the needs of poor people as well as massive agricultural subsidies that farmers of developed countries received. India’s stance on issues pertaining to environment and climate change contrasted with the views of many from the developed world. India’s concerns stemming from massive military and economic assistance to Pakistan (which New Delhi alleged being used for anti-India purposes) to prosecute war in Afghanistan did not attract serious attention from Washington too.  In this article, the author makes an attempt to bring out the nuances in the bilateral relationship as the strategic relations between India and US gradually evolved.

The Cold War – a period of occasional but valuable American support to India

Although India’s relations with the US are perceived by and large frozen except a few instances of American sanctions during the Cold War given India’s policy of non-alignment, its first Prime Minister Nehru’s leanings towards socialist ideology and later on India’s proclivity towards forging close ties with the Soviet Union, yet it was a period of occasional but valuable American support. It was the size and population of India which persuaded the US to try and bring India into its Cold War military camp prior to the dawn of the idea of Pakistan’s inclusion. India’s expressed policy of non-alignment led the US – desperate to contain Soviet influence, to seek alliance with Pakistan and the latter was in a lookout for an opportunity which could enable it to match India’s power and overpower it if possible. Pakistan became a member of SEATO in 1954 even though it is not a Southeast Asian country and was recipient of huge amount of American aid. However, when requested for military aid to avert border war with China in 1962, India was obliged by the US and Pakistan felt betrayed. It was largely due to the then Kennedy Administration’s belief that a country of India’s size and population provided the bulwark of stability in South Asia against Chinese ambitions. In 1965, when Pakistan and India fought a war, the then Johnson Administration, moved by the belief that most of the American military aid provided to contain communism has been diverted to military build-up and war against India, suspended military assistance to Pakistan.

India became recipient of continuous food supply under US PL-480 aid program and therefore, could avoid poor harvest, famine and divert scarce resources towards industrial development in the heydays of the Cold War although many scholars expressed their concerns regarding an agrarian country’s dependence on America for food stuff which primarily represented corporate interests. Support of the US government, the role of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and American scientists cannot be underestimated in bringing Green Revolution in India which could make India more self-reliant in agricultural output. India’s soft power had its impact on the US Presidents like Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy who were aware of the fact that the non-aligned countries like India, Egypt, and Indonesia could play a decisive role during the Cold War with their power of attraction and therefore sought to engage them through constructive diplomacy.

In the very beginning of the 1970s, Pakistan facilitated lines of communication between the US and China and became quite favorite of the then Nixon Administration. In support of Pakistan, the US moved its Seventh Fleet to the Bay of Bengal during 1971 Indo-Pak War waged on the question to determine East Pakistan’s future. Despite then American Administration’s continued support for the Pakistan General’s attempt to subdue East Pakistan’s independence struggle, an American Gallup poll in 1971 voted the then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi as the most admired person in the world for her role in the creation of independent Bangladesh. The American Administration eventually withdrew its military support during the last stage of the war.       

American Dependence on Pakistan for conducting ‘War on Terror’ did not prevent its Relations with India from Growing

India opened up its economy in 1991 and shed its professed obsession with socialistic ideology and moved closer in the direction of the west ideologically and in terms of public policy. Many sectors of the Indian economy hitherto closed for the Americans opened for economic engagements. American software industries were flush with Indian professionals in the US and many worked for them offshore. 

As a semblance of American recognition of India’s growing economic clout, the Clinton Administration forcefully intervened to pressure Pakistan to withdraw its forces sent across the Line of Control in Kashmir near the town of Kargil in mid-1999. In the same year, Pakistan was subject to US sanctions following the removal of a democratically elected government by an army chief Pervez Musharraf through military coup. The Bush Administration, being aware of India’s economic and military clout, de-hyphenated the relationship between India and Pakistan by making it clear that while it was keen on having good relationship with Pakistan, India would be treated on its own right and not in reference to US ties with Pakistan. India’s response to the changing American gesture was very positive. India was one of the countries to have responded immediately, positively and enthusiastically to Bush’s allegedly controversial National Missile Defense (NMD) program.

When the US declared the ‘War on Terror’, India expected a greater role in the reconstruction of the economy and polity of the post-9/11 Afghanistan and, therefore, declared its immediate support and within a short time the government had offered all logistic help to Washington. The US lifted nuclear sanctions against India in the wake of 9/11 and eased export controls on so-called dual-technologies, which could serve both civilian and military purposes. However, once Pakistan joined the War on Terror, its geostrategic location allowed it a bigger role in Afghanistan not only in the provision of supply routes for the US and NATO convoys, the US relied heavily on intelligence inputs from Pakistan to curb militancy in Afghanistan.

Notwithstanding the American increased dependence on Pakistan, relations between the US and India, during the Bush Administration, cemented with the signing of the Indo-US Civil Nuclear Deal in 2005 which was intended to facilitate the supply of American nuclear energy technology, uranium and reactors to India for civilian purposes. The deal poised to provide India with all benefits that the signatories to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) receive although India had been refuting to sign the treaty even under the American pressure. This is a milestone in bilateral relations between India and the US from Indian perspective despite legitimate concerns regarding liability issues and commercial non-viability of the deal in the current scenario. The deal came with the recognition of India as a nuclear weapons power. During the time when the deal was in the process, Indian nuclear power plants were facing the problem of uranium shortage and some were on the verge of shutdown. Russia insisted that it would be able to authorize the supply of uranium only after India got approval of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. In this context, the pertinence of this deal rose in significance. The deal is also significant from another perspective as it could never have been possible without the American recognition of India as a sensible nuclear weapon power with declared policies of ‘no first use’ and ‘minimum credible deterrence’. It can be seen in contrast to the US perception of Pakistan which allegedly passed on sensitive nuclear information to Iran and Libya and its continued instability raised the specter of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of militants. This deal opened up further possibilities of Indo-American engagement on strategic issues.

As the war in Afghanistan deepened, the Obama Administration’s dependence on Pakistan increased.  The Administration’s Af-Pak strategy indicated that the US seemed more interested in taking on those terrorist groups who were against the western interests by concentrating on the Af-Pak area whereas the centre for cross-border terrorism across the Line of Control between India and Pakistan was located in some of the eastern provinces of Pakistan. However, the Indian concern that the ‘War on Terror’ should be an all-out fight against militant groups which are organically linked with each other found little resonance in the American foreign policy concerns. Pakistan became the recipient of enormous American aid not only to fight terrorism, territorial integrity and socio-economic development also deserved American attention and aid with the primary concern that Pakistan did not collapse and its nuclear arsenal did not fall into the hands of militants.      

While Mumbai terrorist attacks in 2008 had led the American leadership to condemn such acts and express solidarity with India to fight terrorism, Pakistani act of sheltering Osama bin Laden who was eventually killed in Abbottabad in 2011 and David Headley’s interrogation which revealed Pakistani intelligence agency ISI’s alleged connections with al-Qaeda and LeT, the US relationship with Pakistan touched a new low. Although Obama Administration’s plan to withdraw American forces from Afghanistan by fixing timeline for it prevented the US from taking harsh measures against Pakistan and American dependence on Pakistan increased in order to find a political solution to the Afghan conundrum,  two US Congress legislators took efforts to introduce a bill designating Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism and showed signs of promising strategic partnership between India and the US following the terrorist attack on Uri military camp in India during the concluding phase of Obama Administration. During this Administration, the US and India signed the bilateral Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) giving their militaries access to each other’s facilities for supplies and repairs in a major attempt to take defence relations between them a notch ahead.  

The Trump Administration, from the beginning, was categorical about the alleged role of Pakistan in sponsoring terrorism and therefore, came out with unambiguous expression of deep concerns and criticisms following the release of the alleged mastermind of Mumbai terrorist attack Hafiz Saeed from house arrest by Pakistan. This Administration not only withheld military assistance to Pakistan condemning its role in harboring ‘the agents of chaos’, it clearly expressed its desire to cast India in a more prominent role in its policy concerning the South Asian and Indo-Pacific regions.

Indo-US strategic relations deepened gradually during almost all the succeeding American Administrations and different factors contributed to the strengthening of the relations. While the US support for Pakistan waxed and waned quickly, American relations with India grew independent of US relations with Pakistan. India’s interests and concerns were not completely ignored by the US even during the Cold War years notwithstanding Pakistan’s dissatisfaction as an ally. The breadth of US and India relations has widened considerably after the end of the Cold War with opening up of the Indian economy and deepening of defence ties.

Why India still needs ‘Strategic Autonomy’

When India expressed its willingness to continue close defence ties with Russia not only for repairing and updating of its existing Russian made defence equipments but for new defence deals in order to diversify its military supplies as part of its policy of multi-alignment, it has not been viewed favorably by Washington. The US has expressed its displeasure at the Indian move to buy air defence system from Russia – the state with which any major defence deals are to face sanctions under the American law. Just like India’s invitation to Russia in the past, its endeavor to include other countries to become a part of its Indo-Pacific vision in future is not likely to go down well with the US. India’s willingness to forge close ties with Iran for energy supplies and gain accessibility to Afghanistan bypassing Pakistan was at odds with Trump Administration’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and unremitting sanctions against it. The US would find it difficult to abandon Pakistan despite its displeasure and rhetoric castigating the country for not doing enough to contain militancy against the American presence in Afghanistan. Alternatives to Pakistani intelligence inputs to curb militancy and supply routes for NATO convoys are not already available with the US. US-Iran tensions and Russian caution against any heightened US presence in its backyard would drive the impetus of American dependence on Pakistan for supply routes. It was becoming evident that Indo-US strategic partnership stands on Indian centrality to the American Indo-Pacific strategy and was never designed to allay New Delhi’s Afghan concerns. Over the years, Pakistan became a recipient of massive war aid from US to combat terrorism which it allegedly used for strengthening military capacities against New Delhi contributing to lingering Indian concerns.   

India and the US have expressed their differences over trade related issues and sued each other in WTO on a spate of issues. Each of them attracted the attention of the other towards the protectionist measures each pursued. India’s environmental concerns and the need for assistance have been sidelined by the US when Trump decided to walk away from the Paris Climate Agreement. Global aspirations and role of the US and its willingness to invest its resources in different parts of the globe have rarely been supported by India which is normally expected from strategic partners. India’s limited power and role and its willingness to preserve its hard-won independence and  sovereignty and political compulsion of preventing internationalization of Kashmir issue led India to express strong disagreement with the US as regards viewpoints and role in Kosovo, Libya, Ukraine and Syria to name a few. Even while India’s relations with the US are placed on a firm-footing and therefore, stable and poised to grow further, India still needs necessary wiggle room to defend and pursue its interests as a developing country.

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