India’s Strategic Partnership with the US may be a Slippery Slope

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Indian Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj and Indian Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman wave to reporters, at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Jawaharlal Nehru Bhawan, New Delhi, India, Sept. 6. The leaders are meeting for the first ever U.S.-India 2+2 ministerial dialogue in which they are affirming their commitment to enhancing the U.S.-India relationship. (Lisa Ferdinando/DoD)

by Dr. Manoj Kumar Mishra      8 September 2018

While signing of the defence pact – Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) which would enable India to buy high-end secured communication equipment to be installed on military platforms from the US in the recently concluded 2+2 dialogue has caught the news headlines apart from the discussions on H-1B Visa and counterterrorism cooperation, there were apparently no discussions on much anticipated American concessions on India’s missile deal with Russia (S-400 missile deal) and oil imports from Iran. The discussions seemingly more gravitate towards American agenda than India’s interests. Even while the defence pact would end India’s reliance on less secured commercially available communication systems on high-end American platforms, there are strategic experts who had expressed their concerns that the agreement (when the agreement was in discussion stage) would compromise India’s strategic autonomy by facilitating American intrusion into the Indian defence communication systems not only by allowing visits by US officials to Indian bases to inspect equipment safeguarded under COMCASA, it could technologically enable the US closely monitor India’s defence preparedness and moves. There are also arguments that India’s original military platforms and already existing Russian military platforms may not be compatible with COMCASA. Although discussions might have dispelled some of India’s concerns, the security pact must be as per American military and strategic interests rather than those of India. Apart from this, India’s one-dimensional promotion of strategic interests with the US at the expense of its multi-faceted and close ties with Russia and Iran would jeopardize its strategic interests in the long-run.

Although Indo-US strategic relations have witnessed a steady rise since the 1990s, these have never been without involving India’s concerns and reservations. The foundation to Indo-US ties was laid at the beginning of the 1990s when India opened up its economy and shunned the Nehruvian economic model based on a vision of socialistic pattern of society following the disintegration of the Soviet Union – its closest partner during the Cold War years. The decade witnessed Clinton Administration’s active intervention in forcing Pakistan to withdraw its forces sent across the Line of Control (LoC) into the Indian side during the Kargil war. The Bush Administration de-hyphenated the American relationship with India and Pakistan by making it clear that while it was keen on having a good relationship with Pakistan, India would be treated on its right and not about US ties with Pakistan. 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 more significant 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. American aid and assistance to Pakistan although raised Indian concerns, Indo-US relations continued to grow.

However, Indo-US relations evolved into a strategic partnership with the signing of the milestone deal on the bilateral civil nuclear energy cooperation in 2005 (Civil Nuclear Deal of 2005) during the Bush Administration in the US. This deal was designed to facilitate the supply of American nuclear energy technology, uranium and reactors to India for civilian purposes and to provide India with all benefits that the signatories to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) receive. While this was a landmark achievement in bilateral relations in the light of India’s refusal to sign the treaty even under the constant American pressure, legitimate Indian concerns regarding liability issues and commercial non-viability of the deal as well proved as significant hindrances to implementing the agreement on the ground.
Indo-US strategic relations were forged ahead while India was considered central to the Obama Administration’s pivot to Asia strategy. New Delhi and Washington issued the Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region in January 2015, 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. Defence trade between the two countries witnessed quick strides from $1 billion in 2008 to over $15 billion by the end of 2016. The US also declared India as a Major Defence Partner in December 2016. Close defence ties between the two countries enabled them to conduct the highest number of joint military exercises within a short span.

Although Indo-US relations were growing irreversibly since the 1990s and deepening in the strategic realm, there were dents in the bilateral ties which hindered horizontal alignment of interests. Obama Administration’s ‘AfPak’ strategy relegated India to a subordinate position compared to Pakistan which received massive security and development aid to fight terrorism and secure development in the border areas to prevent these soft target areas falling as safe havens to Al Qaeda. The US under the Obama’s leadership was also engaged in hastily drawing down its forces in Afghanistan and toyed with the idea of reconciliation with the Taliban primarily relying on Pakistan’s assistance. The Administration stepped into a Pakistani-prompted discourse of good or reconcilable Taliban versus bad or irreconcilable Taliban.

Starting from the Bush to Obama Administration, Pakistan was flush with American assistance despite Pakistan’s controversial role in fighting terrorism. For instance, from 2002 to 2010, the US provided almost $19 billion to Pakistan which did not include any commitments such as the Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan act of 2009. However, Pakistan used the military aid for purposes other than combating terrorism. According to Azeem Ibrahim, “The Pakistani military did not use most of the funds for the agreed objective of fighting terror. Pakistan bought much conventional military equipment. Examples include F-16s, aircraft-mounted armaments, anti-ship, and anti-missile defence systems, and an air defence radar system costing $200 million, even though the terrorists in FATA have no air attack capability. Over half of the total funds-54.9 per cent-were spent on fighter aircraft and weapons, over quarter-26.62 percent on support and other aircraft, and 10 percent on advanced weapons systems”. (Ibrahim, A., 2009. US aid to Pakistan-US taxpayers has funded Pakistani Corruption, Belfer Centre Discussion Paper#2009-06, International Security Programme, Harvard: John. F. Kennedy School of Government,

While India’s role was conceived more critical to the American objectives of containing China, New Delhi’s concerns emanating from Afghanistan were given secondary importance given the Obama Administration’s strategic proclivity and sensitivities towards Pakistan. For instance, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, who accompanied US Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke to New Delhi in July 2010, wanted India to focus on its military-to-military cooperation with America and to work hard with the US to counter China’s “assertive … territorial claims and aggressive approach to the near-sea area recently”. At the same time, Mr. Holbrooke advised India not to worry about the future of Afghanistan, where New Delhi would have a role to play. (Bhadrakumar, M.K., 2010. Politics of Taliban reconciliation. The Hindu, 31 July,
Although the American strategic relations with India were primarily governed by the imperatives relatively independent of the latter’s security concerns, there were still significant strides in the bilateral security relations which also witnessed a spurt in trade relations. As per the statistics projected by the US Department Commerce, US Census Bureau and US Bureau of Economic Analysis, total bilateral trade including goods and services between India and the US rose from $20 billion in the year 2000 to over $126.1 billion in 2017. Similarly, investment has increased in steady pace amounting to $32.9 billion US investment flowing into India between 2005 and 2016.

It was towards the concluding phase of the Obama Administration that the ‘AfPak’ strategy was revised which not only paused the withdrawal of troops but rolled back the policy of lavishing aid to Pakistan by scaling down US assistance to Pakistan from $2.177 in 2014 to $1.118 billion in 2016. The American belief that Pakistan’s assistance could be secured to fight US specific terror threats and reconciliation with the Taliban could be affected received a severe setback with the continued rise of violence in Afghanistan against foreign forces which led to the convergence of American and Indian security concerns. For instance, two US Congress legislators moved to introduce a bill designating Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism following the terrorist attack on Uri military camp in India.
The Trump Administration was not only critical of Pakistan’s alleged role in sponsoring terrorism in Afghanistan but the American and Indian security concerns aligned when President Trump expressed grave concerns in unambiguous terms and criticized Islamabad for its release of the alleged mastermind of Mumbai terrorist attack Hafiz Saeed from house arrest. A joint statement issued following the meeting between the leaders Modi and Trump in June 2017 called on Pakistan to bring the perpetrators of Mumbai, Pathankot and other cross-border terrorist attacks to justice and the US Department of State designated Hijbul Mujahideen chief Syed Salahuddin – allegedly the mastermind of the Mumbai attacks – as a global terrorist. Trump Administration not only suspended security assistance to Pakistan and condemned its role in harboring ‘the agents of chaos,’ it clearly expressed its desire to cast India in a more prominent role in its South Asia and Indo-Pacific policy.

The American Administration has granted India ‘Strategic Trade Authorization-1′ (STA-1) status with an objective to ease export controls over high technology product sales. While the Obama Administration initiated the process of close defence ties between India and the US with the signing of LEMOA, the Trump Administration continued the process with the signing of COMCASA in the 2+2 meeting and other agreement ‘Basic Exchange, and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-spatial Cooperation’ (BECA) is waiting to complete the process. It is no gainsaying that Indo-US relations during the Trump Administration also moved through hitches as Trump’s ‘America first’ policy palpably contrasted with Modi’s ‘Make in India’ vision. While the US announced tariffs on Indian export of steel and aluminum, India raised tariffs on 46 items imported from the US. The Trump Administration raised the issue of India’s export subsidies which reportedly harmed American workers at World Trade Organization (WTO) while Indian leadership raised the issue of import restrictions imposed by the US at the multilateral trade organization. Trump Administration withdrew from the Paris Climate Agreement which stood in sharp contrast to India’s interests as well as interests of other developing countries.

While the Trump Administration is poised to contain influence of Iran, Russia, and China by introducing various measures ranging from multiple sanctions (against Iran and Russia) to wage a trade war (against China) against them, India’s reckless pursing of strategic relations with the US would most likely put its desire for diplomatic multifaceted ties intrinsic to Modi’s policy of multi-alignment and its long-held administration of strategic autonomy in jeopardy. On the one hand, Russia, China, Iran, and Pakistan are witnessed cooperating and strengthening their security ties and trying to address their security concerns in Afghanistan, India has shown overreliance on American war and peace strategy by putting all its eggs in the American basket on the other. It would be worthwhile to mention that American policy is primarily geared towards containing Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific region and tear apart emerging China-Pakistan geopolitical axis in the form of ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ and India figures in primarily as an ally to serve this purpose. The American reluctance to assist Pakistan with IMF loans to repay Chinese debts brings forth Washington’s such geopolitical concerns. If the US and China can reach a common understanding and reconcile their geopolitical objectives, it will put India’s security interests in Afghanistan in peril given the US including China and Pakistan are part of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group formed to facilitate peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. India which is unable to forge close ties with Russia and Iran under the weight of American partnership will be pushed further into a corner if such scenario emerges.

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