US-India strategic alliance: Implications for South Asia


 Muhammad Mahmood |  July 28, 2019

Since the early 1990s, there has been a rapid transformation of US-India strategic relationship. President Barack Obama called the US-India relationship as one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century. The US now views New Delhi as its major global strategic military partner and in turn India equates its strategic objectives in Asia with those of the US. The treaties covering the alliance now permit the US to use Indian military bases and India to use the military bases in Diego Garcia. Though India will remain a subordinate partner in such an alliance, yet such an arrangement can enable India to fulfil its old ambition of projecting its power in the entire South Asian region. The containment of China, especially in the South China Sea, is also the other major objective of the US-India strategic alliance.

India’s foreign policy of “non-alignment” as initiated by the country’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, has now changed the gear to “multi-alignment” foreign policy. This much touted foreign policy shift is primarily a cover for disguising its strategic alliance with the US. This is also signalling a shift away from long-standing closer relationship of India with Russia. This shift clearly manifests, among other policy re-orientations, in India’s increasing reliance on purchasing weapons away from Russia which has historically been the principal supplier of weapons to India.

The deepening US-India alliance has been driven to a very considerable extent by the purchase of weapons from the US. The total volume of weapon imports went up from near zero to more than US$15 billion over the last 15 years or so and many more billions are in the pipeline. On the other hand, Russia accounted for 76 per cent of all weapon imports into India between 2008-2013, and that figure declined to 58 per cent from 2013-2018, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). Under the US pressure, India also ditched oil imports from Iran.

India is the largest arms purchaser in the world, making it the most lucrative market for the arms sellers around the world. The US now is the third largest arms supplier to India only after Russia and Israel. The war industry in the US is the most thriving and powerful industry and also the major export industry. The war industry in the US is the bedrock of the military-industrial complex of the country which practically guides both its defence and foreign policy.

India remains now under intense pressure to move away from Russia to the US for its arms purchases in line with Trump’s ‘America first policy’ to boost exports, then there is the Sanctions Act (CAATSA) to counter the US adversaries like Russia, Iran and North Korea. As a subordinate partner in its strategic alliance with the US, India will find itself gradually compelled to tow the US line. A senior State Department official has already warned that India must make or break decision on its strategic orientation.

Narendra Modi, the Indian Prime Minister, has given the clearest signal that his second term in office will be dedicated to further strengthening his strategic alliance with the US, especially in the military sphere. It must be noted that Modi was once banned from entering the US due to his role in the 2002 anti-Muslim Gujarat pogrom; but Barack Obama lifted the ban and received him in the White House.

However, such a policy re-orientation by Modi has widespread support across the political divide in India. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to New Delhi in late June further emphasised the deepening of strategic relationship between the two countries. In essence, one of his main objectives was to decisively pivot India away from Russia.

It may be pointed out that from Trump’s perspective serious trade-related conflicts exist between the two countries, as he terms India as the “tariff king”. But it was Mike Pompeo not Robert Lighthizer, the USTR ( United States Trade Representative ), who came to visit India emphasising the uppermost importance of the strategic alliance between the two countries. Pompeo met with Prime Minister Modi. At the conclusion of Modi-Pompeo meeting, the Indian Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying that the meeting was marked by willingness of both the countries to working on together to “deepen a strategic partnership”.

While flying the slogan of “multi-alignment’ high, Indian policy bankruptcy has become quite obvious. The discredited slogan to disguise its strategic alliance with the US no longer does its trick. India needs to understand that such an alliance is viewed by China and Russia as detrimental to both the countries’ interests.

In fact, this policy has become a game changer in the South Asian region and will further complicate geo-political rivalry in the region. It will provide the strategic impetus to Russia to strengthen its ties with Pakistan as the main component of its strategic policy objective to return to South Asia. China already has strategic alliance with Pakistan. On the flipside of it, Pakistan can now forget about any favour from Washington whether military or diplomatic support for Kashmir dispute despite Trump’s conciliatory gestures shown to the Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan during his visit to Washington in late June.

Meanwhile, Modi and Trump met in Osaka on the sidelines of the G20 meeting – first since Modi’s second-time election victory. First Daughter Ivanka Trump, who is also President Trump’s senior adviser, twitted on the meeting between the two and described India as a “critical trading partner, critical security partner and a critical ally”. Modi also twitted conveying the message that his talks with Trump was wide-ranging.

The US-India strategic alliance is purportedly aimed at countering rising economic and military might of China but it also has significant effects on strategic stability of South Asia. The increased military cooperation between the two countries will further embolden India to bullying its smaller neighbours. India has long history of bullying its neighbours to tow its line. But China would be a very different ball game.

The historical root of bullying behaviour of India towards its smaller neighbours lies in its preoccupation to recreate the Mythical India. India, as a successor state to the British colonial India, is still grappling with the idea of identifying with the Mythical India. As historian Perry Anderson in his book The Indian Ideology said ” Nehru’s claim of an “impress of oneness”, going back six thousand years, persisted from pre-war writings like The Unity of India to his final dispute with China, in which the Mahabharata could be invoked by his foreign office as proof that North East Frontier Agency had been part of Mother India from time immemorial, rather as if the Nibelungenlied were to clinch German diplomatic claims to Morocco”. Since Nehru, Indian political elite simply has been unable to come to terms with fact that the South Asian Peninsula or the sub-continent never formed a singular political or cultural identity before the British colonial period. To pursue such a policy India needs a huge army and channelling of massive amount of resources to support that army.

Over the last four years India has been involved in three war-like crises with its neighbours. This is something India can hardly afford and it only perpetuates India’s poverty and underdevelopment. Three-quarters of its people live under US$2.0 a day. The country is desperately poor. Its military budget is above US$50 billion and rising, same as that of France and Russia. Even with such a massive military machine at its disposal, its army has been struggling since independence to maintain the unity of India which remains fractured in parts of the country till today.

Since independence to provide an ideological mooring in otherwise a disjointed state with multitude of ethnicities, languages and religions practices, secularism, a word hardly understood within the wider population, was incorporated into the constitution with the hope it would glue the people together. No wonder since independence India in effect has functioned as a Syndicated Hinduism (this is the title of the latest book by India’s noted historian Romila Thapar). That now under Modi is getting much better fine-tuned with the added features of public lynching and humiliation of its Muslim population.

The growing US-India strategic alliance is encouraging India to aggressively assert its claim to be the hegemon in South Asia, demanding that its smaller neighbours acknowledge its dominance in the region. It is also instigating a number of inter-state conflicts within the region. The US-India strategic alliance, indeed, has very serious implications for the region and is emerging as the major threat to strategic stability in South Asia.

Muhammad Mahmood is an independent economic and political analyst.

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