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U.S.-India: Playing Down the Strategic Partnership?

Aparna Pande

Has the United States abandoned the idea of a strategic partnership with India? It seemed so, based on what the new U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Nisha Biswal told the foreign press in Washington D.C. recently. She said, “I come to the State Department with a long experience on Capitol Hill, at USAID, and working in the humanitarian and development community. And that brings, for me, a particular perspective on how I approach our foreign policy and diplomacy in the South and Central Asia region at this very important time… Throughout the region, we’ve been working with governments and civil society to work to build those political transitions and to support both young democracies and more established ones. We want to continue to support the efforts of inclusive and participatory political systems. We want to support the rights of ethnic minorities and religious minorities in all of these countries and marginalized communities.”

A strategic partnership can be founded on close ties between national security planners, diplomats and military leaders. Civil society is important as are cultural exchanges. But Ms. Biswal appears lost in the weeds if she truly believes that a strategic partnership can be founded on U.S. support for Indian civil society.

Relations between India and the United States have often suffered in the past because of misaligned priorities at regular intervals. It seems that we are, once again, in a similar situation. India’s foreign policy has been remarkably consistent since independence. The Americans, on the other hand, change their priorities with every election and often with change in senior officials.

Last year, Ms Biswal’s predecessor Robert Blake, focused on India’s potential as the anchor of the Indian Ocean region and other American officials spoke of its possible role in off-setting China’s rise as a military threat in Asia. Those were certainly strategic issues. But the ostensibly new approach of talking about assistance and civil society cooperation will undoubtedly be seen as a downgrading of the relationship to something not so strategic.

Since the 1990s, India-U.S. ties have grown exponentially in every arena from the economy to security. They are underpinned by shared democratic values. Bilateral trade is now over $60 billion with potential for more growth. Collaboration in defense and security, including counter-terrorism and cyber security, has grown. The two countries share cultural values like democracy, secularism and pluralism.

While India’s economy is currently experiencing a slowing down it continues to have tremendous potential. American companies seem eager to benefit from the Indian economic boom. With the removal of restrictions on Indian defense and space organizations partnerships can be forged between the companies of both countries. Joint research in the field of green energy is another arena for expansion of ties, as is American assistance in the fields of agricultural productivity, weather and crop forecasting and water harvesting.

For decades Indian policy makers viewed U.S. policy — especially its support of Pakistan —being that of an off-shore balancer to counter so-called Indian hegemony in South Asia. Starting with the Bush administration, American officials stated that U.S. sees India as an emerging global power.

The two countries have military-to-military ties, deepening arms sales and a common desire to defend the domains of cyber and outer space. Both U.S. and India desire a stable and peaceful Afghanistan and fear the growth of radical Islamist groups, including the Taliban, Al Qaeda, Lashkar e Taiba and other such organizations. India has long stated that a stable democratic Pakistan was in India’s vital interests and that peace in the region is India’s goal. India and the U.S. also seek an inclusive global security architecture.

After the warmth of the Clinton and Bush administrations and especially the White Houses, there has been a growing sense in Delhi that in recent times Washington’s interest has diminished. The strategic partnership and dialogues as well as the visits of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Barack Obama helped somewhat and it appeared like the two countries were finding their rhythm.

The U.S. policy of re-balancing or pivoting toward Asia was seen as a positive and countries like India expected to see a strengthening of strategic ties with the U.S. For Indian strategists, security considerations are paramount and they view India’s neighborhood as extending from the Gulf and the East coast of Africa to Indonesia and Philippines.

For India its security is under threat from terrorism, it faces a China whose reach is growing and India is concerned about Afghanistan and Pakistan. In recent years, Delhi started to view Washington as a close partner in dealing with all these challenges. Recent American decisions and statements have led to the resurgence in India of the old Nehruvian view of the U.S., the view that the U.S. is unpredictable and unreliable.

Indian strategists and policy makers are concerned about the U.S. military drawdown in Afghanistan and especially the possibility of a “zero option.” The lukewarm and conflicting American response to China’s air defense zone in East Asia has New Delhi worried. In this context, New Delhi will be alarmed that at a time like this the focus of the India- U.S. relationship has moved from strategic issues to civil society and development, especially with an American of Indian origin as the new point person at the State Department.

Soft power and people-to-people ties are important between countries but these ties are best left to the people and not government. At a time when India is concerned about its security and the fact that the region it is located in is going to keep facing turbulence for some time to come, the defining aspect of the India-U.S. relationship should be strategic (security and economy) not development.

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