Increasing divergences bog down Indo-US strategic partnership (Comment)

November 6th, 2010 - 9:54 am ICT by IANS  

Barack Obama By A. Vinod Kumar
In an era where even a strategic partnership between India and China is theoretically possible, the unrelenting emphasis on India’s strategic relationship with the US often seems a fashion statement. As relations between the world’s largest democracies get intensely scrutinised, diplomatic niceties constrain both parties from accepting that increasing divergences are pushing back the partnership to the basics.

While squarely blaming the Obama administration for causing a major share of reversions, seldom considered is the fact that dogmatic incompatibilities prevailed from day one of the partnership, which were consequently overlooked as issues not central to a maturing relationship. Seven years down the line, areas of divergence now threaten to outnumber the areas of convergence - a peculiar situation that dominated India-US relations during the years predating the bonhomie.

As President Barack Obama now strives to elevate the quantum of interdependence and coherence of common interests with an ‘indispensable’ partner, long-standing disagreements come back to the fore with negligible concord seen on key global issues.

At the core of the dissonance is the moot question: can asymmetric powers have a strategic relationship which, most importantly, signifies an egalitarian equation? Will it risk projecting a hegemon-client state relationship where the latter ends up as a feeder to the hegemon’s interests? Will the pressure of reciprocity confine the relationship to a give and take equation, thereby eroding common interests? These fundamentals remain unaddressed even as the debate veers around the question of ‘what one did for the other’.

The partnership began with recognition of major divergences and attempts to understand each other’s position. Initiatives like the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership (NSSP) led to concrete agreements on sensitive areas like nuclear and defence cooperation, though without rectifying historical dichotomies. Facilitating India’s integration into the non-proliferation regime - the driving theme behind the nuclear deal - remain unfulfilled as India refused to accede to the regime’s cornerstone, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), while Washington failed to reform the outdated edifice to suit the emerging environment.

The defence cooperation agreement, on the other hand, has evolved into a supplier-vendor framework with actual potential for comprehensive defence partnership being eroded. Despite common threats and interoperability emerging among the forces, India resists any ideas of union between the two democracies which resembles a military alliance.

Flowing from such ambivalence is a host of lingering issues, including high technology, nuclear liability legislation, counter-terror cooperation and Security Council membership, which have predictably taken centre-stage in recent weeks. Though explanations from both sides have been traded to justify their positions, concrete attempts to resolve the underlying causal factors largely remain uninitiated. At the core is Washington’s endless desire to force India’s compatibility with its foreign policy goals, ranging from Af-Pak to counter-terror to non-proliferation. This raises a pertinent question: can a strategic partnership endure when the dominant partner pushes its interests at the cost of the other?

Nowhere is this feature more visible than in the Af-Pak dynamics. Besides catering to the Pakistani obstinacy of not allowing any strategic space to India in Afghanistan, Washington has effectively insulated action against Pakistan-based terror groups, especially the 26/11 perpetrators, by concentrating overwhelming focus on the Taliban. But for occasional exhortations on Pakistan to act against these groups, little effort has come from Washington to rectify the mockery of 26/11 investigations. It is, although, ironic that India has to depend on Washington to safeguard and promote its security interests in the region. A greater affront was the administration’s decision to continue the perennial flow of billions as counter-terror and political assistance into a hub of terrorism, despite realising that a major chunk end ups with the anti-India machinery in Pakistan’s security establishment, which also plays a double-game in the anti-Taliban operations.

Washington’s reluctance to change its traditional tilt towards Pakistan, thus, prompts a natural poser: what has India gained from the strategic partnership that Pakistan has not, without one? More importantly, will the partnership justify its raison d’ĂȘtre when India’s interests are consistently undermined in Af-Pak?

Opacity and conflicting interests were hallmarks on the counter-terror front as well. US officials intensely argue that the access to David Headley was unprecedented and that it embodied India’s significance in its counter-terror framework. This is to ignore the struggles that Indian officials underwent in contrast to the smooth access US sleuths had to the 26/11 culprits. The resultant friction best testifies how Washington determines the terms of such cooperation and refuses to initiate best practices through comprehensive cooperation.

A new irritant in the partnership is said to be the nuclear liability bill whose supplier liability provisions disappointed the US nuclear industry, and has subsequently been projected as a spoiler for nuclear cooperation. This argument is made despite realising that the bill came after intense domestic debate. Legislatures in democracies are naturally expected to endow greater importance to their populace than tailor laws to suit industry requirements. For a country traumatised by the Bhopal gas tragedy, putting in place sufficient compensatory structures is vital to initiate its part of the nuclear renaissance.

Finally, the US support to India’s permanent membership in a reformed Security Council has been touted as a litmus test for the strategic partnership. American experts suggest that this could come only when India shows greater reciprocity by backing US policies globally. Such assertions imply pushing India to turn a client-state with its foreign policy surrendered to US interests, which even hard-core US allies could desist doing.

Common interests were supposed to shape this strategic partnership. Yet, there is minimal convergence on common goals and perceptions on the emergent world order. With its dominance in southern Asia fast eroding, India as a major power (which President Bush promised to facilitate) is the best bet for Washington to promote its interests in the region, especially in the face of an aggressively-rising China.

The Obama administration could be clearer on what it expects from India, and New Delhi on what it can give. The partnership could then pursue only what is pragmatic.

(06.11.2010 - The author is Associate Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. He can be contacted at

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