Why US, India strategic ties can’t sustain

By Mao Keji Source:Global Times Published: 2017/11/20 17:48:40

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Three months ago, the new South Asia policy that US President Donald Trump laid out was a cause of much optimism in New Delhi. It singled out Pakistan for harboring Islamist insurgents and signaled a tilt toward India. Recently, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's speech on Indo-US relations for the next century again drove Washington's South Asia strategy into the spotlight.

Revolving around the rhetoric of "free and open Indo-Pacific," a newfound exuberance has permeated ties between Washington and New Delhi.

A shared strategic interest is not new to the two largest democracies in the world. With common rival China moving ahead rapidly, it is critical how they render their strategic partnership sustainable in the long run.

The US-India civil nuclear agreement was characterized by a coordination problem between the two countries. Trying to forge a strategic relationship outside the alliance, the role Washington and New Delhi played remained unclear. As neither side was willing to play second fiddle, there were continuous rifts. For example, the US official who worked for years under domestic and international pressure to give shape to India's status as a nuclear power was disappointed by India's ungrateful attitude shrouded in the demand for strategic autonomy.

Can India and the US strike a new and more sustainable partnership today? To reset ties, they have to redefine their role in the strategic partnership.

Decision-makers in both nations are in search of a comfortable stance. Washington and New Delhi face a spectrum of choices between two extremes - to completely yield to the other party or dig in.

To yield to India's stubborn "strategic autonomy," Washington may continue to aid India's rise on the global stage without the expectation that New Delhi will repay this generosity in specific ways. This option is best summarized by Indian-American strategist Ashley Tellis: "India will preserve a regional balance of power that constrains China's capacity to dominate Asia merely by the fact of India's own development and strategic success, thereby advancing US interests in the process."  According to him, assisting India's rise should automatically amount to building objective constraints on the Chinese power for Washington. While this argument will surely be welcomed by New Delhi as it reduces India's obligation, it will also raise concern inside the US and among its allies.

More importantly, such a unilateral bargain fits poorly into Trump's "America First" agenda, given that he often brags about his deal-making capacity.

Alternatively, Washington may emphasize give-and-take as the nature of relation, articulating the binding duties and obligations that the Indo-US strategic partnership entails. While such a partnership may appear equal, the gap between India and the US in terms of military, economic, technological and diplomatic power will likely suck New Delhi into the US orbit. India may quickly wake up to the fact that it wants more things from the US than the other way round.

New Delhi may also find its strategic autonomy seriously compromised once it owes Washington favors but can hardly pay back.

It is ideal for New Delhi to enjoy all US assistance, but at the same time hold fast to its cherished strategic autonomy. Here, India's strategic autonomy means an independent foreign policy that frees it from the burden of external obligations. However, it seems unlikely. True, that India's geostrategic location and potential render it a natural balancer in Asia which advance US interests in an objective way, but the structural pressures facing them are simply not compelling enough to merit India a unilateral recipient of US aid like the Soviet Union under the Lend-Lease Act during WWII.

The good news is that Modi - who enjoys an unprecedented mandate and displayed an unusual enthusiasm for India's international presence - has appeared to be far more flexible in terms of foreign policy than his predecessors. To what extent is New Delhi willing to give up strategic autonomy for US support remains unclear.

For example, if New Delhi yielded to binding reciprocity after the Indo-US Civil Nuclear Agreement, it would have been unable to oppose Western interventions in Libya and Syria at the UN, or continue energy imports from Iran, or object to US initiatives in WTO. Will India be ready to be constrained by the US in such a fashion? It seems until the external threats India faces become pressing, New Delhi will not risk its strategic autonomy.

A full-blown Indo-US strategic partnership remains unlikely given the mismatch of expectations and strategic calculations. On the one hand, Washington is pivoting away from Pakistan and agrees to join India in building infrastructure across the region, which dispels New Delhi's concerns over Washington's previous stance toward Pakistan as well as China's presence in South Asia. India has also agreed to further "Americanize" its arsenal and upgrade joint military exercises.

While developments may appear encouraging, there is still a long way to go for the two sides before they reach the kind of strategic convergence "free and open Indo-Pacific" entails.

The author is a researcher with the Pangoal Institution. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn


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