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Indo-US strategic relations: Strengths and limits

Published : Monday, 16 July, 2018 at 12:00 AM  Count : 195
Dr Manoj Kumar Mishra

Growth in Indo-US relations despite US's dependence on Pakistan for 'War on Terror':
India opened up its economy in 1991 and shed its professed obsession with socialistic ideology, moving closer towards the West ideologically and in terms of public policy. Many sectors of the Indian economy -- hitherto closed for the US -- had opened for economic engagements. The US software industries were flush with Indian professionals in the US and many worked for them offshore.

As a semblance of US's recognition of India's growing economic clout, the Clinton Administration forcefully intervened to pressure Pakistan to withdraw its forces sent across the Line of Control in Kashmir near the town of Kargil in mid-1999. In the same year, Pakistan was subject to US sanctions following the removal of a democratically elected government by an army chief Pervez Musharraf through military coup. The Bush Administration, being aware of India's economic and military clout, de-hyphenated the relationship between India and Pakistan by making it clear that while it was keen on having good relationship with Pakistan, India would be treated on its own right and not in reference to US's ties with Pakistan.

India's response to the changing US gestures was very positive. India was one of the countries to have responded immediately, positively and enthusiastically to Bush's allegedly controversial National Missile Defence (NMD) program.When the US declared the 'War on Terror', India expected a greater role in the reconstruction of the economy and polity of the post-9/11 Afghanistan and, therefore, declared its immediate support and within a short time the government had offered all logistic help to Washington. 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 bigger role in Afghanistan in the provision of supply routes for the US and NATO convoys, and the US had to rely heavily on intelligence inputs from Pakistan to curb militancy in Afghanistan.

Notwithstanding the US's increased dependence on Pakistan, the relations between the US and India -- during the Bush Administration -- cemented with the signing of the Indo-US Civil Nuclear Deal in 2005, with the intention to facilitate the supply of the US's nuclear energy technology, uranium and reactors to India for civilian purposes. The deal poised to provide India with all benefits that the signatories to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) receive, although India had been refuting to sign the treaty even under the US's pressure. This is a milestone in bilateral relations between India and the US from Indian perspective despite legitimate concerns regarding liability issues and commercial non-viability of the deal. The deal came with the recognition of India as a nuclear weapons power.

During the time when the deal was in the process, Indian nuclear-power-plants had been facing the problem of uranium shortage and some were on the verge of shutdown. Russia insisted that it would be able to authorize the supply of uranium only after India got approval of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. In this context, the pertinence of this deal rose in significance. The deal is also significant from another perspective as it could never have been possible without the US's recognition of India as a sensible nuclear-weapon-power with declared policies of 'no first use' and 'minimum credible deterrence'.

It can be seen in contrast to the US's perception of Pakistan, which allegedly passed on sensitive nuclear information to Iran and Libya and its continued instability raised the spectre of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of militants. The deal opened up further possibilities of Indo-US engagement on strategic issues.

As the war in Afghanistan deepened, the Obama Administration's dependence on Pakistan increased. The administration's Af-Pak strategy indicated that the US seemed more interested in taking on those terrorist groups who were against the western interests by concentrating on the Af-Pak area whereas the centre for cross-border terrorism across the Line of Control between India and Pakistan was [allegedly] located in some of the eastern provinces of Pakistan.

However, the Indian concern that the 'War on Terror' should be an all-out fight against militant groups that are organically linked with each other found little resonance in the US foreign policy concerns. Pakistan became the recipient of enormous US aid to fight terrorism, and the territorial integrity and socioeconomic development also deserved the US's attention and aid with the primary concern that Pakistan did not collapse and its nuclear arsenal did not fall into the hands of militants.   

Mumbai terrorist attacks in 2008 had led the US leadership to condemn such acts and express solidarity with India to fight terrorism. Furthermore, when the US forces killed Osama bin Laden -- who was [allegedly] sheltered by the Pakistani authorities[i] -- in Abbottabad in 2011, the US-Pakistan relations touched a new low.

What's more, two US Congress legislators had taken the efforts to introduce a bill designating Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism, showing signs of promising strategic partnership between India and the US following the terrorist attack on Uri military camp in India during the concluding phase of Obama Administration.

However, the Obama Administration's plan to withdraw the US forces from Afghanistan (by fixing timeline for it) prevented the US from taking harsh measures against Pakistan. Instead, the US's dependence on Pakistan increased, as the US was seeking a political solution to the Afghan conundrum.

It's worth noting that the US, under the Obama Administration, and India signed the bilateral Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) giving each of the two military access to the other's facilities for supplies and repairs in a major attempt to take defence relations between these two countries a notch ahead.

The succeeding US administration under Trump, from the beginning, was categorical about the alleged role of Pakistan in sponsoring terrorism and, therefore, came out with unambiguous expression of deep concerns and criticisms following the alleged mastermind of Mumbai terrorist attack Hafiz Saeed's release from house arrest in Pakistan. The Trump administration not only withheld military assistance to Pakistan condemning its role in harbouring 'the agents of chaos', it clearly expressed its desire to cast India in a more prominent role in its policy concerning the South Asian and the Indo-Pacific[ii] regions.

Indo-US strategic relations deepened gradually during almost all the US administrations and different factors contributed to the strengthening of the relations. While the US support for Pakistan waxed and waned quickly, the US relations with India grew independent of the US's relations with Pakistan. India's interests and concerns were not completely ignored by the US even during the Cold War years notwithstanding Pakistan's dissatisfaction as an ally. The breadth of US and India relations has widened considerably after the end of the Cold War with opening up of the Indian economy and deepening of defence ties.

Divergences of roles and interests:
India has expressed its willingness to continue close defence ties with Russia not only for repairing and updating of its existing Russian made defence equipments, but also for new defence deals in order to diversify its military supplies as part of its policy of multi-alignment -- something that is not a welcome development in the eyes of Washington.

The US has expressed its displeasure at the Indian move to buy air-defence-system from Russia -- the state with which any major defence deals are to face sanctions under the US law. India's invitation to Russia to become a part of Russia's Indo-Pacific vision will not be seen favourably in Washington.

What's more, India's willingness to forge close ties with Iran for energy supplies and gain accessibility to Afghanistan -- bypassing Pakistan -- is at odds with the Trump Administration's withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and with the attempt of bringing-in new sanctions against Iran.

The US would find it difficult to abandon Pakistan despite its displeasure and rhetoric castigating Pakistan for not doing enough to contain militancy against US presence in Afghanistan. The alternatives to the Pakistani intelligence inputs to curb militancy and the alternatives to the supply routes for the US and NATO convoys are not currently available to the US. Furthermore, the US-Iran tensions and Russian caution against any heightened US presence in Russian backyard would drive the impetus of the US's dependence on Pakistan for supply routes. These aforesaid factors will remain as irritants in the Indo-US relations.

India and the US have expressed their differences over trade related issues and sued each other in WTO on a spate of issues. Each of them has attracted the attention of the other towards the protectionist measures each pursued. India's environmental concerns and the need for assistance have been sidelined by the US when Trump decided to walk away from the Paris Climate Agreement.

Global aspirations and role of the US and its willingness to invest its resources in different parts of the globe have rarely been supported by India which is normally expected from strategic partners. India's limited power and role and its willingness to preserve its hard-won independence and sovereignty and political compulsion of preventing internationalization of Kashmir issue led India to express strong disagreement with the US as regards viewpoints and role in Kosovo, Libya, Ukraine and Syria to name a few.

Indo-US strategic relations will also depend on how both fare on the proposed two foundational agreements on major defence partnership -- namely COMCASA and BECA. Therefore, there are areas for both sides to work on. Keeping their respective role and aspirations in perspective, the Indo-US strategic relations may not be as promising as some leaders and scholars from both sides epitomize such as natural allies or defining partners, but the history suggests that the relations will not decline rather will witness a steady rise.
[i] David Headley's interrogation revealed Pakistani intelligence agency ISI's alleged connections with al-Qaeda and LeT.

[ii] The Indo-Pacific is a biogeographic region of Earth's seas, comprising the tropical waters of the Indian Ocean, the western and central Pacific Ocean, and the seas connecting the two in the general area of Indonesia. The term's profile was raised when it found mention in the joint statement issued by the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and United States President Donald Trump after the former's state visit to the White House on 26 June 2017.

(Concluding part)

Dr Manoj Kumar Mishra is Lecturer in Political Science, SVM Autonomous College, Odisha, India. This is the second part of his article retrieved from the Oped Column Syndication exclusive forthe Daily Observer

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