Event ReportsPublished on Aug 12, 2015
There is huge potential for development of the relationship between the US and India. Yet achieving this promise will require careful strategic planning from the governments of both nations, according to panellists at a discussion on the "India-US Partnership".
India-US partnership ripe for development

There is huge potential for development of the relationship between the US and India. Yet achieving this promise will require careful strategic planning from the governments of both nations, agreed the panellists at a discussion on the "India-US Partnership" held on August 12, 2014 at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi.

Following on from the recent Special Address by US Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel, and the publication in March of a collection of essays on ’India and the Global Economy’, produced in partnership with Hudson Institute, the discussion considered factors which had held up Indo-US relations in the past and what the salient issues would be for this relationship over the coming years. The panellists were Dr C Raja Mohan, Distinguished Fellow, ORF, Ambassador Husain Haqqani, Director for South and Central Asia at the Hudson Institute and former Pakistani Ambassador to the USA, and Dr Rajiv Kumar, Senior Fellow, Centre for Policy Research. The discussion was chaired by Mr Sunjoy Joshi, ORF Director, who emphasised the timeliness of this event in relation to the new Indian government’s increased interest in US integration.

Dr Raja Mohan opened the debate by setting out some issues that could be seen in the current relationship, starting with the paradoxical nature of the frustration that currently exists in Indian society despite the huge expansion of the Indo-US relationship since the early 1990s. He noted that Prime Minister Modi would seem like an unlikely campaigner for an expanded relationship considering his now infamous US visa rejection whilst Chief Minister of Gujarat. However, Modi now appears to be overruling large sections of his party in order to engage with the US, rousing interest from Washington in return. Dr Raja Mohan also stressed the continuing tension between the increasing conversions of interest between the two states and ambiguity on both sides as to the value of a closer relationship, with a lack of political ownership over the relationship in both India and the US. Arguing that India needs to do more to engage the US, he also noted that policy missteps by both sides, including "flip-flops" in the US attitude to China, had made the relationship more difficult in the past.

Yet Dr Raja Mohan also argued that there was now the opportunity for significant advances in defence, both in homeland security and anti-terrorism, particularly in the context of the withdrawal from Afghanistan. The US Involvement in regional politics is also very significant for India, and Dr Raja Mohan observed that India needs to think in terms of balancing power regarding both Pakistan and China. If India is soon to be the world’s fifth largest economy, the government cannot continue with a policy of strategic non-alliance. Instead, it must work to shape the international order. Taking advantage of the current difficulties the US is facing with regard to Russia, China and West Asia, India could enter into a relationship with the US based on mutual cooperation rather than as a junior partner, Dr Mohan concluded.

Amb. Haqqani began his statements by highlighting a crucial difference between India and the US: whilst India has a strong sense of history, in the US history is seen as irrelevant, and this has coloured the Indo-US relationship since its inception. This short term focus on the part of the US, and the Indian aversion to permanent alliances, has led to a stereotypical diplomatic view of "the fickle American and the prickly Indian". In order to move on from these stereotypes, Ambassador Haqqani argued that it is necessary to build a new Indo-US relationship brick by brick, focussing on key security, economic and political elements.

In security terms, Amb. Haqqani outlined the rise of China, and consequential changes in the world’s security architecture, and the threat of radical Islamism and extremism as factors which could be central to an Indo-US security relationship. Amb. Haqqani emphasised that in the latter issue, India could be viewed as a better informed partner than the US due to its geographic and demographic experience. Economically, the Ambassador highlighted the increasing global integration of the Indian economy and the potential for cooperation with the US in this area, whilst in political terms Amb. Haqqani noted the growing convergence in views between the two states. Arguing that India should increase its spending on military equipment from the US, Amb. Haqqani stated that spending $10 billion on US produced armaments is not enough to represent a strategic partnership, particularly in the eyes of the US defence sector.

Finally, presenting a regional view of the Indo-US relationship, the Amb. Haqqani argued that, whilst the Pakistan-US relationship has held the Indo-US relationship back, it had also hampered Pakistan’s own relationship with India. In his view, the Pakistani government’s belief that it had the constant support of the US reinforced the perception within Pakistan that it is India’s equal, encouraging conflict between the two nations. With the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, Ambassador Haqqani expressed the belief that the US is no longer so dependent on Pakistan, giving India the opportunity to work collaboratively with the US for a more stable Pakistan which would promote regional stability. In conclusion, the Ambassador argued that an India-US-Japan partnership could provide a new global security architecture for stability, if the US is able to become more sensitive to the pace of Indian politics and India is able to release itself from its historic baggage and look towards 2016 and beyond.

Agreeing that the ability of India to draw a line under their history would be crucial for further engagement with the US, Dr Rajiv Kumar also argued that strategic autonomy is inherent in Indian politics but can be "excercised in a forward thinking manner." Observing that the Indo-US relationship seems to have moved sideways in recent years, rather than forward, Dr Kumar suggested that one of the reasons for this was that India and the US have never outlined where they stand on five key areas of Indian national interest: employment, growth, productivity, security and global governance. Recognising that there are four crucial deficits in the Indian economy (infrastructure, education, governance and innovation and research and development), Dr Kumar suggested that all of these issues, other than governance, could be improved upon through strengthening business-to- business ties with the US. This would require American enterprise to be prepared to work alongside Indian companies as equal business partners rather than expecting them to cede ground over issues such as intellectual property, whilst India must give up its long held notion of economic self-reliance. That said, Dr Kumar noted that there are about forty programmes currently in operation between India and the US, but these seem to disappear due to a lack of meaningful communication, with differences often obscured by the continued insistence on communalities.

Looking forward, Dr Khan suggested that an Indo-US regional partnership over the long term would be central to the development of the relationship. In terms of defence, he argued that joint innovation programmes are the way forward; disagreeing with Ambassador Haqqani’s assertion that India needs to import more armaments and instead stressing the need for increased investment by US companies within India. Thirdly, Dr Khan emphasised the need for clarity over the relationship between the US and China, and finally he reiterated the necessity of cooperative action against radical Islam, stressing the significance of the peaceful Muslim minority that lives within India as part of the country’s democratic framework.

At the end of an engaging question and answer session which followed the presentations, Dr Raja Mohan suggested an alternative slogan for strategic autonomy: "strategic influence". For a modern, economically interdependent India, he suggested that it is necessary to think differently about foreign policy, engaging with international rules in order to support the country’s own interests. If there was a central point in the discussion upon which all the panellists agreed, it was that the time for international collaboration has come and that India must act upon this reality.

(This report is prepared by Flora Baillie, Research Intern, Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

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