Originally Published 2005-07-19 12:40:24 Published on Jul 19, 2005
Through most of the Cold War and for over a decade after it ended, the phrase that best described Indo-US relations was ¿estranged democracies¿, coined by Dennis Kux, a former US diplomat. The two democracies, the world¿s largest and the world¿s most populous, regarded each other with wary suspicion.
Uncle Sam's bear hug
Through most of the Cold War and for over a decade after it ended, the phrase that best described Indo-US relations was "estranged democracies", coined by Dennis Kux, a former US diplomat. The two democracies, the world's largest and the world's most populous, regarded each other with wary suspicion. Then in May 1998, under Prime Minister Vajpayee's leadership, India announced with a bang that it was a nuclear power and the non-proliferation ayatollahs in President Clinton's administration went ballistic. Indo-US relations plummeted to their lowest level ever, but not for long. President Clinton made an eminently successful visit to India in March 2000 and the tide began to turn. Despite stubborn resistance from an entrenched bureaucracy, President Bush pushed for better relations with India in his first term and has now set the relationship on the course to achieving a genuine strategic partnership. 

The ebb and flow of the last five turbulent years, the rationale for the change, which, even though it appears revolutionary, is really evolutionary, the present state of the strategic partnership and the steps that are necessary to take the relationship to a new level of cooperation, have all been documented in a masterful manner by Dr. Ashley Tellis, a Senior Associate at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His analytical policy brief "India: As a New Global Power" was released in Washington on July 14, three days before Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's US visit. 

Tellis believes that the present US Administration views India as part of the solution to nuclear proliferation rather than as a problem. The US government now recognises that India will not give up its nuclear weapons, that these do not pose a security challenge to the US and that it is more important to ensure strict controls on the export of WMD-related technologies rather than to keep harping on the "cap, reduce and eliminate" mantra. This change in perception forms the basis for the improvement in relations that first led to the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership and is now heading much beyond that. Three senior US government officials made a statement in a background briefing some months ago that the US had reached a decision "to help India become a major world power in the twenty-first century". This was dubbed condescending by many Indian analysts and only after the Prime Minister's visit will it be clear whether it is being borne out by the turn of events. 

Dr Tellis has recommended that the US President should issue a National Security Decision Directive to guide government policy towards facilitating the export of critical dual-use technologies to India in the nuclear research and civilian space fields. He favours integrating India into the global nuclear regime that will eventually give India access to safeguarded nuclear fuel and technology, the initiation of a civilian nuclear and renewable energy dialogue, affirmation of US support for India's membership of the UN Security Council, giving India core group status in the Proliferation Security Initiative, further enhancing defence cooperation through the licensing of high-leverage military technologies and missile defence, removing diplomatic practices that exemplify a prejudice against India's space research efforts and expanding cooperation in cyber security. He has written that "India remains an island of democratic values and political stability in a region convulsed by religious fanaticism, illiberal governments, state sponsors of terrorism and economic stasis" and this should lead the US to engage India in jointly managing regional security. 

In the economic field, Tellis recommends that the US pursue a bilateral free-trade agreement with India to "increase the integration of American and Indian economies with the intent of maximising joint gains for both so as to support the rise of Indian power." He recognises the "enormous difficulty of granting New Delhi an exception to existing US policy, law and international regime commitments" but warns that if only modest policy changes are effected to signal good intentions, the envisaged strategy runs the risk of petering out prematurely, with "potentially grave implications for the future balance of power in Asia." He feels that a new bilateral dialogue on energy security, strategic cooperation and economic engagement are "unlikely to gain much traction in the absence of concerted direction by President Bush himself." Also, New Delhi must take steps to "promote tacit coordination with, if not extensive support for, US goals" without compromising its key interests if the policy changes India wants are to become achievable. 

Since the September 11 attacks in New York, India has acted decisively to support America's war on terrorism, even though the US has still not fully acknowledged that India too faces a similar threat from Islamist fundamentalist terrorism. The only sticking point has been India's inability to provide troops for stability operations in Iraq. There has been undeniable forward movement in Indo-US relations in recent months. India did not overreact to the proposed sale of F-16 fighter aircraft to Pakistan in March; in June, Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee signed a new 10-year agreement with Secretary Rumsfeld to further enhance defence cooperation and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's forthcoming visit is likely to see further developments with major consequences, especially in the field of cooperation in nuclear energy. 

India has emerged not only as a big market and a rising economic power, it is well on its way to becoming a major player in world politics - with or without US support. While there is congruence and convergence with the US on many issues, India has its own world-view and there will always be some divergence from US interests. Contrary to the US belief during the Cold War that India was aligned with the Soviet Union, India has always pursued an independent foreign policy in keeping with its own world-view. An Indo-US strategic partnership can prosper only if it is built on shared mutual interests while recognising that there will inevitably be some issues on which the two countries will not necessarily agree. 

The writer is Senior Fellow, Observer research Foundation, and Visiting Research Scholar at Sandia National Laboratories, Albuquerque, USA

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