Event ReportsPublished on Dec 07, 2013
The United States needs to treat India as an exception given the uniqueness of the US-India relationship, argues Dr. Anit Mukherjee of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore.
US needs to treat India as an exception
The United States needs to treat India as an exception given the uniqueness of the US-India relationship, according to Dr. Anit Mukherjee of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore.

Delivering a lecture on "US-India Defence Relations" at the Kolkata Chapter of Observer Research Foundation on July 12, 2013, Dr Mukherjee said, for the US, there also needs to be more emphasis on increased service to service talks on regional and global issues.

As regards India, there has to be a reform in the bureaucracy, especially in the Ministry of Defence, as currently it is not structured to engage on a geo-strategic level, Dr Mukherjee said. In addition, there is a need to increase the strength of the diplomatic cadre, he added.

Dr Mukherjee said the problem of "competing exceptionalisms" continues to be a hurdle in the India-US defence relations despite the breath of fresh air that has accompanied the marked changes in bilateral defence ties.

Explaining this concept, according to which both countries have a strong sense of being exceptional which hinders the emergence of a true partnership, Dr Mukherjee said a way to obviate this is by both countries realising that theirs is a new kind of partnership which does not and cannot be made to fit into any pre-existing models.

Dr Mukherjee elaborated on this by saying that the perception of being partners with the U.S is a politically sensitive subject for Indians whereas being partners with India is not at all a domestic political issue in the U.S. This is chiefly due to the disparity of power between the two, which inevitably creates the perception of the U.S being the ’senior partner,’ which in turn is resented by Indian political leaders.

Dr. Mukherjee’s presentation examined two broad aspects of the theme - ’U.S-India Defence Relations and the China Factor’: first, the convergence of strategic interests and the transformation in defence cooperation between the two countries and second, the role of China in shaping US-India bilateral ties.

Taking up the first aspect, he highlighted the U.S-India people- to-people ties emphasising on the role of the large and politically influential Indian-American community. He felt that the people of both countries were integrating at a faster pace than that with which the state has been able to keep up. Also, Pew Global Surveys over the last few years indicate the consistently positive views that people of both countries have towards each other. Besides this, there is also immense scope for a varied partnership encompassing different sectors like economy, finance, agriculture, education and health, to name but a few.

Finally, a very important factor in Indo-U.S relations is the convergence of geopolitical interests of the two countries. Dr. Mukherjee argued that while it was the Bush administration which publicly articulated that USA’s geopolitical aim is helped by India’s emergence as a global power, however such sentiments have also been echoed by US officials under President Obama. Hence, Former Defence Secretary Leon Panetta referred to India as the as the ’linchpin’ of the U.S pivot to Asia while, more recently, Secretary of State John Kerry called India as a "key ally." Of course, India has never been particularly in favour of aligning with other states, but increasingly there is commonality between the US and India. This is most evident at the diplomatic level as US and Indian officials increasingly discuss regional and global developments with an unprecedented level of candour. This has also been helped as the two increasingly share a common circle of friends, (EU, Australia, Singapore, Vietnam, South Korea, Japan, Indonesia, Philippines and Thailand, among others). Finally, the two countries also share concerns regarding the freedom of navigation in Southeast Asia.

Speaking about the scope of transformation in bilateral defence cooperation, he pointed out that India and America have had a problematic history in this field. While the U.S came to India’s aid during the 1962 China war however their attitude was imperious and was perceived to be condescending. It was after the end of the Cold War that the situation changed moving from "estrangement to engagement." Defence cooperation has, over the last ten years, transformed with the signing of the New Framework for U.S.-India Defence Relationship in 2005. Since then, defence trade and military to military ties have continued to grow. For instance, in 2011 there were 56 cooperative exercises across all three services between the two countries, which was more than with any other country. All this is leading to a transformation in military to military ties and helping create a positive perception within the military community in both countries.

At the same time, Dr. Mukherjee, argued that all this happy talk should not gloss over the divergences that exist between both countries especially with regard to differences on Iran, Pakistan, intervention in other countries, climate change, etc. These are real challenges but both countries have, to paraphrase President Obama, agreed to disagree without being disagreeable. This is because the two countries now have a better understanding of each other’s compulsions, logic and point of view. Nevertheless, there remains the problem of "competing exceptionalisms."

This brought the discussion to the second aspect of the theme - the China factor. Historically, China has always played a role in Indo-U.S ties. However the present scenario demands us to look through more complex lenses. While diplomatic efforts to normalise the India-China relationship are underway, it remains unstable primarily, but not exclusively, because of the boundary dispute. The India-China relationship now constitutes a classic security dilemma. Dr. Mukherjee feels that India will have to get used to playing a nuanced, balancing game Asia. What we are seeing increasingly in Asia is great power politics and whether India wants to or not, it cannot afford to sit on the sidelines because it is being dragged into this politics by other nations including ASEAN, Japan, U.S and China.

Dr. Mukherjee ended his presentation by drawing the audience’s attention to the wider issues of concern such as Afghanistan and Pakistan.The Americans are already in the process of realigning their approach towards both these countries, which might lead to instability in the region. The speaker argued that US-India needs to enhance their diplomatic and strategic signalling as otherwise problems in the region might adversely shape the bilateral relationship. On the China front, the ’strategic stasis’ in India’s relationship with China calls for renewed engagement not only at the political and diplomatic levels but also cooperation among think tanks, academics and the policy community, which would assist in forming a better understanding of the other side. At the end of the day, India needs to focus on internal balancing as that is the best guarantor of securing and protecting its national interests.

The breadth of dimensions that were brought to light by Dr. Mukherjee’s presentation led to a very engaged and insightful discussion. One of the points that was subsequently raised related to whether India’s ambiguity of decision making was in fact a point of policy. Dr. Mukherjee opined that in the long run, such an approach could prove ineffective and the sheen of India as a global entity would diminish. On the question of how far military and foreign policy integration was possible given the vast differences between the U.S and India, Mukherjee felt that the present scenario begged preference on the convergences rather than the points of difference. A very interesting take on the role that India can play in the time to come was that of a swing state and the fact that this opportunity should be optimized by India. In other words, India should accept and assume responsibility as a balancing actor.

Prof. Rakhahari Chatterji, in his concluding remarks as the Chair, observed that world politics was going through seismic changes and if India has to relate herself with great powers, then she would have to overcome the persisting policy paralysis and define the parameters of her foreign engagement, the time being ripe to think and talk straight. The lecture was attended by members from the academia, the military as well as young scholars.

(This report is prepared by Pratnashree Basu, Swagat Saha and Mihir Bhonsale, Observer Research Foundation Kolkata )

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