Author : C.Uday Bhaskar

From ‘estranged democracies’ to potentially ‘natural allies’, the India-US bilateral relationship has undergone a radical transmutation – one is hesitant to use the word transformation – over a fifty-year period from the late 1950s to 2008. The estrangement began with the world’s oldest and largest democracies pursuing very different security objectives in the Cold War decades and this bitterness was further exacerbated by the nuclear nettle, the genesis of which goes back to the Indian Peaceful Nuclear Explosion (PNE) of May 1974.

However the Bush 43 administration, building on the efforts of the Clinton Administration, was able to bring about a very radical review of the bilateral relationship. From July 2005 to September 2008, both nations embarked upon a difficult journey to re-arrange the bilateral relationship, and skillfully square the intractable nuclear circle by according India an exceptional status in the global nuclear community. At the time, President George W. Bush committed the US to enabling India on its path to enhancing its comprehensive national power. This policy initiative has been endorsed by the Obama administration. However there is a sense of disappointment in the US that the strategic potential that had been hinted at in the July 2005 George Bush-Manmohan Singh agreement, and the defence co-operation that was laid out in considerable detail in the June 2005 Donald Rumsfeld-Pranab Mukherjee agreement, has not been appropriately realized.

Domestic political constraints in both countries have prevented the relationship from gaining greater traction and it seemed as if the critics of the July 2005 reconciliation had been vindicated. However the June 5- 6, 2012 visit of US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta to Delhi and his remarks in the public domain have helped dispel some of the doubts about Washington’s view of the bilateral relationship – and this is gratifying. Having already unveiled US strategic intent with regard to Asia at the Shangri-la dialogue in Singapore prior to his Delhi visit, Secretary Panetta elaborated in the same vein to his Indian audience: “America is at a turning point. After a decade of war, we are developing a new defense strategy – a central feature of which is a‘re-balancing’ toward the Asia-Pacific region. In particular, we will expand our military partnerships and our presence in the arc extending from the Western Pacific and East Asia into the Indian Ocean region and South Asia…Defense cooperation with India is a lynchpin in this strategy. “ India has to arrive at its own determination about how it perceives the emerging Asian strategic landscape over the next 25 years against the backdrop of some macro trend lines. These include the likely emergence of a tri-polar single-state economy that will have China at the top of the GDP listings, the US a close second and India at a distant third spot. The texture of the bilateral relationship between the US and China will have a critical bearing on the strategic tranquility / turbulence index of Asia, and – by extension – the global framework.

The US and China have a complex and contradictory relationship and this corresponds to that between China and India. While trade and economic ties are robust, the security and strategic interface is wary or veering towards the adversarial in both. Thus it would not be invalid to suggest that the more likely strategic context among these powers will be that of a “contra-polar” world where policy options are either contradictory or contrarian. India has the potential to be a swing state of some relevance in this triangular relationship (with a caveat that the orientation of the China-Russia and Japan-China bilaterals will also be significant determinants). This latent potential will be shaped by the degree to which Delhi is able to maximize the opportunities presented by the improvement in its ties with the US. More than the transfer / sale of military equipment – which has now reached a reasonable US $ 8 billion figure – or the conduct of annual military exercises – in my view, the central strategic factor will be the quantum and quality of access that India will have to hi-technology that the USA can provide / offer. Access to such hi-tech can enable India to enhance its trans-border military capability through the extended global commons – that is maritime, cyber and space – across the surveillance, fire-power and lift determinants. Acquiring such a military profile will enable India to exercise the elusive ‘autonomy’ it seeks in dealing with a rising China, without Delhi being coerced into a posture of deference and having to accommodate Beijing’s assertiveness across a range of contentious bilateral issues.

Encouraging China to accept and abide by prevailing global norms and related legislation is a shared objective for the US and India and this was reiterated in the Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore by both nations in early June 2012. The linkage between power and law is at the core of major-power relations. Along with this, the degree to which the status quo constituency is able to defend its values and interests from any tampering or alteration by the revisionist power is the recurring rhythm of global history.

The strategic context for the US and India is located in this backdrop and was persuasively outlined by Secretary Panetta in Delhi when he noted: “India is one of the largest and most dynamic countries in the region and the world, with one of the most capable militaries. India also shares with the United States a strong commitment to a set of principles that help maintain international security and prosperity. We share a commitment to open and free commerce; to open access by all to our shared domains of sea, air, space, and cyberspace; and to resolving disputes without coercion or the use of force, in accordance with international law. We share a commitment to abide by international standards and norms – ‘rules of the road,’ if you will, which promote international peace and stability. One of the ways we will advance these principles is to help develop the capabilities of countries who share these values. India is one of those countries.” From the ‘estrangement’ that was the norm historically; the India-US relationship is now moving towards greater and hopefully deeper ‘engagement’. This is a rare opportunity for India but the challenge is for Delhi to arrive at an objective determination about how much strategic import it attaches to its ties with Washington as the 21st century unfolds with its inherent uncertainties and contradictions.

Comprehensive national power has to be leavened with astute political determination about what constitutes ‘autonomy’ in a globalized world, along with the transformative role of certain technologies in enhancing strategic credibility. The US has arrived at a preliminary template about its strategic posture with regard to Asia. India has to arrive at a response matrix, which will be equitable to its own interests and wherein it is neither deferential nor belligerent to either of its principal interlocutors. (Commodore(Retd.) C. Uday Bhaskar is a Delhi-based strategic analyst and former Director, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), India. He is the Visiting Fellow at the National Maritime Foundation. This article first appeared in AllBright Stonebridge Group Newsletter on June 12)
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