The US is dancing to India’s tune

It is time to deconstruct the prevailing narrative on US-India relations.

More than just an embarrassing photograph? [AFP]

It is an amusing photograph, and one can readily empathise with its subject. Politicians, after all, are always being pressed to do undignified things at public appearances, whether it is wearing silly hats or kissing squalling babies. But despite the insistent entreaties of the dance troupe at Mumbai’s Holy Name High School this past week, Barack Obama, the US president, really ought to have kept his seat.  For in taking the stage to engage in some slightly awkward gyrations before the press cameras, he was unintentionally providing an apt metaphor for current US policy: the US is dancing to India’s tune.

There is an evolving US policy narrative concerning India which has gained great momentum over the past 10 years or so, is uncritically parroted by the US press, and which generally runs like this: India, the world’s second-largest country, is a rapidly-developing nation of huge economic potential, beginning to take its place as one of the great powers of the 21st century. Distrustful as it is of its even larger neighbour to the north, it is therefore a natural strategic ally of the US in the latter’s efforts to contain an increasingly assertive and often belligerent China. As a frequent victim of Islamic extremists, India and the US therefore are also natural allies in the ‘war on terror’. Moreover, as the world’s two largest democracies, India and the US share deep and abiding values, and are similarly devoted to the benefits of expanded international trade and economic globalisation.

And so, the narrative continues, the US must recognise and promote India’s emerging status on the global stage, foster expansion of bilateral economic and trade ties, and develop a far-reaching geostrategic relationship which goes well beyond the narrow construct of the Indo-Pakistani rivalry, to which Indian policy has been traditionally confined.

Building on foundations begun by President Clinton and greatly advanced by George W. Bush, Obama therefore has used his recent three-day Indian trip to add further to the edifice of this putative partnership. He has stood before the Indian parliament to promise US support for India’s accession to the UN Security Council. He has made a gift of lifting export controls on a host of militarily sensitive technologies. And despite the recent unpleasantness of a renewed popular uprising against repressive Indian rule in Kashmir, Obama has made clear to his Indian hosts that the US will not interfere in the dispute. Indeed, on repeated occasions during the past week, the US president has asserted that the relationship between India and the US is “the defining partnership of the 21st century”.

Deconstructing the prevailing narrative

Honestly. With all respect, and even allowing for the natural exuberance of political rhetoric, that formulation is pure blather. To see why, we should take some time to deconstruct the prevailing narrative.

India is indeed a huge country with a rapidly-growing economy of enormous potential, with which US economic relations are destined to become increasingly important. The fact is, however, that those economic and trade relations are moving forward on their own momentum and of their own accord, quite independently of any US effort to forge a “strategic partnership”.

Indeed, US-India trade relations are virtually impervious to other aspects of the official relationship between them. For the US government to suggest an important role in promoting continued private sector relations with India is rather like taking credit for a rising tide or the falling rain.

US promotion of India as a strategic counterweight to China, depending upon who is propounding it, is either disingenuous or simply wrong-headed. Yes, India harbours distrust of China as a result of past border disputes and the latter’s close ties with Pakistan. Those concerns are not reciprocated in anything approaching full measure on the Chinese side, however. Chinese hegemonic designs are focused on East and South-East Asia, not some minor enclaves in the Himalayas. Pakistan aside, the areas of geo-strategic interest between China and India do not overlap; those between the US and China do.

To suggest that India would somehow allow itself to be used by the US as a stalking-horse, exerting military pressure on China – its largest trading partner, by the way – to promote interests other than its own, is a hopeless exercise in wishful thinking. If US firms can make profits selling sophisticated weapons to India, fine for them; but do not expect those weapons to be deployed in furtherance of US policy.
As true regional experts such as Teresita Schaffer have recently pointed out, India has a long history of strategic autonomy. Americans may have quickly forgotten about India’s legacy as a champion of “non-alignment,” its past firm orientation with the old Soviet Union and its testy Cold War relations with the US, but Indians have not.

As columnist Tom Friedman, a promoter of US-India strategic relations, has recently acknowledged in the pages of The New York Times, Indian elites are more likely to be preoccupied with US “hegemony” and “imperialism” than they are to worry about how to promote some broad, open-ended strategic alliance with the US.

Nowhere is that Cold War hangover more evident than in the Indian intelligence and security services.  Their relations with their US counterparts have traditionally been frosty, at best, and I understand them to be little improved now.

While US counter-terror concerns are literally global, India’s are very narrow and particular, focused on organised Kashmiri militants and domestic extremists. In short, while the US can be of considerable help to India – as evidenced when, according to press reports at the time, the US was able to broker effective information-sharing between India and Pakistan concerning the militants responsible for the November, 2008 Mumbai attacks – India is able to do precious little for the US in return.

A motivator of terrorists

Rather than focusing on India’s status as a victim of terrorism and a putative ally in combating it, the US would do better to focus on India’s role as a motivator of terrorists, and press it to reform.

Part of the backdrop of Obama’s visit, conveniently ignored by most Americans, is the renewed popular uprising against the massive, armed Indian occupation of the Kashmir valley, and the continuation of India’s traditional means of combating it: the arbitrary detentions, the torture, the “disappearances,” the systematic rapes.

As Indian writer Arundhati Roy has pointed out, it is just as armed militancy in the Kashmir valley, long supported by Pakistan, progressively fades, that a new generation of unarmed Kashmiri youth picks up stones in the struggle for self-determination.

For the US, this is not “merely” a matter of humanitarian concern, but of core security interests: how does the US expect to counter a “terrorist narrative” which appeals to Muslims hungry for justice in part by attacking the US as an ally of their oppressors, when the US willfully ignores the demands of justice in Kashmir?

The US decision to turn a page by negotiating a civil nuclear cooperation pact with India in 2008 has a compelling logic behind it. US counter-proliferation policy had been hopelessly outdated, and needed to take account both of current realities and of the basic national security concerns which influence nations’ nuclear related decisions.

Arguably, it was the literal-minded and inflexible application of past US counter-proliferation policy – which ignored India’s “indigenous” nuclear programme, while punishing Pakistan’s efforts to seek international assistance for a parallel effort which it felt its national survival required – had the unintended effect of forcing Pakistan down a rogue path, and ironically exacerbated the South Asian nuclear arms race.

Rather than using the new Indian agreement as a rough model for its dealings with others, to include Pakistan, however, the US has made the Indian agreement exceptional. Thus, in a repeat of history, it has again forced Pakistan to turn to China for assistance. Predictably, the Chinese have been forthcoming, negotiating their own civilian nuclear deal with Pakistan this year, but one which arguably provides substantially fewer proliferation safeguards than a US-negotiated deal would otherwise have achieved.

Ironically, one of the US motives in reaching a civilian nuclear agreement with India was to promote US nuclear power exports. Given the stringent accident liability regime imposed by the Indian parliament, however, private US civilian nuclear suppliers are destined to be frozen out. The exceptional nuclear cooperation deal, which only the US could push through, will redound instead to the commercial benefit of Russia and France.

Romantic fantasy

The reason for the clear disparity between US and Indian benefits in the relationship as currently constructed is that while the US is engaging in a form of romantic fantasy regarding India, the Indians remain focused on their interests – as very narrowly defined.

A number of observers, including this writer, have argued in the past that US relations with Pakistan should be less “transactional” – less oriented around demands and rewards – and more broadly conducive to a genuine partnership. Given the important disparities in the two countries’ estimates of their tactical national interests, however, and given the importance attached by the US to assistance only Pakistan can provide, relations between the two countries are nonetheless condemned to remain fundamentally transactional.

With regard to India, by contrast, the US would do well to make its dealings more transactional, not less. In return for promotion of India’s admission to the club of great powers, the US should insist that it take on the responsibilities of one. Currently, the political deficit in US relations with India is measured not so much in costs, but in lost opportunities – ironically not just for the US, but for India, as well.

For example, both the US and India have a common interest in a stable Afghanistan whose space is denied as a haven to international terrorists. An Indian policy of rational restraint in Afghanistan, rather than its current pursuit of zero sum advantage over Pakistan, would make it far easier for the US to gain active Pakistani assistance in achieving such an outcome, to India’s ultimate benefit.

Similarly, a stable Pakistan no longer in thrall to, or threatened by the same Islamically-inspired extremists who pose a physical threat to India is very much in India’s interest. A settlement of the Kashmir dispute which recognised the legitimate rights of Kashmiris, and which thereby provided a politically face saving way for Pakistan to accept an agreement which inevitably, and by any objective measure, would favour India while undercutting support for the extremists, should be very much on the cards. Given India’s manifest inability to achieve such an outcome on its own, moreover, the US should insist on a quiet role in brokering such a deal, to the benefit of all concerned.

US demands of India, in other words, should not involve a sacrifice of India’s national interests, which it would not concede in any case. Rather, the US should be coaxing India toward an enlightened and far-sighted approach to achieving those national interests. The fact that the US is wooing India like a lovesick adolescent, offering blandishments and making concessions in the vain hope of gaining what India will not and cannot provide, while at the same time eschewing pressure for those things India could and should provide, is simply unconscionable.

Should India refuse to pursue a more enlightened self-interest, as well it may, at least the US should stop promoting it as though it were.

In short, it is time for the reverie to end. For the benefit of both countries, the US must stop dancing heedlessly to the Indian tune.

Robert Grenier was the CIA’s chief of station in Islamabad, Pakistan, from 1999 to 2002. He was also the director of the CIA’s counter-terrorism centre.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

Source : Al Jazeera


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