Saturday, July 17, 2010

Should the U.S. Pursue Closer Ties with India?

. Saturday, July 17, 2010

Matthew Continetti asks a good question:

Why do Americans spend so much time analyzing China's growth, but not India's? Yes, the growth of Chinese economic and military power since Deng Xiaoping proclaimed "to get rich is glorious" has been nothing short of extraordinary. But India has also embraced markets over the years, and the results have been equally amazing. We tend to think of India in terms of its relations with Pakistan and Afghanistan, and in terms of its cultural power, rather than in terms of the economic and geopolitical benefits of a prosperous South Asian democracy. But that should end. We have a lot to gain by befriending India, and a whole lot to lose.

The Bush administration made it a point to solidify ties with this formerly nonaligned country. It seems like the Obama administration shares the same goal, but unfortunately also sees India as a lower priority than Afghanistan, Iran, reset with Russia, and "strategic reassurance" with China. Of course, an India closely aligned with the United States could help with some of these strategic dilemmas, and hedge against other threats. Why can't Obama spend less time assuaging America's competitors, and more time supporting her friends? A good place to start would be an Indian-American free trade agreement. It's one European idea Obama ought to emulate.

I think he's completely right about this. Christopher Hitchens has also argued this point vehemently a number of times. India is a largely-secular, largely-democratic, largely-open country in South Asia of rising economic and security importance. It would be disastrous if the U.S. were to waste the chance to become strong allies with India.

Still, there are are two reasons why the U.S. hasn't spent as much time on India as it has with China, and both have to do with time constraints. First is the U.S. relationship with Pakistan, whom the U.S. continues to view as a short-term ally of necessity in the fight for Afghanistan. Publicly cozying up to India could jeopardize what little cooperation we've gotten from Islamabad, and would make an already-difficult task much harder. I wouldn't leave the point there, tho. The U.S. has an opportunity to leverage its potential relationship with India to pressure Pakistan to do much more than it has done, and it should consider doing so. If Pakistan doesn't play ball, then the U.S. can turn to India or threaten to, further isolating Pakistan from the rest of Asia. And if the AfPak effort fails, cooperation between Pakistan and the U.S. will likely dry up anyway. In the short run, then, treading water with India makes sense.

Second is the related fact that India isn't going anywhere. Opportunities for building rapport with India will continue to be available over the next decade and beyond. India already has fairly close ties with Europe, and won't turn against the West to join with China, say. The U.S. has some time to try to deal with more pressing short run concerns before turning to a longer-term relationship with India. I'm not sure that the Obama administration is thinking at that level of abstraction, but I do think it's true.

Despite that, a good governor can juggle more than one ball at a time, and Obama should be doing more to strengthen ties with New Delhi. There is no reason why security initiatives with Pakistan should preclude economic ties with India, for example. And the U.S. should not allow itself to be blackmailed by Pakistan in any way, shape, or form. So I do think it's time for a closer relationship with India.


dm301060 said...

In many ways, to say that the United States should pursue closer ties with India is quite an astonishing statement. Long-time observers know that never before have the Indo-US relations been better.

Just take a cursory look at their bilateral relationship since India's independence in 1947 and you will realize how troubled it was. Many factors contributed to poison the bilateral ties. The fundamental reason was the bipolar structure of international politics during the Cold War. While Washington adopted the grand strategy of containment against the Soviet Union, New Delhi articulated the principle of nonaligment as the cornerstone of its foreign policy. Thus, India refused to join any of the two superpower blocs. Given the traumatic colonial experience, it was perhaps understandable that the new Indian political establishment enthusiastically embraced the principle of self-reliance on the foreign policy front. Yet nonaligment was bound to collide with the realities of the bipolar world. Washington was furious at India because of its refusal to join the West and of its great power ambitions despite the severe lack of capabilities to back them. The relationship took a decisive turn for the worse when Washington in 1954 decided to enter into military alliance with Pakistan, India's archrival. India's security environment worsened as its relations with China deteriorated and culminated in the Sino-Indian War in 1962. Its predicament was further compounded by China's nuclear test in 1964 and the emerging China-Pakistani relationship. As a result, New Delhi not only began turning to Moscow, but also sought to bolster its nuclear program. This, in turn, prompted outrage in Washington, in particular after India's nuclear test in 1974.

The end of the Cold War actually had no positive effect on their bilateral relations, with diverging stances on Kashmir and nonproliferation impeding a political rapprochement. Only in 1998 did India finally succeed in grabbing Washington's attention, as it conducted its second round of nuclear tests and decided to shed its traditional moral inhibitions toward nuclear weapons. After nearly five decades of estrangement, this time around Washington preferred to engage New Delhi, not least because of India's impressive economic growth unleashed by the 1991 reforms.

Washington's most consequential (and controversial) effort to engage India was the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal, unveiled in 2005 by US President Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Not only was the United States now willing to resume civil nuclear cooperation with India after three decades of nuclear embargo. It was also bending the rules only to accomodate India to the largely US-built global nuclear order. In effect, Washington recognized India as a legitimate nuclear weapon state, for India was allowed to return to nuclear mainstream while maintaining its nuclear weapons program.

dm301060 said...

Given that the nuclear deal was nothing short of a revolution, the criticism that Washington is not making enough effort to bolster its ties with New Delhi is really astounding. The Bush administration, despite being forced to concentrate on the "war on terrorism" in the aftermath of 9/11, went to great lengths to cement the rapprochement. And its efforts soon began bearing fruit, with the two countries reaching important breakthroughs in bilateral diplomatic collaboration, military-to-military relations, counterterrorism cooperation, public diplomacy, and in the "trinity of areas" (civil nuclear energy, commercial space applications, and high technology trade). Moreover, Washington succeeded in "dehypenating" its relationship with Pakistan and India, so that it can have now good relations with both countries at the same time, something that had been impossible for nearly six decades.

True, the current Obama administration maybe is not giving India the attention it deserves. Nonetheless, Indo-US ties are in a better shape as never before. Therefore, when analyzing the relations between Washington and New Delhi, it's important to keep a long-term perspective and to separate signal from noise.

Kindred Winecoff said...

DM -

I completely agree with you, and I don't think anything I wrote indicates otherwise. There have been some long-run improvements in Indo-US relations. However two things may be true at once: As you say, Indo-US relations are better now than they were, thanks largely to the Bush administration; And as I say, Indo-US relations can still improve in many ways. The two are not mutually exclusive.

Unfortunately, as you say, "the current Obama administration maybe is not giving India the attention it deserves." It doesn't appear that India has any importance in Obama's foreign policy. In fact, it had very limited importance in Bush's. The focus is on China, Russia, and the Middle East.

Yes, there has been some progress in the past decade. But not as much as could be hoped for, especially given the U.S.'s other strategic objectives: terrorism, China, Russia.

dm301060 said...

I think there is a misunderstanding, and I admit it was my fault. With hindsight, my phrase "the current Obama administration maybe is not giving India the attention it deserves" was ambiguous. So let me restate my take. In the short run, there is no much room for substantial improvement in Indo-US relations. But this is not a major concern, for the bilateral relationship has never been in a better shape.
So, yes, I'm afraid I disagree with your take. Of course, if we are talking about low-hanging fruit (e.g. agreements in education or health), there is still room for improvement. But substantial and consequential initiatives during the Obama presidency are not on the cards, for four reasons.

First, the relations between New Delhi and US Democrats have never been easy. It’s an open secret that Indian leaders wanted Mc Cain in the White House. Traditionally, Democratic administrations have always insisted on discussing two thorny issues: Kashmir and nonproliferation. This stance was also taken by the Obama administration, which wanted, rightly, to include the Kashmir issue in its AfPak policy. But the Indians launched a fierce diplomatic onslaught and forced special envoy Mr. Holbrooke to drop the issue off the agenda. On nonproliferation, the Obama announced renewed US support for the CTBT and the FMCT. But it will be extremely hard to get India on board. In fact, India still refuses to freeze its production of fissile material (i.e. enriched uranium and plutonium). This, in turn, is triggering, as only a few people know, a dangerous nuclear arms race with Pakistan. The current nuclear deal between China and Pakistan is part of Beijing’s strategy to help Islamabad achieve nuclear parity with New Delhi.

Second, the financial crisis is to the Obama administration what 9/11 was to the Obama administration. Given that addressing the devastating financial and economic crisis had foremost priority, Washington needed the help of the other economic heavyweights, that is, Europe and China. India, by contrast, not only is a lightweight, but was also much less exposed to the whole mess, for it remains a comparatively closed economy. It was therefore only of secondary importance for the Obama administration.

dm301060 said...

Third, the Indo-US nuclear deal was such a controversial initiative that neither Washington nor New Delhi will be in a mood to make another bold proposal for a while. In the United States, the nonproliferation community is still furious at the Bush administration because of the body blow to the nonproliferation regime and the US nonproliferation policy. In India, anti-Americanism remains entrenched not only among the leftist parties, which had almost brought down the government because of the nuclear deal, but also among influential wings of the military and the foreign policy establishment. From what I understand from the current debate among the foremost Indian foreign policy experts, the nuclear initiative did not succeed in allaying Indian fears and profound distrust of Washington.

Fourth, the current US administration needs the support of both Pakistan and China, India’s neighbors and archrivals. That India seems to not get enough attention is directly related to the US need to engage Islamabad and Peking, not to a deliberate strategy of ignoring Indian concerns. Pakistan’s geopolitical location means that its support is crucial for stabilizing Afghanistan. Here there is a fundamental divergence between Indian and US interests, something that cannot be resolved through better dialogue or cooperation. Washington is even willing to bring back the Taliban if this helps it exiting as soon as possible from “the graveyard of empires.” But from India’s point of view, this would be a strategic nightmare, for the return of the Taliban means increased “strategic depth” for Pakistan. It’s indeed an open secret that it’s Pakistan’s intelligence service – the notorious Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) – that supports the Taliban. And Pakistan doesn’t want Indian meddling in Afghanistan. Anytime you hear about a blast at the Indian embassy in Kabul, you can be sure the ISI is involved. And when there is an attack on Pakistani facilities in Afghanistan, you can be sure the Indian intelligence services – Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) – is involved. No wonder the Obama administration wanted to include the Kashmir issue in its South Asia policy.

Similarly, China’s economic and diplomatic clout means that Washington needs Beijing’s cooperation to deal with the most important issues of the day, from the financial crisis and climate change to Iran and North Korea. Unfortunately, the opportunity cost of engaging the East Asian giant is that Washington has much less time (and need) for the South Asian giant.

In sum, in the short run, substantial improvement in Indo-US relations is not on the cards.(Hopefully events will prove me wrong). But, as mentioned, this is not a major worry, for the bilateral ties were bolstered and put on a secure footing during the Bush presidency.

Kindred Winecoff said...

DM -

I think your four points precisely illustrate *why* India and the US should be pursuing closer ties across a range of economic and security lines. I agree with you that the bilateral relationship is better now than it's been at most points in the past, but I disagree that there is "not much room for substantial improvement" or that diplomacy has to be limited to "low-hanging fruit". I'll take your points one by one, in order.

1. The Obama administration has placed a lot of emphasis on nuclear non-proliferation. Among states with already-established arsenals, these risks are greatest in India and Pakistan. As you say, those two countries are engaged in an arms race that is potentially dangerous and is definitely wasteful. If the U.S. can persuade both sides (or even just one of them) to stop racing, then it could go a long way towards building more stable relations b/t New Delhi and Islamabad, as well as limiting proliferation, which is a goal unto itself.

2. I agree that the pressing nature of the financial crisis made Obama choose to deal with Europe and China first. But closer ties to India could help alleviate some of the U.S.'s reliance on China in the future. Opening up India's economy has opportunities for mutual benefit. Pursuing a trade deal with India seems like a no-brainer. It's not "low-hanging fruit" and would certainly be difficult to pull off, but the potential gains are huge.

3. I'm not qualified to speak about Indian public opinion of how the nuclear deal affected attitudes towards America. In any case, that's in the past. India needs the U.S. to be a strategic partner, b/c of #4.

4. The U.S. needs Pakistan and China, but does not want to become overly reliant on either. India needs to balance against Pakistan and China. Pakistan needs American security, and China needs American economy. The U.S. is in between all of these powers, and should be able to find ways to leverage all these relationships to its advantage. Right now, it is ignoring a major opportunity to strengthen its relationship with India, which would provide it with at least some leverage over Pakistan and China. Obviously it's not a panacea, but it can only help.

Again, as I said in my original post, India is a rising power at a major geopolitical crossroad. The U.S. and India have enough common ties that they should be able to work together, and enough potential gains exist in security in economic relations that there should be incentives to do so. The fact that there aren't a range of initiatives in progress on trade, security, non-proliferation, etc. is a lost opportunity.

Kindred Winecoff said...

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Kindred Winecoff said...

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