Though tactical approaches divide India and the US, the strategic fundamentals remain
In the late 1990s, the United States and India embarked on a partnership based largely on three strategic issues: markets, counter-terrorism, and balancing China. With the opening of India’s economy in 1991, the United States saw India’s billion-strong population as a massive market for its businesses. In the wake of 9/11, Washington came to see India’s travails against Islamist militants in Kashmir and Afghanistan through the lens of its War on Terror and increased counter-terrorism cooperation with New Delhi. And as India’s and China’s strategic spaces began to overlap, managing China’s rise became a common concern for both New Delhi and Washington. With that in mind, the United States and India reversed decades of enmity and, through the 2006 nuclear deal, embarked upon a symbolic commitment to what heads of state of both countries have called a “natural alliance.”
Yet with all the fanfare- particularly after U.S. President Barack Obama voiced his support for a permanent Indian seat on the UN Security Council in his 2010 Lok Sabha speech- bilateral ties have recently been marked by considerable drift: India has not fallen in line on the issue of Iran, Washington is only slowly coming around on Pakistani militancy, the countries’ UN voting records do not mesh, and trade disagreements abound. Questions have been raised over why U.S.-India relations have cooled, or whether they were over hyped in the first place.
The U.S. Department of Defense’s “strategic pivot” toward Asia is one way to shore up relations and realign the Indo-U.S. partnership. India’s geostrategic location at the centre of the Indian Ocean- along with its naval expansion toward the southern Indian Ocean and its Port Blair naval base at the Andaman Islands- enable New Delhi to manage China’s presence in the region. Indeed, India and America’s navies have been more coordinated than any other bureaucracy since 2000. But the implications of this shared Beijing-centric orientation will only come about in the medium-term.
One dimension of these ties, the sale of defence technologies, is another place where India has not yet delivered: the recent Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) competition failed to award contracts to American companies. And in the middle of a global recession in which all countries are hunkering down, and domestic inflation and unemployment- not to mention concerns over doing business in India, such as retroactive taxation and tax avoidance measures- have grown, economic reforms that would further open India’s markets have slowed. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent visit to Kolkata was largely an effort to encourage India to increase the speed of its market liberalisation, particularly in the retail sector. This may be a prospect for the future, but is doubtful today given India’s economic slowdown and the attendant drop in employment.
Yet perhaps the main reason for this strategic drift is that America’s key concern in South Asia these days is Afghanistan. President Obama delivered on his campaign promise to refocus efforts on the war in that country, and from 2009, his administration’s “AfPak” strategy took a regional perspective that originally sought to bring India into the equation. The thinking behind this, as Amitai Etzioni writes, is that “for Pakistanis, conflict (with India) poses an ominous existential challenge that drives their behaviour on all things,” including “their approach to the West and the war in Afghanistan… If the India-Pakistan confrontation could be settled, chances for progress on other fronts would be greatly enhanced.”
The implication was that Washington ought to hyphenate India and Pakistan, to see the two as part of the same regional tussle, and try to settle the Kashmir dispute in order to make progress in Afghanistan. This was something New Delhi vehemently opposed and in fact, it sought de-hyphenation from Pakistan – engagement with New Delhi and Islamabad on separate and unconnected tracks. So when the office of the late US Special Adviser on Pakistan and Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke sought to include India and Kashmir in its purview, New Delhi successfully lobbied against it. This effort served one of India’s aims, insofar as it keeps Kashmir out of America’s area of direct intervention. Yet it also takes India, its assets, and its clout out of the broader Afghan resolution.
Among these assets is the Indian-constructed Chabahar Road that connects Iran’s eastern Chabahar Port on the Gulf of Oman to western Afghanistan. The road ends Pakistan’s monopoly on seaborne trade to Afghanistan, which has long allowed Islamabad’s pernicious dominance of Kabul’s economic and political life. In light of America’s confrontation with Iran and efforts to sanction the latter’s energy sector, however, Washington opposes India’s use of Chabahar, particularly to import Iranian oil and natural gas. Indeed another goal of Secretary Clinton’s visit was to try to shore up India’s support for sanctions against Iran- to which end India is reducing its dependence on Iranian energy as it awaits an exemption on sanctions from the US State Department.
But when New Delhi recently used its Chabahar road to send 100,000 tons of wheat to Kabul, its full potential vis-à-vis Afghanistan became evident. And this food aid was on top of India’s additional commitments to Afghanistan: constructing the Zaranj-Delaram highway in western Afghanistan that connects Chabahar to the Afghan ring road, the development of the Ayni Air base in Tajikistan (originally designed to treat wounded Afghan soldiers), building Afghanistan’s parliament building, exploring the Hajigak iron mine, and even commitments to train the Afghan National Police and Army- all of which amount to pledges of over $1 billion since 2001.
Washington has been wary of encouraging India’s presence in Afghanistan citing Islamabad’s fear of encirclement. But, even without American attention, a refutation of Pakistan’s “India Threat” narrative is already underway. In order to remain focused on strategic horizons beyond South Asia, India is reorienting its defence apparatus away from Pakistan and towards China and the southern Indian Ocean; even the Ayni Base and Chabahar Road can be seen as elements of this strategic shift beyond the subcontinent. Together with Pakistan’s focus on the Durand Line and events within its own borders, political breathing space between Islamabad and New Delhi has opened up. India-Pakistan talks have already produced a number of important breakthroughs that portend better bilateral days to come: the granting of Most-Favoured Nation status, enhanced trade measures, as well as discussions on the specific parameters of a Kashmir peace based on economic integration.
Specifically regarding the Indo-Pak dynamic in Afghanistan, things are less zero-sum than they appear. Important as the Chabahar route is, the combination of road, sea, and even rail links still comes with massive transport costs for India-Afghanistan trade. As S Verma, chairman of Steel Authority of India and the head of a consortium of Indian industries engaged in Afghanistan’s Hajigak iron mine, put it, “over the longer term,” transporting Afghan minerals over Pakistani territory “will be a productive investment. Not just for us, but others in the region including Pakistan. There are license fees, logistics, and so forth.”
Meanwhile, Kaustav Chakrabarti of the Observer Research Foundation has suggested “deploying joint Indo-Pak nation building teams” in Afghanistan that include advisors, military trainers, bureaucrats, developments experts, medical crews and NGOs. These teams would “provide additional resources, bridge political polarities, foster cooperation between India and Pakistan and devise means to verify each other’s role, and ultimately, present a long-term mechanism,” guaranteed by India and Pakistan’s geographic proximity, “to ensure Afghanistan’s neutrality.” He cites as a precedent the collaboration between Indian and Pakistani armed forces in “UN peacekeeping missions in hot spots like Somalia.”
Full realisation of any Indo-Pak promise will require more space, and time, between the two countries. The interim period, meanwhile, may indeed take a cooling period between the United States and India, who are unlikely to become allies in the fullest sense due to differing tactical approaches. But the strategic fundamentals of the Indo-American rapport- balancing China, expanding trade, and stabilising South Asia- remain intact.
Neil Padukone is the Felow for geopolitics at the Takshashila Institution