Thursday, July 23, 2009

United States and India: A Special Relationship

I was in India last couple of weeks and noticed the debate around 'selling out' of India following Hillary Clinton's visit to Mumbai and Delhi last week. The principal debate is focused on the End Use Monitoring Agreement that the Indian government agreed to sign with the United States, allowing, theoretically, Americans access to monitor all dual-use and military technology bought from them. The opposition parties immediately conjured up the image of US inspectors, mostly CIA operatives, roaming around freely inside our most secret and sensitive military facilities and Indian government having to ask the US bosses before they use an weapon. Much of this is indeed nonsense, as India has been signing such agreements in every high technology deal entered into since 1998 and this umbrella arrangement will actually eliminate the need of negotiating such arrangements for every deal. Besides, United States is only one of the suppliers, and there is indeed an open and competitive market for all kinds of military and dual use technologies. India does not have to buy from the United States and does not have to answer all the time. But, then, truth in democracies are usually shaped by decibel value and the fickleness of public memory, and currently this debate is in the centre stage.

The curious thing about these Indian debates is also about the duality. As I followed the press coverage of Hillary Clinton's visit, there were two rather obscure facts which got more than average attention. First that Mrs. Clinton did not make the customary visit to Islamabad. It is an usual practise for all senior US officials to always visit Pakistan when they visit India. The fact that Madam Secretary did not do it was perceived as the end of India-Pakistan hyphenation by the Indian press. I am sure this is a significant and a deliberate gesture, but the fact that Indian press treated this with the pride befitting a schoolboy getting a book prize did look a bit silly. Next, to take things further, Hillary Clinton spent an extra 30 minutes over and above the initially planned hour of one-to-one discussion with Sonia Gandhi, without any US official being present [and no Indian official as well, except for Dr. Karan Singh], and instead of sniffing out a conspiracy theory, the Indian press treated this as a mark of acknowledgement of India's growing role in geopolitics.

In my mind, both, this taking offence in being asked about the deployment of dual use or sensitive technology, and the glee of being treated extra special by a visiting US official, are typical of the adolescent personality of our country. The Indian attitude towards the United States is (a) we should have a special relationship, as two of world's leading democracies and English speaking nations; (b) the United States is still locked in the cold war era thinking long after the loyalties have changed. Indians believe that the United States misestimates India and it should correct the mistake and accept India as an equal, okay, important, partner in their scheme of things for the world. We feel good when this feeling is acknowledged, and offended when that partnership turns out to be of the same grade between the CEO and the office boy. But more about that later.

Before that, we should know how US sees the world. Consistently, after George Washington's warning to his nation to avoid 'foreign entanglements', the United States public opinion never favoured sending troops to sort our faraway wars. Our boys dying - was always a problem that every United States President needed to solve. Not that the United States never harboured any imperial agenda - from the Monroe doctrine of keeping Europeans out of Western hemisphere to Truman doctrine of keeping soviet influence limited to a small band of countries, the US governments sought to maximize their influence on the business of other sovereign nations continuously. The point is that they never wanted to 'die' for it. The key United States policy, which existed before the Cold War and continued without change thereafter, was to become the supplier of choice for World's conflicts and expand the influence of United States commerce in all countries of the globe, by supplying arms, technologies, information and know how, and allowing other countries to supply the 'lives'. This perception has only been reinforced by George W. Bush's foolhardy engagements in Iraq, and the fact that the United States army always looked far too vulnerable whenever they were involved in any ground engagement. Given that no conflict can actually be won without a ground engagement, particularly if the aim of the conflict is to preserve or promote the current 'way of life' and expand the United States commercial interests, the United States must find a set of suitable 'lives' supplier for its future conflicts. There are very few nations in the world which are as fit as India for that role.

Apart from the usual demographic factors - large and young population - India fits the role in three other counts as well. First, geographically, India is standing in the centre of today's world. The imaginary centre has long shifted from Western Europe to Asia both culturally and financially, and India and China are fast emerging to be the competitors for the new centre. Besides, India shares a long mountainous border with China, which can become the frontier for the world's bloodiest battle if we wish. China, on the other hand, has emerged as the world's second most feared power, its most efficient and agile small arms producer, an effective world power with its own client states and supply network for most of the world's non-state powers, including the likes of Mr. Bin Laden. China, someday, will become the most obvious enemy and the competitor for world dominance to the United States [just as Germany challenged Britain in early twentieth century]. And, despite the fact that this may bring about the end of the world, the conflict will not be about destroying the world but about owning it, and hence, this is more likely to take a cold, low intensity form with some ground engagements rather than the self-destructive mushroom cloud form. And, in this conflict, United States, despite its vast power, stands no chance. Napoleon knew it long time back; but, even today, China has the world's biggest standing army. The United States needs its foot soldiers right next door to the middle kingdom to contain it and conquer it some day.

Secondly, India meets the United States half way in the culture front as well. The idea of an Anglophone world isn't new among the foreign policy circles; this will only be reinforced with a closer India-US tie, and increasing divergence between the Franco-German EU and Britain, an emerging China and an increasingly hostile Russia. While the interconnections of interests are not always predictable or linear, the Anglophone world is increasingly the new formation in the world power dynamic.

Third, India is democratic, which is in line with the chief idea export of the United States. Connecting with India does not come with the embarrassment of supporting a dictatorial regime in the Middle East, and the United States administration can sell this to their public quite easily in the name of democracy and freedom, as they have always done since the cold war era.

Hence, the current special relationship between India and the United States is common sense, at least from the US side. Given that India is so easily satisfied with the display of a little special arrangement, I am sure the US administration will also find it gratifying to deal with a partner who likes them so much. However, there are a number of problems at the Indian side that require a more detailed consideration.

The first factor is that India is a democracy and a truly entrenched one. Wars in democracies were always problematic, not because they are against the principle, but because they are unpopular. As United States have learnt by experience, democratic wars must be short, focused on key objectives and facilitated by non-contact warfare. Indian government would face a similar set of challenge while committing troops to a long and bloody war. So, despite obvious advantages, India isn't the ideal war outsourcing partner for the United States.

Second, India's interests lie closer to China and rest of Asia than with United States. While we can talk about persisting regional rivalries between China and India, and states like Nepal and Burma which are real sticking points, China's aspirations today are global. So is India's. Increasingly, the need for a sphere of control is larger and regional alignments to sustain that wider sphere of control are in both country's interest. In fact, United States would want India to be a regional power, but the expectations of the Indian populace has already been uncorked. India wants to see itself as a responsible global power, not some one's lackey and backroom boy for Asia. In this front, India's interests are better served by a deeper regional cooperation instead of a defence treaty with the United States leading to a face-off with China.

Indeed, China can be a troublesome friend, with its interests in Pakistan and various terror outfits inside India and in the region. But the current relationship has been formed in the context of bygone era of competition of regional leadership. If the strategic movements of the Chinese are any guide - like the increased focus on the blue-water navy, a sort of disengagement on Taiwan and a responsible plodding of North Korea - one sees China shifting its agenda to become a major player in the world. In this context, the Indian government can choose its role - of being an ally or an adversary. Like the United States, we should remain prisoners of a bygone era and must re-evaluate our priorities in the context of our new-found aspirations and ground realities of modern commerce. Seen in this perspective, I would think India's own national interests are better served in accepting the US overtures of friendship only to strike a better partnership deal with China, and in engaging in the world with peace in our mind and with prosperity as our only goal.

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