With the first ever Cabinet level Indo-US Strategic Dialogue taking place in Washington this week, chaired by India’s External Affairs Minister S. M. Krishna and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, I didn’t really have to search for a topic today.
This dialogue marks the first time that India and the United States are going to discuss the long-term strategic relationship between the two countries, a subject that has the strong implications for future partnerships. During the Cold War, the Indo-US relationship could be best categorized as tempestuous. Newly independent, India was trying to assert itself as an independent nation that was not obliged to follow the dictates of any country while the United States was trying to convince the world of the dangers of communism and the Soviet Union. Needless to say, both countries felt that the other was meddling. It wasn’t till India made the transition to a more liberal economy and the India lobby in Washington grew in power that relations have normalized between the two states. Even today, there are some that wonder whether India and the United States can even be called allies.
The Indo-US strategic dialogue can be seen as taking a good partnership to the next level. The natural starting point of a Indo-US relationship seems to be the fight against terrorism, since both countries have suffered from external terrorist attacks on their home soil in the last decade. Both countries hold to many of the same ideals (such as democracy and diversity) and face the some of the same security challenges (the foremost of which is state-sponsored terrorism). But the question remains whether similar challenges place the United States and India on the same side of the security calculus? Even though India has often sympathized with the American position on terrorism, it had refused to support the invasion of Iraq and refused to provide peacekeeping troops after the war.
Nonetheless, the Indian foreign policy and defense establishments are increasingly recognizing the importance of closer cooperation with the United States. This strategic partnership could also grow as India explores the idea of acquiring theater missile defense capabilities, for which it would need help from the United States (or alternatively, Israel). The Indian army is not only large in size but over the past few years have been updating its military capabilities, one that could eventually be used in maintaining the current global order as India tries to assert itself as a global power and lobbies for a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council. The White House needs to engage with India on a bilateral level, leveraging common concerns to a strategic and military pact. Additionally, for the United States, a strategic partnership to an alliance with India would probably develop over the China issue, as both countries view China as a threat.
Transparency and confidence-building will be two major challenges to an US-India partnership, especially since India will really only be open about its abilities in order to win favor with the United States and not in other areas which could compromise its interests (such as any discussion on Kashmir that is not bilateral with Pakistan). For example, India has been forthcoming about its nuclear technology, such that the United States has agreed to give India spent nuclear fuel in return for IAEA inspectors having access to their civilian nuclear facilities; however, India has been less compliant on divulging its nuclear military capabilities because of the Chinese and Pakistani threats on its borders. Nonetheless, due to the self-imposed limitations on India’s part means that this strategic partnership with the United States will only truly develop in the long-term, driven by issues of mutual interest.
Disclaimer: Some of this article has been inspired by my on-going thesis on the increasing Indo-US strategic partnership so sorry for getting all “academic writing”-y.