The one thing you can say about the India-US relationship is that it’s working fairly smoothly for both of us. This is more than you can say about relationships elsewhere. Look at US’ relations with its other friends and allies.

And in the case of India, Modi’s many tours have yielded little by way of payoff. Ties with Russia remain iffy, and those with China and Pakistan are positively cool.

Fortunately, the US has been Prime Minister Modi’s chosen destination and so there is great relief in South Block that President Trump has not done anything to damage it. Indeed, as the visit of  US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reveals, the US is working hard to shore them up.

All is Seemingly Well with the US

So, things with the US are going swimmingly well, at least at the level of rhetoric. You would, however, find it hard to sift out any substance. The same, lamentably, must be said about the Tillerson visit.

Going by the readouts, there was a lot of stirring stuff about getting Pakistan to deny safe haven to terrorists and  how the US was keen to see India as a leading power and, of course, in the context of Trump’s decision to double down in Afghanistan, India’s importance to America’s Afghan plans. India’s External Affairs Minister summed it up by saying everything could be done if Pakistan could be brought to heel.

In India there remains a  great deal of interest in seeing how the Trump establishment will deal with Islamabad. There was ecstasy when President Trump excoriated Islamabad for providing sanctuary to terrorists. But there was consternation when the same Trump profusely thanked Pakistan for securing the safe release of a US-Canadian couple held by the Haqqani network.

Is Military Alliance Fruitful for India?

As it is, defence ties with the US are not easy. All US equipment comes with end-user conditionalities and require certain agreements of which India has signed two of four. The first was the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) aimed at promoting the sharing of military information, including intelligence.

The second, Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) gives both countries the ability, though not the obligation, to access supplies and spares in each other’s bases, but given the deployment of the two militaries, it is aimed more at facilitating US operations in the Indian Ocean region.

The Communications and Information Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA) and the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) for Geospatial Intelligence are still pending. Both these agreements and GSOMIA, are facilitating agreements in that they enable the US to provide sensitive equipment and data but they also come with end user restrictions.

The real question is: What is the desired end state in Indo-US defence ties ? If it is a military alliance, then India would be required to sign up these agreements to access significant US intelligence and technology. However, if India wants to preserve strategic autonomy, there will be problems.

The US does seek an alliance, as Admiral Harry Harris declared last year, the US Navy could envisage joint patrols with India in the Indo-Pacific. However, it is also a fact that India’s strategic congruence with the US is limited to the area of the US Pacific Command. There is little or no dealing or conversation on issues relating to the Persian Gulf and as for Pakistan, we simply do not see eye to eye.

Pakistan Knows How to Play its Game Well

Tillerson may have criticised the safe haven to terrorists in Pakistan, but he did not criticise their attacks on India. Instead he said that they were a threat to Pakistan’s own security and stability.

That’s not really true anymore. There was a time when the TTP began to hover near Islamabad. But the Pakistan Army’s offensive in Waziristan and Karachi has put the TTP and its associated organisations on the backfoot. What remains are groups which may threaten India and Afghanistan, but are no threat to their masters, the Pakistan Army.

There was a time when India used to complain about being hyphenated with Pakistan. It would appear that it is India now which is constantly hyphenating US actions in South Asia with Pakistan.

Of course, the two sides discussed other areas, there were references to the Indo-Pacific and H1B visas and so on, but the headline was about safe havens for terror.

In any case, Pakistan knows how to play the game very well. In 2002, to convince the world that it was not supporting terrorism, Pak shifted the entire LeT set-up to PoK. It was successful in that in the western media, LeT began to be described as a Kashmiri group. Likewise after Mumbai the Pakistani jihadis systematically shifted their targets from civilians to military and police personnel. The result was that the attacks have fallen off the western radar.

And most recently, they ensured that Hafiz Saeed was not released from his comfortable house arrest while Tillerson was visiting Islamabad. The unkindest cut is that, according to the Pakistan media, Saeed’s name was not there in the list of 75 terrorists that Tillerson gave to the Pakistani authorities. It is a moot question as to whether the US sees the threat India faces from Pakistani proxies in the same way it sees the problem in Afghanistan.

Rise of China has Shaped America’s Approach

As for Afghanistan itself, there is a question mark about how shared are our interests. The US, a global power, has policies that have lurched from commitment to abandonment and a repeat of that cycle between 1970s and today, with regard to Afghanistan. India has abiding interests in the country, but we should not overstate our interests.

They are in the main to ensure that Afghan territory is not used to train terrorists targeting India, and the Kautilyan imperative of maintaining good ties with the enemy’s enemy.

Actually, from the 1990s onwards, it is the rise of China that has shaped the American approach to India. New Delhi, however, has marched to its own drummer, till recently.

India believed that it could resolve its border problem with China and persuade it to change tack in Pakistan.

But now it is not so sure and the signals coming out of China are not very good.

This assessment is not very different from that of the US which had long believed that it could “socialise” China into its Washington Consensus. However, and the recent Chinese Party Congress only confirms this, Beijing has very different goals and they include global primacy. Xi Jinping’s talk of coming to the centre-stage, creating a war-winning military and the endorsement of the Belt Road Initiative in the Congress suggests a course which gives little comfort to Washington and its allies.

India-US Ties Marked by Hesitation

Despite this, India and the US are moving towards each other only incrementally.

They may have adopted a Joint Strategic Vision for Asia Pacific and the Indian Ocean Region and signed a pact to allow each other the use of their bases. But these are defensive steps rather than measures which can keep China off balance. Whether it is the ASEAN or South Asia or IOR, China today retains the initiative. It knows what it wants, has, or is developing, and has the wherewithal to achieve them.

Genuinely close India-US ties remain well below their potential because neither side has been willing to open up to the other. India is rightly reluctant to follow the US lead in Iran and Pakistan, and the US for its part is unwilling to give India any substantial defence technology. Not surprisingly, Secretary Tillerson reportedly once again raised the chimera of the F-16 and F-18, both 1980s vintage fighters, even while he spoke of providing India “the best technology for military modernisation”.

Will the US Help India Emerge as a World Power?

At the root of the problem is incoherence of Indian policy. Because it refuses to modernise its policy-making instruments, India is content to simply continue old policies or work along whimsical lines proposed by individuals, rather through a process of rigorous and studied determination.

For example, there is a fond belief in some policy circles that the US will help India to become a world power in the manner it did for China. The US is unlikely to make that mistake twice. It is one thing to use India to balance China, quite another to allow the rise of another power to undermine its hegemony further.

Actually the challenge is ours. We need to see how we can leverage American goal of preserving their hegemony to advance our interests a couple of notches ahead. And the countries we ought to be learning from are China and Pakistan.

This commentary originally appeared in The Quint.


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