Washington: A senior White House official described the India-US relationship this week as one of “friends with benefits” – definitely not treaty allies but more like partners in a joint pursuit of happiness.
The term used by Peter Lavoy, the top official on South Asia in the White House, was half in jest but it describes the situation perfectly. India has always insisted on autonomy in decision-making and even in tough times, maintained a fine balance by tilting a little this way or that. It’s another matter that those signals were missed or misread by the recipients.
“The era of alliances? We are not in that era. Why have that shackle? The ‘friends with benefits’ model is probably satisfactory,” Lavoy said. “I don’t think anyone in the US government or in the Indian government feels a compulsion to form a treaty alliance.” He then pointed to the fact that the US has declared India “a major defence partner” and made significant policy changes to flesh out the concept.
The benefits were close to that of a treaty partner.
Lavoy was speaking at an event to mark the release of a new report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) titled ‘US-India Security Cooperation: Progress and Promise for the Next Administration’. As a keynote speaker, he was there to list the outgoing Obama administration’s achievements on the India front.
The report came just as the leaders of India, China, Russia, Brazil and South Africa were preparing to get together in Goa for a BRICS summit against what can best be described as a confused, contentious and somewhat confrontational setting. Old friendships are on test, new relationships uncertain and we have a multipolar world in spades. The hustle for influence and alignment is unseemly.
India is in a tough spot – the Russian fabric has frayed, the American is still being spun and not quite ready to wear. Some say the interim has left India a bit underdressed for the ball. But the big question in the end: would the new outfit be smart enough to work for all or most occasions?
The CSIS report is an honest take on the persistent difficulties when two fiercely democratic systems try to make things work with asymmetrical abilities and widely different expectations.
Lavoy, as the White House’s chief strategist on South Asia, highlighted the defence relationship as one that had “matured more quickly in the last eight years” and in an unprecedented fashion. With no other country has the US contemplated cooperation on development of an aircraft carrier, he stressed.
The Defence Technology and Trade Initiative is progressing well, defence trade has gone from zero to $15 billion in ten years, the rate of approval for licenses is 99%, Malabar exercises have expanded to include Japan as a regular partner, the maritime security dialogue is a success, Westinghouse is in the process of finalising a contract to build nuclear reactors and the trilateral dialogue on Afghanistan has resumed.
Lavoy began and ended his speech by quoting Jawaharlal Nehru – an interesting choice in these times – and said India mattered and could not be ignored. It has taken time but India has come to “count” in world affairs. The fine sentiment, the good words are welcome but the truth is the Obama people are home happy – they got what they “really” wanted, which is India’s signature on the climate change agreement.
India, meanwhile, hasn’t got what it wanted – entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) or armed drones. Lavoy did say “all efforts” are being made to make the NSG happen before the end of the year.
So what should be the priorities of the next administration vis-à-vis India? The CSIS report offers six “must-do” tasks: the new president should meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the first 100 days to stress the importance of the relationship; get India to sign the remaining foundational agreements; establish a quadrilateral dialogue with the US, India, Japan and Australia (earlier known as the concert of democracies); enhance India’s naval capabilities in the Indian Ocean; encourage India to raise FDI in the defence sector to 100%; and expand technology cooperation under the Homeland Security Dialogue.
But there will be hurdles along the way. The “greatest challenge” will be New Delhi’s continued wariness with US support to Pakistan and American concerns about India’s close relationship with Russia, the report says.
But in a twist of fate, Pakistan and Russia are getting closer, presenting new challenges to both India and the US. Russia’s main motivation is to poke America in the eye by embracing its non-NATO ally Pakistan while Pakistan is thrilled to embrace Russia and drive a wedge between old friends.
The report’s writers speculate that with the US planning to reduce its presence in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s importance will also reduce, increasing the possibility that Washington “will cut ties over an incident of state-sponsored terrorism.” But in the meantime, “ongoing US-Pakistan military cooperation creates a brake on India-US cooperation and trust development”.
“The best case scenario for regional peace lies in the potential for an agreement between India and China to cooperate in working for peace in Afghanistan should the United States withdraw,” the report says. But that scenario would require the impossible to happen – China going against the wishes of its all-weather friend Pakistan.
In fact, the opposite may be happening – a China-Russia-Pakistan axis in Asia which poses new challenges to both the US and India. It requires serious attention by Washington but there is no discussion on the implications of the three coming together. Each one is seen as a separate silo.
Taking the metaphor of friends with benefits further, it might be time for the US to think more radically about India as a friend with real benefits. The report cites India’s “sustained interest” in buying US unmanned aircraft such as the Predator. Even though India joined the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), apparently it is not enough because the US “holds a highly restrictive view of its own responsibilities under the MTCR” and result is denial of this technology even to countries within the MTCR.
The US has sold the Predator only to a handful of treaty allies who are engaged in “ongoing operations with the United States,” the report says. This does raise questions about Lavoy’s thesis that the era of treaty alliances is over. India as a friend with benefits is not about to get the Predator anytime soon. The US Congress too always uses India’s unwillingness to participate in American-led military operations as a litmus test of sorts. This is a potential problem in relations down the line.
In terms of increasing FDI in the defence sector, the report talks about Indian government’s concerns about becoming captive to US defence companies who could pull the plug should relations sour for any reason. The Americans also want assurances that the weapons built by US firms in India would be used “in ways consistent with US strategic goals.” One such goal is to ensure “a stable security situation in South Asia.”
Does that mean India must guarantee it will not use those weapons against Pakistan? The report does not clarify but it gives an insight into American thinking on the subject.
The report also cites ongoing problems in the areas of counterterrorism and cyber security cooperation where trust is low. Although signed in 2010 and re-emphasised in 2015, the bilateral counterterrorism initiative has suffered mainly because the shadow of Pakistan falls darkly – Americans are reluctant to act against terrorist groups that mainly attack India, something that doesn’t raise Indian confidence levels.
The US refused to extradite David Headley, one of the main plotters of the 2008 Mumbai attacks. The report says that the US needs to “gain greater clarity on its motivations for counterterrorism cooperation with India”. Does it want to make India safer or is cooperation a means to further cement the relationship and decrease Indian mistrust?
The cyber security dialogue similarly has faced problems since it started in 2001 between both governments and their private sectors. It was dealt “a severe blow” when India arrested three Indian participants on charges that they had been recruited by US intelligence.
The dialogue resumed after a while and the two sides began meeting regularly. In June this year, the two governments finalised a framework for cyberspace cooperation, including a commitment to the multi-stakeholder model of internet governance.
A lot is on the India-US plate and it would help if the next administration can hit the ground running with key officials taking over quickly and efficiently. Many clones of current Defence Secretary Ashton Carter will be needed to push the files and move the behemoth that is the American government and provide benefits to friends.