India-US must revisit what is truly strategic in their ties
By Rajesh Rajagopalan
Whatever adjectives are being used to describe the state of India-US ties — as Secretary of State John Kerry comes visiting —it is clear that the relationship is not where it should be or where it was expected to be. New Delhi has to share a significant part of the blame because in the years after the India-US nuclear deal, it has seemed much more uncertain about what it wants from the relationship and much more sceptical about its benefits.
These opinions are now being echoed in Washington. As the US withdraws from Afghanistan next year and the national election campaign kicks off in India, the prospects for any immediate improvement are dimming. It is time both sides returned to what is truly strategic in their relationship.
Instead, the two sides are now back to their old habit of talking past each other. India appears to be focusing on the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and its likely consequences. The US wants to discuss trade, intellectual property rights and climate change. These are important concerns and should be discussed but they cannot be the centrepiece of a strategic partnership. Far from being issues that will strengthen partnership, these are issues that will divide and dilute it. If this relationship can be built at all, it will be on the issues the two countries are tip-toeing around: China and the Asian and global balance. The longer the two sides fail to recognise this, the longer this relationship will stagnate.
Both sides need to realise that on some issues, they simply do not have common interests — especially on regional issues. The US would like New Delhi, Islamabad and Kabul to work together, but this is easier said than done. The change of regime in Pakistan is promising, but India has been down this particular garden path before. On important strategic issues such as Pakistan's support for terrorism and the future of Afghanistan, there is no indication yet that the Nawaz Sharif government can wrest policy control from Pakistan's army. Irrespective of what Washington wants, India needs to pursue its own interests in these areas rather than simply complaining to Washington about Islamabad's behaviour.
On Afghanistan, similarly, the US's primary interest is in winding up its involvement. It hopes it can talk to the Taliban to reach some sort of
settlement that will serve as a fig leaf to cover its withdrawal, though it will not change its mind about withdrawing even if the Taliban do not oblige it on this issue. The US hopes that Afghanistan does not again become a haven for international terrorism, but there is little that the US can do about it. It is rare that you can win around the negotiating table what you have lost on the battlefield and there is little reason for the Taliban to give in when they are clearly winning.
New Delhi, correctly, does not take much comfort in these negotiations because India is going to suffer much more as the ISI and its terrorist proxies return to Afghanistan. But New Delhi is also being unrealistic. It would be nice if Washington would fight to the last American to protect Indian interests in Afghanistan, but that will not happen. New Delhi needs to do what is necessary in Afghanistan: in the near term, help bolster the Afghan security forces so that they can tackle the Taliban better and in the long term build alliances with other forces in Afghanistan to sustain Indian interests if and when the Taliban take over Kabul. Platitudes about Afghanistan's stability or regional solutions will do little to resolve the problem.
The issue both sides should be focusing on is China and the Asian and global balance. On this crucial issue, both sides are living in their private fantasy islands. The Obama Administration has revived the old delusion, much favoured in Democratic party circles, about a US-China understanding to jointly solve the world's problems. Between the Asian pivot and the recent "shirt-sleeve summit" in California, Washington shouldn't be surprised if Asian powers are confused about what to make of America's steadfastness. India is in the grip of its own China delusion. Though there is little indication that China has changed its long-standing policy of containing India within South Asia or even about the border dispute, there is unnatural optimism that India can frame a middle path between China and the US.
Such a middle path might have been possible if, like the Soviet Union during the Cold War, China was a distant power rather than a neighbour with which India has disputes both over territory and over each other's relative power position. If the India-US strategic partnership has to regain its footing, they should stop wallowing in regional and trade issues and recapture what "strategic" means in their relationship.