Areas must be found to give new thrust to the Indo-US relationship, though current American preoccupations have put India on the slow burner, says Premvir Das
As things stand, the objectives defined a decade ago for a 'strategic relationship' with the United States, as well as the methods adopted for achieving it, are in some disarray. The first efforts to rework the India-US interface began with Rajiv Gandhi's visit to that country in the mid-1980s. A few years later, executive steering groups were constituted for each of the three armed services to advance military-military cooperation. Considering that suspicions on both sides were very high, this was no easy task, but it was felt that the deficit of trust could best be tackled at the 'mil-mil' level to begin with.
Following Prime Minister Narasimha Rao's visit to the US in 1994, this process was given a further push and a Minute of Defence Cooperation was signed in early 1995 at the ministerial level. A significant feature of this arrangement was the setting up of a Defence Policy Group chaired by senior civilian officials of the two countries. This arrangement met an early blow with the Pokhran nuclear tests of 1998 when the US imposed sanctions on India -- and took some years to revive, picking up steam only with the arrival of President George W Bush in the White House in 2001.
From then on, progress was smooth and not only has cooperation between the militaries enhanced considerably, but major strides have been made in the sphere of arms procurement. A fresh agreement for defence cooperation was concluded in 2005. The icing on the cake came with the signing of the nuclear deal in 2006 and the role played by the US in obtaining clearance from the Nuclear Suppliers Group, an exceptional exclusion. It will not be wrong to assert that, in 2008, India-US relations had become truly 'strategic'.
Things have turned sour since then. While President Barack Obama has shown every courtesy to India's leaders, the first 16 months of his term have seen the relationship on the downslide. Though he has affirmed his commitment to the 123 Agreement, his priorities have been far removed and India might not even be on his radar. There have been warning signals. The first of these came when, during his first visit to China, he asked Chinese President Hu Jintao to help settle India-Pakistan disputes. Since then, his focus has been on reaching an arms control agreement with Russia, climate change, non-proliferation issues and, above all, Af-Pak. While this was not entirely unexpected, developments in the last-named have brought India-US relations under severe stress. Things are no longer going according to plan and the time has come to reassess matters.
Whether the US and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation's forces withdraw in 2011 (unlikely) or a little later (inevitable), it is clear that their stay is only a matter of time. Given this reality, Pakistan will not easily accept neutralisation of the Afghan Taliban which it has nurtured over the last two decades. So, Kabul will continue to be the focus of Pakistan's strategy and it would be naive to think that the Americans will have much problem with that; they did not, after all, object very much to Taliban rule until 2001. This does not necessarily mean that India will be ousted from Afghanistan. Most Pashtuns are more inclined towards India than they are to Pakistan.
So, while Taliban-friendly groups may come into power, even the US will not want them to be of the pre-2001 variety. Many other countries in that region, even China, given its ethnic concerns in Xinjiang, would like to see a neutral and independent government in Kabul. So, India's concerns should be tempered. Our assistance programmes should continue; what is on the ground cannot be easily ignored. Having said this, we should review the type of consular presence that we need in that country. In sum, we should be seen to be supportive of President Obama's concerns rather be seen as opposing them.
On non-proliferation issues, it is not so difficult to cope. We already have a self-imposed ban on testing, so we can be proactive on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. This cannot prevent us from testing at a future date -- say, if China does -- and we will easily be able to withstand any pressures. As for the Non Proliferation Treaty, our position that we can join as Nuclear Weapon States is bound to be accepted sooner rather than later. On climate change, India has a major role as 'conciliator' -- one it played to perfection at Copenhagen. Therefore, on these areas of immediate concern to the US President, we can be seen to be proactive instead of falling in line under pressure.
Having dealt with the factors affecting attainment of objectives, we should review whether these are still valid. India's security concerns rest at two levels, one in its immediate neighbourhood and the other at the larger Asian, even global level. The US is a major participant in both. On the larger canvas, our interfaces with the US, Russia, Japan, South West Asia, the Central Asian Republics, South East Asia and China come into play. As it happens, only one among them has a security connotation of concern. And good relations with the US minimise it. At the same time, there must be enough space for us to interact independently with all these entities.
If this space is constrained by a strategic relationship with the US then there is need for a rethink, but it does not appear that this will be the case. And, as India becomes stronger economically, the space can only enhance, not diminish. In the neighbourhood, Pakistan will continue to be a problem, but our effort should be to deal with it on our own, without bringing any others into play. Over the last few years, there has been a tendency to involve the US in our bilateral issues. This may sometimes help us tactically but, in the long term, cannot be productive. In short, a strategic relationship with the US continues to have validity and must be pursued proactively.
Areas must, therefore, be found to give a thrust to the relationship despite America's existing preoccupations, in which India has been put on the slow burner. We must minimise the areas of dissonance (Af-Pak) and focus on themes of convergence, such as cooperation in the fields of education, technology, space, economy and agriculture. We should also be able to identify compatible strategic interests in the Indian Ocean littoral, not just anti-piracy and disaster relief. Within the next few months, the foreign ministers of the two countries are to meet, followed by the visit of the US President to India in the fall. We must find something more than just cosmetics for them to take back or for us to remain content with. This requires serious and urgent attention. Course corrections, if made in time, make navigating the shoals easier.
The author is a former director general, Defence Planning Staff. He has been a member of the National Security Advisory Board