India & US: Ties that don’t bind

The killing of Osama bin Laden comes at a time when India-US relations are at a low point of the roller coaster ride to which they have often been compared. After the visit of US President Barack Obama, which kindled hopes of raising relations to a higher level, it appeared as though India was distancing itself from Washington to assert its independence.

The US too had other preoccupations, particularly the “Arab Spring”.
The postponement of the strategic dialogue, India’s vote on Libya in the United Nations Security Council, India’s overtures to Iran and its role in the Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) Summit were seen as straws in the wind.
To crown it all, India announced that it had shortlisted two European fighter aircraft, ignoring American demarches at the highest level that acquisition of US fighters would contribute to the strategic relationship between the two countries.
While India has maintained that the choice of the fighters was motivated solely by the technical specifications, many strategic thinkers in the US and India felt that India had missed an opportunity to cement the strategic relationship.
But an Indian-American executive of one of the firms, which unsuccessfully bid for the Indian contract for 126 multi-role combat aircraft (MRCA), was surprisingly unperturbed by the news of the Indian decision to go for one of the European fighters. He said that the US had known for some time that India was apprehensive about the US fighters because of the US involvement with Pakistan. In the event of a war with Pakistan, India would be disadvantaged by the superior capability that Pakistan might have already obtained from the US.
The joint ventures between the two countries and proposals for Indian investments would balance the loss in the aircraft deal, he said.
On the contrary, the resignation of the US ambassador to India, Timothy Roemer, was clearly linked to the strenuous efforts he had put in to persuade India to purchase the planes from his country. His parting message that he was satisfied with the state of relations between the two countries did not carry conviction.
The full story of the postponement of US secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s visit to India for continuing the strategic dialogue has not yet come to light. Some speculate that it was the fear of direct pressure on the MCRA deal that prompted India to seek a postponement. The visit is now scheduled to take place in July 2011.
The Nuclear Liability Bill was also a big blow to the US businesses, which were poised to get a captive contract worth $10 billion as a direct outcome of the nuclear deal. Promises given to find a way around the liability of suppliers by elaborating rules on the bill have remained unfulfilled. The Fukushima disaster has also cast its shadow on the use of nuclear power.
For the US, “the unkindest cut of all” must be the role played by India at the Brics Summit in China. The summit sought to undermine the role of the dollar and also embraced the Chinese economic and financial agenda. India’s abstention on the vote on Libya in the Security Council was a meaningless gesture when the Arabs and the Africans had no qualms about supporting the west. The Brics rubbed the point in, much to the chagrin of the US and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.
The fact that India gained little in the summit and the subsequent bilateral talks with China gave India no alibi for taking these positions. China diluted the position of the other four in Brics on Security Council reform, making it even less supportive than the US position.
India’s overtures to Iran, leading to a possible visit to Tehran by the Prime Minister must also be of concern to the US. The revival of the pipeline must be anathema to the Americans.
The US too has contributed to the decline in the relationship by seemingly unintended acts of omission and commission. Airport officials did not mean any offence to India, when in two separate and unconnected incidents, they were discourteous to two Indian envoys, but the Indian media played them up as deliberate anti-Indian moves. The treatment meted out to the Indian students, who became the victims of an education scam did not help either.
Mr Obama’s remark that the Americans will not need to go to India for cheap healthcare was not taken kindly in India. The cumulative effect was far from favourable to the atmospherics.
In actual fact, however, the two countries are quietly working on many issues of vital concern. India has more to gain from the US than from any other country at this time. Frittering away the gains of the Bush era and the early days of Obama may hurt our interests
The killing of Bin Laden is an opportunity and a challenge for India-US relations, though its importance should not be exaggerated. Though the Indian Prime Minister was not on the list of the world leaders whom Mr Obama called soon after his success in bringing a closure to 9/11, Dr Manmohan Singh reached out to him in a matter of days and presumably congratulated him.
The perceived deterioration in the relations between the US and Pakistan may have no impact on India-US relations, essentially because the present phase will be temporary, if not imaginary. US-Pakistan relations will return to normal in a very short time.
A thought has also arisen that India should rush to normalise relations with Pakistan and be supportive to Pakistan at this difficult juncture. But I feel that any effort to befriend Pakistan at this point in misplaced sympathy will be dangerous. If anything, India should go slow in its engagement with Pakistan till it sets its house in order after the trauma of Abbottabad.
The best hope is that the present phase is the inevitable descent of the roller coaster before it gains momentum again to climb even higher. The imperatives of cooperation are much stronger than the impulse to appear distant from the Dhritarashtra’s embrace that the US connection is considered to be.

T.P. Sreenivasan is a former ambassador of India and governor in the IAEA

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