Law of returns

The forthcoming round of the US-India strategic dialogue provides an opportunity to clear the cobwebs of erroneous expectations that envelop this crucial relationship. Misplaced hopes are harboured by both sides. The uproar in the Indian media over the trial of Tahawwhur Rana underlines both the force of our expectations about American

cooperation in tackling Pakistan-based terrorism and the depth of our disappointment at America’s unwillingness to turn the heat on Pakistan. Neither of these is warranted. Equally misguided is the assumption that the latest crisis in US-Pakistan relations somehow presents an opportunity for India. The killing of Osama bin Laden will pave the way for a swift drawdown of American troops from Afghanistan. In so doing, the US will require Pakistan’s cooperation to keep the insurgency below boiling point. The realistic course for India is to realise that deepening US-India ties are unlikely to translate into any tangible outcomes vis-à-vis Pakistan. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s recent visit to Afghanistan suggests that such realisation is dawning on New Delhi.
The learning curve in Washington seems much slower. Flawed assumptions and expectations about the relationship continue to hold sway amongst American analysts and policymakers. These are succinctly summarised in a recent article by Sumit Ganguly in this newspaper (Not squaring up with Washington, June 15). Important players in the US, he writes, are beginning to wonder whether India really wants a “viable strategic partnership”. Three developments in recent months have apparently sowed such doubts: the nuclear liability bill passed by India, India’s stance on the Libyan crisis, and the decision to drop the American firms contending for the order of 126 Medium Multiple Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA). A closer look at each of these highlights some fundamental problems in Washington’s strategic perception of India.
Let’s start with the nuclear liability legislation. Ganguly observes that this “draconian” legislation prevents American companies from having “a fair chance” of competing in the Indian market. Given the amount of effort the US put in for the nuclear deal with India and for obtaining international clearances, India’s actions showed a lack of reciprocity. The main sticking point about the legislation concerns the liability of the supplier — apart from that of the operator of a nuclear power plant — in the event of an accident. All along, the American nuclear industry was opposed to the provision for channelling any liability to the supplier, for this would expose them to litigation in the event of accident. But the fact remains that even the American legal system does not afford them the kind of immunity that they sought in India. Further, the US has seldom allowed considerations of special relationships to override the interests of its own people. The Obama administration’s tough stance on British Petroleum’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is entirely in keeping with American practice on such matters. Indian legislation will speak for India’s interests. That the US — which routinely uses domestic legislation to advance its international interests — should find this so frustrating is ironical indeed.
Consider next the ongoing Libyan crisis. India’s decision to abstain at the United Nations Security Council during the vote authorising the use of force against Libya was apparently reminiscent of its behaviour during the Cold War. The Indian position, in fact, was far from being implacably opposed to the resolution on Libya. The Indians made it clear that they did not believe that the use of force would solve the problem, but if the US and its allies thought otherwise India would not stand in the way of the resolution. Instead of conceding (with the benefit of hindsight) that India might have had a point, the Americans see this as yet another instance of India’s unreliability. The notion that India might be acting to secure its own considerable interests in that region does not seem to register at all. Equally problematic is the tendency to attribute India’s unwillingness to conform to American wishes as a hangover of non-alignment. This is a serious misreading of Indian purposes and actions.
The US’ response to the MMRCA procurement demonstrates the hold of these assumptions. The Americans have argued that this was no ordinary defence deal and that awarding the contract to one of the American contenders would have signalled India’s interest in forging a close strategic relationship. To be sure, this is no ordinary defence deal. In procuring these aircraft, India has to cater to its strategic air power requirements for the next five decades. It is surprising, therefore, that the Americans assume that F16 or the F18, which are already into the third decade of existence, should find favour with New Delhi. If the US was indeed keen to bag the contract why did it not offer the F22 or the F35? These platforms have been sold to other allies of the US. The point yet again is the US’ inability to appreciate the point that India will act to preserve and further its own interests.
This strange lack of strategic awareness stems from the fact that in the last many years the US has never dealt with a genuine “partner”. During the Cold War it dealt with pliant or prickly allies like Britain, Japan or France. More recently, it has forged asymmetric strategic ties with former Soviet bloc countries. The relationship with China has always had an adversarial aspect to it, while relations with Pakistan have been that of a patron and client. India does not fit any of these bills. It does not pose any strategic challenge to the US, but at the same time it does not automatically fall in with America’s desires and seeks to advance its own interests. Great powers have traditionally found it difficult to deal with newer powers even when these have not questioned their dominance. A century ago, Britain experienced similar problems in its relations with the US. If ties with India are to flourish, the US will have to go beyond its historical experience and fashion a new mould of engagement.

Srinath Raghavan is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi

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