US-India Strategic Dialogue – Why Is India Reluctant?

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Context

Soon after President Obama came to office, an exhaustive review of the US Afghan policy was initiated. The policy that evolved represented continuity and was adjusted for the lessons learned and economic realities. Troops surge was implemented in Afghanistan as they were withdrawn from Iraq, drone attacks escalated in Pakistan, and US maintained its focus on Iran’s nuclear program.

Similarly, the emphasis on building a strategic relationship with India, which had been laid earlier during Bill Clinton’s era, was also sustained. The centrality of India in the emerging US foreign policy has only increased. However, the dilemma is that the country is not gung-ho on playing the role envisioned for it in the Asia-Pacific and South and Central Asia.

Analysis

Obama’s AfPak Policy

Learning from the mistakes of Bush era kinetic policies, Obama’s AfPak policy was big on a regional approach and political reconciliation. As part of the new direction, strategic dialogues were launched with Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. Since then, talks with Pakistan have faltered to such an extent that the country was almost not invited to the Chicago conference on the future of Afghanistan.

Both India and Afghanistan meanwhile have continued with their respective talks. The terms and details of the strategic agreement signed recently between US and Afghanistan have remained vague and have caused confusion in the region, especially for Iran and Pakistan. For example, while US has claimed it will not keep long-term military bases in Afghanistan, its neighbors are not convinced. Furthermore, while US has stated Afghanistan will not be used as a staging ground for attacks, the drone strikes are continuing against Pakistan. This uncertainty regarding the long-term intent of different stakeholders continues to complicate the reconciliation process. This is why Karzai has reiterated once again that the strategic pact with US is not meant against any other country.

On the other hand, the dialogue between US and India has moved quite swiftly since the Mumbai incident. Five US cabinet officials visited India only this year, with Leon Panetta being the latest one. The third Strategic Dialogue was held on June 13 and was led by SM Krishna and Hillary Clinton. Nonetheless, there are growing concerns that India-US partnership has not lived up to its expectations and potential.

India’s Defense, Security Needs

Although India wants US arms and technology, the nation does not want to be used against China. There is a rising sentiment that India does not seek an alliance with the US as it has with Japan and other Asian powers. Meanwhile, US has refuted the relationship with India has been oversold, while emphasizing its importance in regional dynamics of East Asia and Afghanistan.

According to the report of Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), India has emerged as the worlds top importer of arms and accounts for 10 percent of the global arms sales. India’s imports of major weapons surged by 38 percent in 2007-11, closely followed by China and Pakistan. According to SIPRI, India will spend more than $100 billion on weapons and systems in the next 15 years.

This has triggered a competition to provide for India’s defense needs, and friction with some western nations. For example, Britain is concluding its aid program to India. UK’s International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell stated recently that the aid program to India was being questioned, and its withdrawal came after a series of perceived snubs from India over weapons deals. New Delhi struck an agreement with France for Rafale fighter jets while UK was also competing for the contract.

On the other hand, in addition to the nuclear deal, Indian and US intelligence cooperation has grown tremendously in the aftermath of Mumbai attacks. American companies and security institutions are well placed to provide the expertise and capabilities related to the homeland security needs of India. The officials of the two countries are carrying out extensive brainstorming to develop a framework for interoperability in this area.

Strategic Costs For A Strategic Partnership

Although there are economic and security benefits for India’s ties with the West, there are also costs. With the imposition of US and EU sanctions on Iranian Central Bank that go in to effect at the end of June, India is expected to reduce its imports of energy from Iran and this will strain its ties with the country. Furthermore, India has had exemplary relations with Russia, but when it comes to matters related to NATO’s missile defense system and affairs of Libya and Syria, India will have to play a delicate balancing act.

On most of these evolving policy challenges, India’s stance of non-intervention and emphasis on a political solution is closer to Russia and China than US and NATO. On the other hand, when it comes to Pakistan and Afghanistan, including Kashmir issue, the Indian position is contradictory to the stance it has adopted in case of Libya and Syria. Moreover, being part of BRICS and an observer on SCO, further complicates India’s role. For example, at the just concluded SCO conference in Beijing, President Hu Jintao made the following comments while referring to the situation in Afghanistan:

“We will continue to follow the concept that regional affairs should be managed by countries in the region, that we should guard against shocks from turbulence outside the region and that [the SCO] should play a bigger role in Afghanistan’s peaceful reconstruction.”

In addition, due to its own large Muslim population, India’s has to be sensitive to the various undercurrents of the Islamic world, such as the Shiite-Sunni divide. With trade relations with GCC countries expected to increase by 34 percent next year, India is adopting a position similar to the US for Gulf States. And as it does, India’s relations with Iran are likely to deteriorate. If it moves closer to the Chinese and Russian stance on Syria, it will be at the cost of its relations with GCC states. This dilemma is not much different for Pakistan and other non-GCC states.

Thus, clearly there are inconsistencies in Indian position towards the Middle East, as compared to its posture towards Afghanistan and Pakistan. At the same time, the country realizes its security cannot be ensured by playing proxy to powers that are far away, while having enmity with neighbors. And, this lesson is not much different for Afghanistan and Pakistan either. These perhaps are some of the reasons that are causing India to hesitate in fully taking on the role envisioned by the US-India strategic dialogue.

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