U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue Talks an Opportunity to get Partnership Back on Track

U.S. and Indian leaders hold their third round of Strategic Dialogue talks in Washington, D.C. this week amidst growing concern that the U.S.-India relationship is failing to live up to its potential or what U.S. policymakers expected from it seven years ago when the civil nuclear deal was first unveiled. A number of differences between the U.S. and India have arisen over the last couple of years. While none of the issues on its own would be a major cause of concern, when taken together, the irritants have led some in the U.S. to question the value of India as a strategic partner for the U.S. This week’s broad-based discussions offer an opportunity to reinvigorate ties and to remind both Indians and Americans alike why the relationship has repeatedly been referred to as a defining strategic partnership.

The Strategic Dialogue, which was inaugurated in July 2009, will bring several Indian ministers to Washington for discussions on strategic cooperation, energy and climate change, education and development, economy, trade and agriculture, science and technology, and health and innovation. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Indian External Affairs Minister SM Krishna will lead the talks.

Nuclear Liability, Lackluster Defense Collaboration, and Iran Cloud Path to Better Ties

Several factors have contributed to concern that the partnership is not living up to U.S. officials’ initial expectations. There is a growing sense that Indian leaders are less enthusiastic about embracing their U.S. counterparts in order to demonstrate to domestic constituencies and an entrenched Indian bureaucracy that they are committed to maintaining Indian independence and “strategic autonomy” in international affairs. While New Delhi has expanded its strategic vision and broadened the definition of its security interests in recent years, particularly in East Asia, the overall thrust of India’s foreign policy has remained relatively consistent with the idea of seeking geopolitical partnerships in multiple directions to serve its own national interests. As current Indian Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee noted in a speech six years ago, India’s interest in seeking “simultaneous improvement in ties with the U.S., EU, and Russia and Southeast Asia, Japan, Korea, and China demonstrates that for the first time in its diplomatic history, India is forging significant strategic ties with both West and East Asia.”

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India’s approach to relations with the U.S. also increasingly reflects its concerns about a rising China. While India has agreed to a trilateral dialogue with the U.S. and Japan, despite Chinese opposition, there are also signs that India will temper relations with the U.S. from time to time in order to placate China. A recent study by prominent Indian academics (with some involvement from Indian officials), Nonalignment 2.0: A Foreign and Strategic Policy for India in the 21st Century, argues that due to shifting global power dynamics, it is too early to conclude that India would benefit from close ties with the U.S. The report goes on to note that another potential downside of focusing too much attention on building ties to the U.S. is that it could “prematurely antagonize China.”

One of the major irritants in U.S-India relations has been over legislation passed by India’s parliament almost two years ago, the Civil Liability for the Nuclear Damages Bill, which makes it difficult for U.S. companies to invest in India’s civil nuclear industry and has cast a pall over the historic U.S.–India civil nuclear deal. The deal, which involved the U.S. spearheading a contentious international push to provide India access to nuclear fuel and technology for the first time in 35 years, is seen as the bedrock for the developing strategic partnership between the U.S. and India.

The defense cooperation picture is mixed. On the one hand, the U.S. and India train together extensively and have completed over $8 billion in defense contracts in the last five years. There are signs, however, that the two sides have divergent ideas on their future cooperation as part of the U.S. plan to “rebalance” its forces toward the Asia Pacific. During his trip to India last week, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta reportedly received a cool response from his Indian counterparts. Although Panetta highlighted that defense cooperation with India is a linchpin of U.S. strategy in Asia, Indian officials made clear that their country would not be part of any U.S. military arrangements for the region and expressed unease about the U.S. plan to boost its military presence in Asia by redeploying more U.S. warships in the Pacific Ocean.

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One source of tension in the relationship – over Iranian oil sanctions – appears to be moving in a more positive direction, at least for the short-term. The U.S. announced yesterday that India, despite continuing to import Iranian oil, will receive a waiver from U.S. sanctions, since it has “significantly” reduced its dependence on Iranian oil in recent years. India’s crude imports from Iran have a steadily declining share in India’s total oil imports. For instance, they have dropped from a level of over 16 percent in 2008-09 to around 10 percent in 2011-12, and are expected to decline further in 2012-13.

Long-term Fundamentals of Relationship Strong

Despite the setbacks in relations over the last couple of years, it seems nearly inevitable that India will be an important partner of the U.S. as both countries share democratic values and similar geopolitical goals, such as meeting the challenges of a rising China, controlling terrorism in the region, and ensuring Afghanistan does not return to Taliban rule. But in order to meet the full potential of the U.S-India partnership, India will have to find concrete ways to cooperate with the U.S. on issues of strategic importance. Just as the U.S. was willing to exempt India from U.S. sanctions related to its continued imports of Iranian oil, New Delhi should also demonstrate this week that it is taking steps to meet U.S. concerns about its nuclear liability legislation. Over the longer-term, the U.S. should:

Recognize the limits to the partnership.

The U.S. must acknowledge that its relationship with India will be unique and unlike the close partnerships it has forged with allies, such as Japan, South Korea, or Australia. India still views itself as a defender of the less-developed world and suspicions of U.S. power and hegemony continue to define Indian political discourse. The U.S. will have to be sensitive to these realities and lower expectations for the military relationship accordingly.

Acknowledge Indian regional security concerns vis a vis Afghanistan without trying to make India part of the overall U.S.-NATO strategy.

Defense Secretary Panetta’s recognition of Indian interests in Afghanistan is welcome. But U.S. officials should understand that India has been working to counter the Taliban and terrorism in Afghanistan long before the 9/11 attacks and will forge its own strategy after the U.S. departs the region. While praising India for the work it is already doing to stabilize Afghanistan is helpful, the U.S. should be careful in pushing New Delhi to take on additional responsibilities at the behest of the U.S. and NATO. In a sign that India already is solidifying ties to the current Afghan regime, Kabul signed its first strategic partnership agreement with New Delhi last fall. The agreement included a commitment from New Delhi to increase training of Afghan forces in India.

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Coordinate quietly on China.

While India’s interest in pursuing trilateral U.S.-Japan-India talks demonstrates Indian leaders see value in like-minded democracies coordinating their policies, India also is taking care not to raise alarm bells in Beijing. Indian policymakers are forming their own complex response to cope with the uncertainty surrounding a rising China. India seems to be simultaneously pursuing a robust diplomatic strategy aimed at encouraging peaceful resolution of their border disputes and growing trade and economic ties, and at the same time embarking on an ambitious military modernization campaign that will build Indian air, naval, and missile capabilities. While a certain degree of Indian ambivalence on how to effectively deal with China is understandable, Indian leaders need to ensure that their equivocation does not paralyze them or lead them to forgo good strategic options that maximize their security.

India Must Demonstrate Ties Still Strategic

India and the U.S. should accept that the burgeoning partnership will not always reach the full expectations of either side. Still, the growing strategic challenge presented by a rising China and the two countries’ shared democratic values will inevitably drive them to increase cooperation. This week’s Strategic Dialogue offers an opportunity for New Delhi to take some key steps and go that extra mile in order to maintain confidence that the relationship is still worthy of the labels “strategic” and “defining.”  This time, the ball is in India’s court.

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