Turning a new page in Indo-US ties

Turning a new page in Indo-US ties

Even as the US continues its precipitous strategic decline, it remains the largest minority shareholder in today’s world order and, inevitably, the single most important bilateral partner for India. And yet, despite the regular stream of high-level visits and strategic dialogue, there is a distinct sense that the Indo-US relationship is losing momentum. Against this backdrop the first-ever joint study group report by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and the Aspen Institute of India on India and the United States: A Shared Strategic Future is a notable effort to jump-start this crucial but increasingly adrift relationship.

The study group, co-chaired by Robert D. Blackwill, a former US ambassador to India; and Naresh Chandra, a former Indian ambassador to the US, comprised leading luminaries from the Indian and US strategic communities. The US members reflect a bipartisan ensemble and included former officials from both Democrat and Republican administrations. The Indian members, however, do not represent all the domestic political hues, notably the ones that see red in a strengthening Indo-US strategic partnership.

Uncharacteristically, the CFR report doesn’t have any dissenting notes from its members. This unanimity of views might partly be the result of the skills of the formidable co-chairs and partly the “like-minded" outlook of the members of the group, all of whom are committed to enhancing Indo-US relations.

The report focuses on increased bilateral cooperation in economics, defence, and climate change and energy technology collaboration. In particular, it calls for transforming the strategic dialogue into a strategic and economic dialogue (akin to the US-China one); creating a joint innovation centre for clean energy; discussing interim arrangements for climate change financing and climate finance governance in international organizations and forums. On defence cooperation, the report radically asks the US to “treat India as equivalent to a US ally for the purposes of defence technology disclosure and export controls of defence and dual-use goods, even though India does not seek an actual alliance relationship."

On Pakistan the report urges classified Indo-US exchanges to prepare for different contingencies, “including the collapse of the Pakistan state and the specter of the Pakistan military losing control of its nuclear arsenal". If adopted, this proposal is likely to ring alarm-bells in Islamabad and might further deteriorate Indo-Pakistan and US-Pakistan relations.

Similarly, on China, the report proposes regular bilateral briefings to share their assessment on Beijing’s actions and policies; this has already been taken up by the Barack Obama administration. CFR president, Richard Haass, stressed that India was not being “singled out"; Washington held similar briefings with China’s other neighbours, particularly Japan, South Korea and some Asean countries. More dramatically, the report recommends joint policies to “respond to Chinese currency market interventions and tools to combat predatory pricing by Chinese firms" which, if exercised, is likely to rankle China.

While the report’s objective was to provide “fresh thinking on the realities of what both US and India face", according to K. Shankar Bajpai, one of the group’s members, its effectiveness will be judged on the implementation of the proposals at the official level. However, it is not evident that the report will get official support, particularly in India, given the domestic political climate.

Moreover, despite the like-minded group, there are two issues on which there remain fundamental differences—the political transformation in the Middle East (or West Asia in Indian parlance) and Iran’s non-proliferation behaviour. Both have the potential to wreck the evolving Indo-US partnership. While both sides agree on the diagnosis, they disagree on the treatment, as is evident from the divergent positions taken in the international arena. How the two sides manage their differences will impact not only on their bilateral relationship, but also the evolving world order.

W Pal Sidhu, is senior fellow, Centre on International Cooperation at New York University. He writes on strategic affairs every fortnight.

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