Photo: Ajay Aggarwal/Hindustan Times
Photo: Ajay Aggarwal/Hindustan Times

Opinion | India and the US: partners despite differences

Mature countries work together in areas where their interests converge and act independently in areas where interests diverge

This week, we will witness not only a meeting of the defence and foreign policy leaderships of India and the US—ministers Nirmala Sitharaman and Sushma Swaraj with secretaries James Mattis and Michael Pompeo—but also two markedly different perspectives on international relations. These divergences must be appreciated and managed if the promise of a meaningful India-US defence partnership is to be realized. 

At the summit, India’s ministers will bring with them a vision of India rising in global influence in the midst of a “multipolar world". This is a welcome sight for a generation which spent most of its life in the Cold War in a non-aligned nation under international conditions designed, if not dictated, by decisions made in Moscow and Washington. It is entirely understandable for this generation to see the weakening of the “superpowers" in relative influence as a return to a more equitable international order. 

At Singapore’s Shangri La Dialogue, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said: “(Russian) President Putin and I shared our views on the need for a strong multipolar world order for dealing with the challenges of our times." He went on to stress that India’s “friendships are not alliances of containment. We choose the side of principles and values…not one side of a divide or the other". As the heirs of a grand and ancient civilization, this must seem appropriate: to stand apart from formal pacts and alliances, seek partnerships with all interested parties, and eschew exclusive commitments that constrict India’s actions and autonomy.

America’s national security leaders perceive regional trends in a different light. It is a view informed by nearly a century of experience in maintaining peace through military strength and powerful alliances. “Great power competition is back," Admiral Harry Harris the former commander of US Pacific Command recently said. “A geopolitical competition between free and oppressive visions is taking place in the Indo-Pacific." This vision is one of clear-eyed recognition of rivalry and the impermanence of multipolarity in Asia. Inevitably, countries choose or are compelled to form coalitions with other states that result in the formation of rival geopolitical camps. For most American national security leaders, there is no question that this is already occurring.

“For those who want peace and self-determination, we all have a shared responsibility to work together to build our shared future," the US defense secretary warned leaders in Singapore. Words like “working together" for a US marine general like Mattis have a specific meaning—much of his life has been spent fighting and planning to fight side-by-side with foreign soldiers as part of an international coalition. He is talking about the armed forces of nations standing side-by-side, shoulder-to-shoulder, for the purpose of a common defence. His point was straightforward: If the rapid growth of Chinese military power is not met by such a counterbalancing coalition, a Sino-centric security order will emerge in Asia and future generations will look back on today’s international political conditions as little more than a brief multipolar moment.

The US and India have a common interest in an Indian military with the strength to resist external coercion, but the governments have not always had common expectations of how this can be made to come about in partnership. Typically, a treaty or alliance arrangement provides guidance and structure, but that isn’t an option for US-India relations at present. One thing is for sure, the US government cannot dictate that India mimic American foreign policies, particularly those directed at Russia and Iran. India will continue to procure defence goods from Russia because it is in India’s interest to do so. And the US will continue to pressure Russia to desist from its aggression in Europe and cybercrimes in America. Mature countries work together in areas where their interests converge and act independently in areas where interests diverge.

Yet, there are real and damaging consequences to Indian government policies that aim to hedge and balance its defence partnerships between Washington and Moscow. “A friend to all is a friend to none," Aristotle supposedly remarked. It is a point that bears particular resonance to defence ties between countries. Political statements are fickle and fungible in a way hard military power is not. For a defence partnership to be meaningful, it must have components that are exclusive and partisan. 

The US defense secretary made a point of focusing on military interoperability at the Shangri La Dialogue because militaries either have it or they don’t. During his last trip to New Delhi, Mac Thornberry, chairman of the armed services committee in the US Congress, noted that Indian acquisition of Russia’s advanced S-400 Triumf anti-aircraft weapon would likely hinder interoperability and prevent the US from sharing certain defence technology with India because placing a Russian radar capability in close proximity to American technology puts those technologies at risk. America’s defence leaders want Indian military power to expand, but not at the risk of compromising America’s crown jewel defence capabilities.

The stakes for US-India defence cooperation may have never been higher, and cooperation is accelerating. Just this year, America’s Asia-focused military command was renamed the “Indo-Pacific Command" to highlight India’s centrality to regional security; the US Congress acted to provide special relief for India from being caught up in US sanctions against Russia; the Donald Trump administration granted India “Strategic Trade Authorization 1" status to facilitate sensitive high technology trade; and an advanced armed unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) deal is on the horizon along with unprecedented offers of defence technologies and “Make in India" defence projects. Most notably, the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (Comcasa) that has been pursued for over a decade is a powerful signal that the two nations are moving much closer to a genuinely effective defence partnership.

Let us hope that in the words of the Indian prime minister, both sides truly “overcome the hesitations of history." 

Benjamin Schwartz previously served as the director for India in the US office of the secretary of defense. These are his personal views.

Comments are welcome at theirview@livemint.com 

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