William S. Cohen was secretary of defence in the Clinton administration that is credited with initiating the strategic shift in ties with India. He is now the chairman and chief executive of the Cohen Group that provides global business consulting services and advice on tactical and strategic opportunities in markets.

India-US ties are strong and are getting stronger every day. The breakthrough came with the civil nuclear agreement which the Bush administration pushed really hard as did Prime Minister (Manmohan) Singh. The level of cooperation to achieve that goal was quite remarkable—overcoming resistance in both India and the US and setting the tone for expanding the relationship in the future. I anticipate the President’s (Barack Obama’s) trip will make even more progress. The ability to start sharing technologies and capabilities as we look forward to an uncertain world in the future will be increasingly important. We can look at it from the perspective of commercial military ties that is certainly very important for our industries, working together, particularly with the decision coming up about the multi-role combat aircraft.

Regional balance: Cohen says India and the US have a common interest in seeing a stable Pakistan. Bloomberg

I think that will be a particularly significant issue because it’s so visible and it’s one that will cement our ties further. But beyond the multi-role combat aircraft, we must also look for other areas of cooperation, particularly homeland security. Obviously, counterterrorism is increasingly important. So, beyond defence trade and counterterrorism, there are the regional issues dealing with Afghanistan-Pakistan and, beyond that, global issues, because India is going to assume greater responsibility in terms of a global approach to security issues such as terrorism, piracy and other issues such as climate change.

I also see the importance of our navies and militaries working together to provide relief for people who are victims of disaster. India’s role is certainly going to continue to expand significantly.

Eliminating mistrust

First of all, there should not be a question of mistrust. The US invests more in defence military capability than any other nation, or, perhaps, combination of nations on the planet. US taxpayers invest, this year I believe it will be $708 billion in our military budget, and obviously we have an interest in making sure that our technology is protected. We have these agreements with all of our allies, these are our strategic allies with whom we have treaty obligations. Nonetheless, we have the CISMOA (Communications and Information Security Memorandum of Agreement) with them, so it’s not a matter of not trusting India, this is just a matter of the US saying if we are going to share this extraordinary investment we are making in terms of military capability, we want to make sure we are satisfied that it is fully protected. It allows us, then, to go forward and share technology at the very highest level. Though it’s in our interest to do this, it’s also in the interest of all of our partners who wish to have access to this capability.

Major hardware vendor

The world has changed dramatically since (India’s nuclear tests and subsequent sanctions imposed in) 1998, and our relationship has also changed dramatically since 1998. And it’s not to compare the US with Russia or France or any other country, but rather, what is the benefit that will come from a much greater interaction and commercial relationship between the US and India. There again, I come back to the point that the US has invested more in the field of advanced technology than any other country in the world. The political dynamics have certainly changed. As a matter of fact, I think we have more military cooperation now than ever before. We have more military exercises with India than with any other country in the world. So, I would say the US has demonstrated, number one, by its support to the civil nuclear deal that we want a different relationship; we see that the US and India can work together to deal with some of the major issues in the world and that includes terrorism, piracy, climate change. I believe it is a relationship that should be recognized as being of singular importance.

US-Pakistan defence ties

I believe we have a common interest in seeing a stable Pakistan. One of the very legitimate concerns that we all have is that Pakistan should not become a failed state. So it’s in India’s interest as it’s in the US’ interest to do what we should, and to the extent we can, to see that does not happen.

There has to be a greater dialogue between India and the US on how we relate our policies to Pakistan and Afghanistan. But it seems to me that there is a greater responsibility on the part of the US government to monitor the sales and the transfer of these weapons to Pakistan because we don’t want them to be used against India, obviously. So this is an important subject on which we may have some differences of approach, but I think India recognizes that it is in our mutual interest to see, if we can, that Pakistan is able to become stable and has a democratic government that lives at peace with its neighbours.

At odds over Afghanistan

It’s a very challenging issue for the US. Afghanistan is very different from Iraq. The US has been engaged for many years now, too many years in the opinion of many Americans, but nonetheless, Afghanistan poses significantly different challenges. The policy has evolved, we have General (David) Petraeus who is trying to pursue this policy of counterinsurgency, that is, on the one hand, maintaining a very aggressive policy against the Al Qaeda and the Taliban, and on the other hand, intended to “win hearts and minds" by helping with infrastructure projects and other opportunities for the people in Afghanistan.

India is also contributing to that. India is helping in terms of its contribution to the infrastructure and other types of humanitarian assistance. Our policy has been to try to put Afghanistan in a position of remaining a stable country that does not become a haven for Al Qaeda again in the future. That is going to a take continuation of effort. President Obama has indicated that the surge in operations that he authorized in the past year will start to be reduced somewhat starting July. That remains to be seen in terms of how the reduction will be or how fast the pace will be.

China a common concern

Again, I see that it is in our mutual interest to strengthen our relations. We should be strengthening US-India relations and India should be strengthening its relations with Japan, Australia, South Korea and, I would recommend, also with China, as the US is seeking to do. The goal should be not for anyone to contain China, to treat it as an enemy, but rather to establish procedures and processes and institutions that China becomes a player in the global economy.

India is also going to play that role and it’s important that we strengthen these ties so that China understands that it is growing in power but that power needs to be used for peaceful purposes consistent with international institutions and regimes and rules. So, the best way to do that is for the US and India to build a stronger relationship and India to do so with Australia, Japan, South Korea and other democratic countries.

That will be a way in which we can promote the general rise and prosperity for all nations considered and make it consistent with peaceful objectives.

(As told to Elizabeth Roche)