By Boris Volkhonsky
On Wednesday, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Indian Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna met for their third annual strategic dialogue in Washington.
Topics for discussion ranged from Afghanistan and Pakistan to counter-terrorism and women’s empowerment. But the two main themes were economic and defense cooperation.
The statements made by both ministers after the meeting demonstrated a common desire to further strengthen the ties which, as Ms. Hillary put it “have never been stronger”.
In fact, it would be a hopeless task to evaluate the present state of the US – Indian relationship and its future prospects in a short commentary, but several points need closer attention.
It is true that in view of the shifting focus of US foreign policy to Asia Pacific, India is playing an exclusive role in the US strategy. The golden dream of the US diplomacy would be to forge such an alliance that would allow it to shift the burden of dirty work aimed at containing China on India’s shoulders.
Prerequisites for such a policy emerged in the 1990s, when a former strategic partnership between India and the Soviet Union was going through difficult times due to the fact that both countries were undergoing a period of changes. The partnership that lasted for more than three decades had been described by a Hindi phrase which became known to everyone in the USSR: “Hindi – Rusi, bhai-bhai” (Indians and Russians are brothers).
The US was only too ready to grasp at the relatively cooled down relations between India and Russia. The foundation for the present state of US – Indian relations was laid by the so called “nuclear deal” of 2005-2008 between US President George W. Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
The first decade of the 21st century witnessed a five-fold increase in bilateral trade (from $18 bln in 2001 to $100 bln expected this year). Defense trade has also increased, with India signing more than $9 bln contracts in this area.
Definitely, the US would be only too eager to take the place of a “bhai” (brother) in the alliance (it goes without saying that it would claim the role of the elder brother). But it should be noted that today’s India is no longer the India it used to be back in the 1970s and the 1980s, and would hardly agree to play the role of a younger brother in any alliance.
Hence, despite all the diplomatic and economic pressure the US has been exerting upon India lately, there are certain principles the latter is not ready to concede.
Take, for example, the “nuclear deal”. After signing the agreement on cooperation in the civil nuclear energy sector, the US expected that the Indian market would open up for American companies. But India’s nuclear liability law which allows suing suppliers of technology in case of an accident prevented US companies from eagerly stepping into the game. When the US saw that it was losing the competition, it resorted to well-tested tactics. The US-funded NGOs in southern Indian Tamil Nadu state waged protests that have until now prevented the commencement of a Russian-built Kudankulam nuclear power plant which was ready to start operations by the end of 2011.
Also, despite a significant growth in defense trade, India last year rejected both Boeing and Lockheed Martin in their bid for supplying 126 multi-role combat aircraft for Indian Air Force, making the choice solely based on its national interests.
Despite all the pressure to open markets for American retailers like Wal-Mart, India is keen on preserving the social balance within the country, because the advent of gross foreign retailers will inevitably lead to the ruin of hundreds of thousands of small businesses in the retail sphere.
On the international agenda, although the aim of containing China is common for both India and the US, it would be too naïve to expect that India would engage in any direct confrontation with China.
And as regards the other international dimension vital to India’s interests, the US policy towards Iran, one can notice that this is an area of sharpest disagreement between the two “bhais”. Although India reluctantly conceded to the US pressure on the issue of oil trade with Iran and reduced imports by approximately 15 percent in the current year, Iran still remains India’s important partner, and India is among those countries that strictly oppose strengthening the existing sanctions regime concerning that country.
These are just a few of the considerations showing that the prospects of bringing India closer into the mainstream of US strategy in Asia and turning it into the US’ “younger brother” are not as rosy as someone in Washington would like to hope. India is too independent and self-reliant to make decisions based on its national interests rather than follow orders coming from anywhere, not excluding the White House or the State Department.
Boris Volkhonsky, senior research fellow, Russian Institute for Strategic Studies