Tuesday, June 22, 2010

India-US Strategic Dialogue: Challenges Ahead

Here's the link to an article of mine on Indo-US Strategic Dialogue published by the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS).

Though India and the US have rebooted their relations with their first ever strategic dialogue, a few key issues will decide the fate of the new strategic partners. These include the geopolitics of AfPak and the war on terror, dealing with China, hi-tech trade and export controls.

Do India and the US have a common vision vis-a-vis the AfPak issue and the war on terror issues? The US has restated a stable Afghanistan remains as vital to its national security interest although it has a limited objective – ensuring that the Taliban/ al Qaeda do not use the Pakistan-Afghan territory to carry out terrorism. This can be achieved in two ways – through reconstruction and development of Afghanistan’s society, economy and polity; and second, by putting together some sort of a coalition of forces, including the so-called moderate Taliban. It appears President Obama is keen on following the second option. This explains the added importance of Pakistan in the US’ AfPak calculus. On the other hand, India’s interests go much beyond resources, Taliban or terrorism to ensuring a stable, democratic and strengthened Afghanistan in its neighbourhood that will contribute to regional peace and stability. It is unclear if these differing objectives can be strategically adjusted.

Second, the two countries have a problem on China too. Dealing with a rising China will in fact be a test case for US-India relations as well as the US-Japan alliance. With the US deeply entrenched in Iraq and Afghanistan, China has managed to carve out a crucial strategic space for itself in the region, developing significant leverage. North Korea and Myanmar are cases in point. Chinese military modernization and the opaqueness of its policies and intentions have created suspicions in several countries in the region. There are a number of complications between India and China. India-China relationship cannot be and should not be seen in a purely bilateral framework. It is necessary to contextualize India-China relations in the broader Asian state security context. It is India’s rising profile in Asia and beyond – India’s rising profile in South East Asia, its strengthened relationship with Japan, Vietnam, US – that has been at the crux of the issue in the recent years. The Sino-Indian border issue is only a manifestation of these other problems. And Washington may be forced to take sides in case of a conflict in the future.

The state of US-China relations will have a major bearing on India’s relations with both of these powers as well as on Asian stability. India will be uncomfortable with cosy ties between Washington and Beijing, although a tense relationship is also not going to be easy for India to manage. A G-2 scenario will be nightmarish for India given their potential to ‘manage’ South Asia jointly. Beijing also was not comfortable with a Bush Administration that was cosying up to India as major pillar in the emerging Asian balance.

Finally, how India and the US will approach the hi-tech trade and export controls is a major issue. In fact, as analysts have pointed out, hi-tech trade between India and the US will be a ‘litmus’ test of the still uncertain India-US partnership. India’s engagement with US in the field of hi-tech trade and defence should be monitored through military-to-military relations, defence trade, and defence industrial collaboration. While military to military relations have been going quite strong, there is also improvement in the defence trade arena. There are again issues that need to be sorted out before it can improve significantly. Problems in this area have included India’s refusal to sign up to agreements that the US wanted including the Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMoA) and the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-spatial Cooperation (BECA). Washington finds it hard to trade with New Delhi on high-end technology items or transferring advanced avionics, communications equipment and satellite navigational aids on board some platforms that India wants (for instance the P-8I Poseidon multimission maritime aircraft or the C-130J Super Hercules transport aircraft). Not being party to CISMoA or BECA could also potentially affect India’s plans to purchase Boeing C-17 Globemaster III strategic transport aircraft or the 145 BAE Systems M777 ultra light-weight howitzers or Apache AH-64 attack helicopter. Washington is also keen that India signs the Logistics Support Agreement (LSA) and the Access and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA). As far as LSA is concerned, India feels that making available facilities for maintenance, servicing, communications, refueling and medical care will drag India into regional conflicts unnecessarily making India’s position much more complicated. India having been used to the Soviet/Russian style of defence trade, finds it difficult to agree to such strict terms and conditions from the US side. India took a big step last year in signing the End User Monitoring Agreement (EUMA) which was being dragged on for several years. Lastly, operationalisation of the India-US civil nuclear deal will also say a great deal about the commitment of the new dialogue partners to their relations.

True, strategic dialogue is all about thinking big and strategic issues and not to focus on deliverables or tactical issues, but problems on several tactical fronts can blow the air out of the strategic balloon. India and the US need to be cautious to see that that does not happen.

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