Deep within the psyche of America is the desire to be loved. Never a colonial power in the traditional sense, and with a New World cheerfulness unlike the cynicism of so-called Old Europe, America predictably seeks to provide aid monies, investment capital, cultural exchanges, armaments, goodwill, and in the case of India — even nuclear fuel and civilian reactors. While America has a vested interest in making these offerings to ensure a benign world order, at times we are perplexed when generosity is not met with warm display.
The recent visit of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to New Delhi was a constructive effort to enhance a military relationship, also aimed at pressuring the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, India’s historical archrival, to open blocked overland supply routes to support current NATO operations and the future withdrawal from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. That Secretary Panetta was received with limited enthusiasm, while disappointing, should come as no surprise.
It is easy to become infatuated with perceived commonalities between the U.S. and India. Parliamentary democracy, the English language, equality before the law, and free markets are part of the tapestry of shared values that India conveys to us. Not only that, the U.S. is often the first choice of Indians seeking study abroad or careers in technology, medicine, and finance for example — and it is quite unusual to meet an Indian who wants to study in Russia, the successor to India’s erstwhile Cold War sponsor.
Seen in strategic terms, and noting the British statesman, Lord Palmerston’s 19th century maxim that “nations have no permanent friends or allies, they have only permanent interests,” India’s value to the U.S. is threefold. First, it is an offset to the ascent of Chinese economic influence and regional naval aspirations from the Persian Gulf to the Strait of Malacca; an estimated 66 percent to over 80 percent of all seaborne oil crosses the expanse of the Indian Ocean. Second, as a secular and highly diverse country including 161 million Muslims, India is a critical block to the spread of Islamist radicalism. Third, with a rising middle class estimated from 30 million to 300 million out of a population of 1.2 billion, and with a GDP of $4.5 trillion, India is viewed as a vast market for American consumer and industrial products. (There is a McKinsey & Company projection from 2007 that India’s middle class will increase from 5 percent of the population to 40 percent over the next two decades.).
However, in spite of these optics and the new partnership with India, based on the “U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Agreement” signed into law near the end of the Bush Administration in 2008, the U.S. must recognize that India will rigorously pursue its self-interest, depending on the issue and its pragmatism at the time, and there will be much frustration as well as finite limits to the relationship.
For example, India’s record on nuclear non-proliferation is acknowledged to be good, yet the country will not sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Further, India recently selected the French made Rafale fighter aircraft over the Lockheed Martin F-16 and Boeing F/A-18 in a $12 billion deal, most likely to avoid the operational and political liability of too much reliance on the U.S. as an arms supplier. Moreover, frustration in recent memory is India’s emphasis on per capita emissions, arguing that the atmosphere is an equal entitlement for every person on earth, as well as its protectionist posture at the Doha talks of the World Trade Organization, in which India and several other countries caused a collapse of the negotiations.
Further, while the U.S. has encouraged rapprochement between India and Pakistan over the years regarding the Kashmir dispute, in substance India remains fundamentally intransigent, noting that it is favored by the standoff which is the status quo.
India has an ambivalent relationship with China, and closer alignment with the U.S. could antagonize Beijing. While India has disputed borders arising from the 1962 war with China, it is India’s leading source of imports and third largest export partner.
More recently, India, the world’s fourth largest oil consuming country, has been slow to join the U.S. and Europe in efforts to isolate Iran, which provides an estimated 12 percent of India’s oil imports. In an accommodation, several months ago Iran and India agreed to settle some of India’s oil import bill in the Rupee, a currency of limited convertibility. (India’s May announcement that it would cut Iranian oil imports by 11 percent is a modest concession to intense pressure from the West.) India’s historical, religious, and linguistic affinity for Iran are well-known, and isolating Iran would run counter to India’s energy needs.
Of late, the U.S. is encouraging Indian “strategic depth” in Afghanistan in the form of training the Afghan military, a concept that the U.S. had not sanctioned previously, believing it would be an irritant to Pakistan.
America’s expectations of India must be well-tempered and realistic: we should also view the partnership through Indian eyes. There is skepticism in Indian public opinion about the U.S. as a dependable ally, and no doubt some of this is rooted in the many decades of chill-out between Washington and New Delhi during the Cold War, and U.S. support for Pakistan. The strategic value of India to the U.S. is compelling, but the country will be fickle — and the love will be unrequited.