This week the prime minister of India, Narendra Modi met with President Obama and addressed a joint session of Congress. The two leaders made progress in the bilateral relationship, a reinvention that has evolved over two U.S. administrations and three Indian governments.
It is said that the U.S. and India “share an existential foxhole.” This marvelous expression of Tunku Varadarajan of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, writing for the Wall Street Journal, captures the essence of a growing strategic partnership.
The alignment is based on three commonalities, as I have written before in these pages: concern over the ascent of China, fear of Islamist jihad, and commercial and industrial potential.
China and India are major trading partners. However, the relationship is clouded by historical territorial disputes in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir in a region known as Ladakh, and on the Tibetan frontier to the east, dating to the 1962 war between them. More recently, China’s embrace of Pakistan with road and port development, civilian reactor commitments, and joint venture manufacturing of battle tanks and fighter aircraft has been a concern to India, as well as China’s aggressive posture in the South Sea China and its militarization efforts there.
India, a giant consumer of energy that imports 81% of its oil, has the same maritime sphere of influence as China, from the Persian Gulf to Southeast Asia. China imports over 80% of its oil from the Middle East through the narrow Strait of Malacca, according to a Department of Defense estimate several years ago. The supporting sea lanes pass through the Indian Ocean, where estimates of world oil range from about 67% to over 80%. China’s efforts to construct maritime facilities in the Indian Ocean littoral is a concern, as they are believed to have dual use capability.
The Indian military, while it in size ranks among the world’s top five for all three services, is not a good match for China. Nonetheless, it can raise the cost of Chinese aggression, and force China to deploy naval assets away from the western Pacific where the U.S. has had maritime interests for over a century. India is now the second largest buyer of U.S. military equipment, and in 2014 the U.S. reportedly surpassed Russia as a supplier.
Predominantly Hindu, but with about 180 million Muslims, mostly Sunni, India is a secular democracy. In general, India’s Muslims have not been radicalized. However, ISIS has threatened India and history has shown that there can be deadly flashpoints between Hindus and Muslims. While it is in the interests of the U.S. and India to cooperate against Islamist extremism, we will likely not see much public discussion about this: there is vulnerability caused by the Hindu Muslim fault line.
The business potential between the U.S. and India is well known with the Fortune 500 as well as mid cap and middle market companies. Further, after years of being dead in the water, the U.S.-India nuclear deal signed in 2008 has been revitalized. Preparing the way for implementation of the nuclear deal, early last year the Ministry of External Affairs stated that victims of a nuclear accident cannot sue suppliers but can have recourse to the operator in India.
This week the construction of six civilian reactors by Westinghouse Electric was announced, ending a long standoff caused by the Nuclear Liability Act of 2010. The memory of the 1984 chemical plant tragedy involving Union Carbide has been a factor inhibiting development of nuclear reactors to produce electricity. However, electric power development is a critical priority in a country where an estimated 400 million people do not have access to electricity.
The U.S. and India will have various disputes involving for example pharmaceuticals, aviation safety, corporate tax policy applied retrospectively, intellectual property, H1-B visas, trade protectionism, calculation of emissions, censorship, and other controversies. However, in the larger scheme of things, these well-publicized disagreements should not be allowed to impede the alignment based upon strategic needs.
Much is made of other commonalities between the U.S. and India: democracy, English common law, free markets, and the English language. While symbolic and true, realpolitik will nonetheless be the governing principle, as the U.S. and India sit together in their foxhole contending with China and Islamist extremism.