Three Indian schools of thought on the India—US partnership

A note on the retaliatory, bandwagoning, and swing power strategies.

by Pranay Kotasthane (@pranaykotas)

US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter’s recently concluded India visit was keenly tracked — the attention garnered was comparable to President Obama’s last visit to India in January 2015. The visit concluded with an in-principle agreement between the two states on the Logistic Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) that provides mutual military logistic support.

The US Dept of Defence described the agreement as a signal that “Our countries and militaries are closer than ever before – brought together by shared values and mutual interests”. The non-official stances were far more conservative, with some commentators highlighting the hesitation from India’s side in aligning itself with the US.

From the Indian side, the visit attracted the attention of all watchers of India’s foreign policy. These numerous views can broadly be classified into three categories. Classifying and reflecting on these viewpoints is a good point to start thinking about what India should do in this game of international relations.

The first school of thought is retaliatory in nature. The underlying principle behind this line of thinking is that why should India support the US when it continues to support and even encourage Pakistan’s military—jihadi complex, an irreconcilable adversary? This perspective has further found an availability heuristic: our minds are fresh with the news of approval on the sale of F-16 to Pakistan, further confirming the bias that the US continues to play a double-game with India. This position was conveyed, amongst others, by Bharat Karnad. He says:

the Bharatiya Janata Party government of Narendra Modi is not proving as adroit in maintaining distance from the US. Modi seems smitten by America, and losing the plot on how to further the national interest.

This retaliatory school of thought is low on realism. That’s because the optimal scenario from a US perspective is not the one where it blocks equipping Pakistan militarily, but a scenario where the US military-industrial complex can be a service provider to India and Pakistan, both. In that sense, a simmering localised conflict between India—Pakistan is not an adverse outcome for the US. And this will continue to be the case until the US is forced to reconsider its India partnership for much stronger reasons such as challenging China in East Asia or the Indian Ocean Region. In such a case, it would be in the direct interest of the US to ensure that India is focused on one common enemy only. Until that happens, US will continue to secure its partnerships with both India and Pakistan — its support to the military—jihadi complex is a bitter reality that India has to come to terms with.

Bandwagoning is the second school of thought. This position was conveyed most effectively by K Subrahmanyam, the most famous of India’s strategic thinkers. The perspective is as follows:

We don’t have any clash of national interest with the Americans. There are some issues that usually arise because of America’s dealings with third parties such as Pakistan. But at a time when the government-to-government relationship was not good, we still saw about two million Indians settling in America. If things improve, this trend will get stronger. India has to leverage this situation and change the US-EU-China triangle into a rectangle. Until then it is in our interest to help America to sustain its pre-eminence. After all, in a three-person game, If America is at Number One, China is at Number Two and we are lower down, it is in our best interest to ensure that it is America that remains Number One.

The idea here is that at least in the short term, India must align itself with the US and use this partnership to increase its own power. This assumption ignores the scenario that an alignment with the US can actually decrease India’s power if it is put on a collision track with China, or pushed to participate in conflicts of little interest or purpose.

The third school of thought is a marginal cost-benefit strategy which sees India’s role as that of a swing power. Pratap Bhanu Mehta speaks of this position when he says:

Its (India’s) interests have always been to do business with both countries so that both take it seriously. This is a sophisticated game. But an open declaration of a political and defence alignment with the US forecloses those options. We will come to be unwittingly identified with American rhetoric and designs for Asia. And the overblown rhetoric emanating from Washington about positioning India in its pushback of China will reduce our options.

My colleague Nitin Pai also agrees:

despite an alignment of interests, it must not always side with the United States. It must swing. To paraphrase Henry Kissinger, India’s options toward the United States and China must always be greater than their options toward each other… until New Delhi demonstrates that it can deliver pain for one and pleasure for the other, it won’t be seen as swinging. It will be mistaken for sleep-walking.

The cost of this strategy is that with neither US or China backing India completely, their conduct with Pakistan becomes a determinant for India’s success as an international player.

Regardless of which of the three schools of thought the Indian government aligns itself with, the highest common factor for all the three is a substantial and rapid rise in India’s power — economic, military, maritime and political. Unless that happens, India’s options with any major power will always remain less than their options with each other.Pranay Kotasthane (@pranaykotas) is a Research Fellow at the Takshashila Institution.

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