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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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Why signing of landmark agreements with the US is in India’s National interest?

The concept of swing power mandates that India move closer to the US by signing agreements that signal closer defence and trade cooperation

By Guru Aiyar (@guruaiyar)

There have been media reports recently about India on the verge of signing agreements with the US that will move it closer to almost to a status of alliance.  There are basically three agreements—Logistics Support Agreement (LSA) which give the US forces access to Indian bases and vice-versa, the Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA) and Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) for geo-spatial cooperation. The focus of bilateral cooperation will be on these agreements during the visit to India in April of Ashton Carter, the US defence secretary. Closely aligned is the Defence Trade & Technology Initiative (DTTI). There is opposition in some quarters in the Indian military and the government regarding some serious concerns on these agreements.

The concerns stem from the fact that “what do we do in case of war?” Alliance politics, balancing by world powers, miscalculation, miscommunication—all could lead to a major war according to John Mearsheimer, a renowned US professor on International Relations. He explains it succinctly in his book, the Tragedy of Great Power Politics  where he concludes that the world powers blundered into the First World War. India is justified in asking the question of “what to do in case of war?” as its bilateral relations, especially with countries in the Persian Gulf and Southeast/East Asia are markedly different than that of the US with them. In this debate, it is essential to clearly understand the concept of swing power.

According to Project for New American Security (PNAS),  a US based think tank global swing states are nations that possess large and growing economies, occupy central positions in a region or stand at the hinge of multiple regions, and embrace democratic government at home. Increasingly active at the regional and global level, they desire changes to the existing international order but do not seek to scrap the interlocking web of global institutions, rules, and relationships that has fostered peace, prosperity and freedom for the past six decades. Taking this argument further, K. Subrahmanyam, one of India’s foremost strategic thinkers had advocated India’s role in the international order as a swing power.

If the US is at the top of the hierarchy, China second, then it makes sense for India to be a swing power. The basis of being a swing power is this: India should have better bilateral relations with US & China than they have with each other. Rather than viewing it as containing China, being a swing power must be seen as defending Indian values of liberal, secular and pluralistic democracy. The defence ministry is having some apprehensions about signing these agreements with service chiefs of the view that there is little to be gained from such agreements.

It is important to gather what these apprehensions are? Is it, hypothetically, if US were to go to war with Iran in the future, what would be India’s stand? The answer to this conundrum can be simplified to walk away from the agreement if it does not suit our national interests. For example, Sri Lanka has signed these agreements but still goes to China for strategic partnership for Hambantota port. Let’s face it. India is not a banana republic whose foreign policy or strategic autonomy can be held to ransom. There is no need to shy away from signing these agreements.

Guru Aiyar is a Research Scholar at Takshashila Institution and tweets @guruaiyar 



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