Saturday, January 11, 2014

Strategic Implications of the Indo-US Standoff



Will the Devyani Khobragade incident have serious strategic implications for the Indo-US strategic partnership which the American President Barack Obama once described as the ‘defining partnership of the 21st century’? Or will the relationship limp back to normal once the din and noise settles down on the incident? Most Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) mandarins and veterans, journalists manning the foreign affairs beat and politicians in New Delhi seem to see this as an occasion to teach the Americans a lesson in response to what has been meted out to the Indian VIPs for such a long time. The American side seems to be loosening up a bit albeit still surprised by the “unprecedented” reaction from the Indian side. With the US not overreacting to the India’s retaliatory expulsion of an American diplomat from New Delhi, it is likely that the crisis is mostly over for the MEA and the Department of State, though certainly not for the diplomat involved in the mess. Not only that she may not be able to go back to the US, where her family lives, but she has also come under the scanner for a number of other reasons including the Adarsh flat she owns. While one hopes that the Indo-US relationship is not seriously harmed by this, what are the likely implications should the relations not recover quickly? 

Like a number of other analysts who have made this point earlier, I also think that the Indo-US partnership has been undergoing great stress in the recent past. The grandeur of the Indo-US relations was lost somewhere during the first term of Obama’s presidency. While George Bush was personally committed to improving the relationship, Obama is not. Once the Bush-Manmohan honeymoon was over, the Americans were looking for substance, that is, deals that would give them money. And New Delhi did not live up to their expectations. First came the MMRCA snub – India’s decision not to shortlist the American bids for the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) competition to supply 126 multi-role combat aircraft to the Indian Air Force (IAF). Then came the Indian Nuclear liability law, not to the liking of the United States (or for that matter to the liking of anyone), which imposes heavy fines on suppliers in case of a nuclear accident. 

Moreover, Washington also understands that New Delhi may not play to its tunes to balance Beijing’s muscle flexing. And given the rapprochement underway between the US and China, American dependence on New Delhi to checkmate China is drastically reduced. In other words, in an objective American cost-benefit analysis, from an American point of view of course, the Indo-US partnership has not really benefitted the Americans, as there are no deliverables or results in sight. This perhaps explains the low political priority attached to the relationship now and also perhaps why the White house was almost completely silent on the Khboragade affair. 

The Indo-US partnership, in other words, is going through a very bad phase and there aren’t many credible reasons why the relationship might improve in the near future. This has significant implications for both India and the United States. For India, this clearly means that the Indo-US honeymoon is over and New Delhi’s insistence on “reciprocity” on the diplomatic front will encourage the Americans to now seek reciprocity from India on the many other fronts where Washington thinks New Delhi has been free-riding on it. If New Delhi wants American help in securing the memberships of important global nuclear-trade related groups such as NSG, Australia Group and Wassanar Arrangement etc., it may have to show some reciprocity to the US. Similarly, the American support in India’s quest for a permanent seat at the UNSC may not come unreciprocated either. If New Delhi wants to be counted on the world stage, it would have to show its importance on its own, the US may not lend its feet for India to stand on. 

Not that the diplomatic standoff would have not implications for the United States. Indeed, in the longer run, the Americans would need India as much as Indians would need the US for a variety of strategic reasons. First of all, given the state of US-Pakistan ties, the Americans would be left with hardly any allies in the region at a time when the US-led NATO forces are on the verge of withdrawing from Afghanistan. China, Iran and Pakistan cannot be counted as allies by the US when thinking of stabilizing post-2014 Afghanistan. US would most certainly have to count of the Indian efforts there. The uncertain nature of the ongoing American rapprochement with Iran could go in any direction and India could still play a significant role in dealing with the Iranians on a variety of issues. Finally, despite the Sino-US rapprochement, the relationship between them is still one that is born out of the necessity of mutual accommodation. Hence by losing out on the only strategic partner that it has in the region, the Americans would be doing great disservice to themselves. 

Both the United States and India should bring the Khobragade controversy to a closure and explore ways to reinvent the relationship. 

(Source: Greater Kashmir, January 12, 2014. URL: ) 

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