India-U.S. Ties Should be Shaped as Partnership of the Century

India is making Indians and many around the world believe that it can be a great power. Nothing wrong in that. However, a lot needs to done…India’s economic and military potential and its strategic geographic location make it a perfect security provider in the Indian Ocean Region and beyond. Its relations with United States should be shaped as the “partnership of the century”, which should be “friction-free” and mutually beneficial. These are some frank thoughts made by Dr. Aparna Pande, Director of Initiative on the Future of India and South Asia in Hudson Institute, a top think tank in Washington DC. She spoke to Maneesh Pandey of ITV Network for The Sunday Guardian on a whole range of issues—Indo-US relations to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s global diplomacy to Pakistan and cross-border terrorism. She firmly believes that India should not start the dialogue until Pakistan acts against terrorists and terrorism and keep a watch on Afghanistan post the US withdrawal. Excerpts:

Q: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s diplomacy, foreign trips and selling India abroad are much talked about in media and political circles. In terms of foreign policy initiatives, how do you rate his tenure and his branding of India overseas? Is he the best so far among his predecessors—Jawaharlal Nehru, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh?

A: On becoming Prime Minister, Mr Narendra Modi took to foreign policy with a passion that, in my opinion, has not been seen since the time of our first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. The Modi foreign policy doctrine has elements of both continuity and change with his predecessors. What we have seen for the last four and a half years is the Modi’s world view, which is underpinned by an intrinsic link between economic growth and projection of power abroad.

PM Modi travelled the world and deepened relationships with key countries in Asia, Europe, the Americas and the Middle East with the hope that it would translate into more economic investment. However, harnessing both the Indian and global corporate sectors to spur economic growth requires as much attention, if not more, being paid to the domestic economy as PM Modi has given to foreign policy. That, unfortunately, has not yet happened.

Q: Today, India is at all political and strategic foras worldwide staking its claim to be a strong nation in the current global dynamics. Has India arrived at that “Super-League” status or is there still a long way to go?

A: A majority of Indians, and many others around the globe, believe in the promise of India being a future great power. However, talk alone will not be enough.

India’s economy needs to grow at 8-10% annually for the next decade or more in order for the country to be able to pull its people out of poverty, have enough money to spend on military modernization and also on human capital (especially education and health), and on building infrastructure. In order to achieve high rates of economic growth India needs to undertake second generation of economic reforms that have yet to take place.

India also needs to invest more in education, skill development, provision of healthcare, and basic amenities like water, electricity and sanitation. Infrastructure development is critical as is strengthening of India’s existing democratic institutions. Finally, at a time when China’s military modernization is almost complete, India needs to modernize its military and ensure it has the resources and capabilities to be a security provider in the Indian Ocean Region before it can move into the global power league.

Q: Can PM Modi accomplish that if he gets a second term?

A: Prime Minister Modi understands that he has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help India achieve its promise. He and his team know what needs to be done. If he returns for a second term, one hopes that he will go after economic reforms with the same passion as he has dedicated to foreign policy.

Q: You firmly believe in strong Indo-American ties. Where and on what counts the two largest democracies are missing each other? Is that gap political, economic or in strategic affairs area?

A: India and the United States have the opportunity to make their relationship the defining partnership of this century. The two countries have a lot in common, political, social, economic and strategic. They are both multi-ethnic, multi-religious democracies. The two have a similar vision for the future security architecture for the Indo Pacific and share some similar threats (terrorism and the rise of China).

However, their different geographical locations mean that the two countries will differ on what they perceive as immediate and long-term national interests. So, for India, what happens in Afghanistan and Pakistan or in the Middle East/West Asia is of more importance than what happens in South China Sea.

While the two countries are more integrated today economically yet India’s desire for economic self-sufficiency through the Make in India programme will create frictions at a time when the United States is moving towards protectionism.

Q: Do you think that strong relations and a constructive engagement between India and America are good for Asia and the Asia-Pacific region?

A: Relations between India and the United States will continue to grow in the coming years on the strategic and economic fronts. American grand strategy since the end of the Cold War rested on a network of allies across Asia and Europe that helped ensure American pre-eminence. The rise of China and its desire to replace the American liberal international order with Chinese hegemony means that countries in the region—like India, Japan, Australia, and ASEAN countries—understand the need for engagement and collaboration.

India’s economic and military potential and its geographic location mean that India can play the role of a security provider in the Indian Ocean Region and beyond. Partnerships with the United States and its allies like Japan will also help India build its economic and military potential in order to be able to play this role.

Q: Have some significant steps been taken to strengthen Indo-US relations during the Trump-Modi era? Has the Trump-Modi era been a decisive one in Indo-US diplomacy?

A: India-US relations have improved significantly in the strategic and defense arena during the Trump-Modi era. India is a Major Defense Partner of the United States. It has signed three of four enabling/foundational agreements, and the United States is one of the top three suppliers of military equipment to India. The US renamed its Pacific Command (Pacom) to IndoPacom in order to emphasise India’s centrality and importance. The two countries held their first ministerial level 2-plus-2 meeting last year when Secretaries of State and Defense, Mike Pompeo and James Mattis visited India. India forms a key part of the latest American National Security Strategy (NSS) and in the Trump administration’s South Asia strategy.

Q: Coming to Pakistan, cross-border terrorism is India’s biggest concern. Dialogue or strong action? What should India do?

A: India should stick to the policy that Delhi would only restart the comprehensive dialogue with Islamabad once Pakistan acts against terrorists and terror groups that attack inside India.

Pakistan’s foreign policy is dictated by the Pakistani military-intelligence establishment, which continues to view India as an existential threat and to deploy jihad as a lever of foreign policy. Until and unless the establishment changes its views on India, no Pakistani civilian government will be able to implement any policies that will really improve ties with India.

The Kartarpur corridor was not a grand bargain or offer from Pakistan; it should be viewed for what it is—a corridor connecting Sikh pilgrims in Indian Punjab with their holy sites in Pakistani Punjab. If Prime Minister Imran Khan and his advisers really seek to improve relations with India and would like India to restart the dialogue process they must first act against global terrorists like Hafiz Saeed and groups like Lashkar e Tayyaba (LeT).

Until that time, any reopening of dialogue with Pakistan will only alleviate pressure on the Pakistani military, which will give them some breathing space, but not give anything to India in return.

Q: Another interesting dynamics: Pakistan leaning on Saudi Arabia and over relying on China. Result: Its ties with the US are currently cold and on a discordant note. Will the US get tougher on Pakistan? What does this all spell for the region—Asia and South Asia?

A: Pakistan’s relations with Saudi Arabia and China date back decades. Pakistan has always viewed Saudi Arabia as its ideological ally of last resort: a friendly Muslim Arab brother who will support Pakistan and bail it out whenever Pakistan is in trouble. Close ties with Saudi Arabia help Pakistan believe it has the Muslim ummahon its side, and provide psychological strength in numbers. Saudi Arabia’s oil rich coffers have been an added attraction for a country that has always needed economic assistance (Pakistan).

China too has been an ally since the 1950s. The relationship started as an economic one that became strategic over the decades. The key turn came with China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) through which China has invested money in building Pakistan’s infrastructure in the hope that this would help stabilise Pakistan and provide China with access to the Persian Gulf as well as another opportunity to encircle India.

Pakistan-US ties have been on a downward slope for some years now, both because of their diverging interests and because of closer India-US ties. The Trump administration’s South Asia strategy consisted of applying pressure on Pakistan in the hope that this would convince Pakistan to change its policies and act against terrorists.

One will never know if this policy of pressure would have succeeded, because the American desire to withdraw troops from Afghanistan means that Pakistan is back in the game. In return for helping restart the Afghan peace process, Pakistan hopes to receive economic assistance and aid, if not from the United States, then at least from its allies and international institutions.

Q: In this scenario what should India be doing?

A: India should continue its policy of close ties with the United States and allies like Japan, South Korea, ASEAN countries, as well as countries in the Gulf. India has close relations with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and India must continue to build those relationships.

Regarding Afghanistan, India seeks a stable, peaceful Afghanistan that is not ruled by the Taliban. India must continue providing assistance and support to the Afghan government, but also prepare for a future that may resemble the 1990s.

If the United States goes ahead with military withdrawal in both Syria and Afghanistan, this will have an impact on Indian interests in both the Middle East and South Asia. India therefore needs to be prepared for what to do if that happens by making sure it builds on relationships with key players in the region.

Finally, the rise of China will continue and China’s growing presence—economic and military—both in South Asia and the Indian Ocean Region. India needs to do a better job integrating economically and strategically with its immediate neighbours and in the Indian Ocean Region.

Q: Are the 2019 general elections of any interest to American think-tanks and academia here? Who are they seeing as top contender?

A: India’s 2019 general elections are of interest to American academics, think tank community and American businesses. Which party comes to power, whether it is a coalition government or one party and what will be their economic policy are the key concerns of India-watchers.

I am not sure what others are thinking, but I am one of those who believes that this will not be a wave election, but an issue based one.

Photo Credit: IANS