US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s visit to India on June 5-6 and the third round of the India-US Strategic dialogue at Washington on June 13 have provoked much commentary on the direction of our relations with the US.
Those strongly supportive of close India-US ties see in these two exchanges the re-assertion of the will of both governments to deepen their strategic partnership and remove the growing impression that the relationship is adrift.
Those suspicious of US policies for ideological or other reasons are opposed to US efforts to enlist India as a partner in furthering its new Asia-Pacific strategy aimed at countering a potential threat from China. Their sense is that, in response to US overtures, India has shown unwillingness to become a pawn in America’s anti-China strategy and has indicated it will preserve its strategic autonomy.
For those who favour improved ties with the US, but who would caution against taking the US rhetoric about India- overblown at times- at its face value, Panetta’s visit and the Clinton-Krishna dialogue are part of a desirable process of drawing the two countries closer through engagement in diverse domains. India, in their view, is right to want to preserve its strategic autonomy as much as possible, but it should leverage a stronger India-US entente in the making to its geopolitical advantage.
There is little reason today to view India-US relations ideologically, particularly when ideological differences no longer drive international relations. One can disagree with US policies for plain common-sense reasons, without recourse to the rigidity of ideology.
With the process of globalisation- whatever its downsides- knitting the countries together in a form of interdependence, pragmatic choices for advancing national interest have today much greater relevance.
It is necessary therefore to take a balanced, pragmatic view of our relationship with the US. We should neither be burdened too much by past distrust of the US nor feel unduly buoyed up by the belief that it can now be fully trusted in the future. The US acted primarily in its own interest in the past and will do so in the future too. India is no different.
Today, both Panetta and Clinton extol India’s role in Afghanistan and want India to be more active there, even in training the Afghan national security forces, an area which was considered out of bounds by Defence Secretary Gates as recently as January 2010.
The US language on Pakistan has changed, coming closer to that of India on the issue of terrorism and the difficulties both countries face in dealing with that country- “our respective- and often deep-dfferences with Pakistan”- as Panetta remarked during his recent visit to Delhi. Not too long ago, while expressing support for India on the issue of terrorism, President Bush unfailingly lauded Pakistan as a front-line ally of the US in the war on terror.
It is because the US places its own interest above anything else that it is accused of inconsistencies, double standards, adopting contradictory positions, striking questionable balances and the like. The lesson we have to draw from this is less a moral than a practical one. US policy towards India will be modulated by its perception of where its interests lie in changing circumstances. We should, too, modulate our policies towards the US to the degreee required by our national interest in an evolving international scenario.
On our part, the Indian political elite has for long intellectually decried many aspects of US political, military and economic policies even when they did not target India directly, but the US has also been a powerful magnet for sections of India’s middle class in search for opportunities abroad. This dichotomy in attitudes has persisted in India all these years, and, although much attenuated, exists even today.
The US remains the leading global power but its economy is in trouble and its military is overstretched. The western alliance embodied by NATO lacks, in the absence of an identifiable external enemy, the reason as well as the will to collectively assert its global supremacy. Other powers have risen to contest the domination of the West, economically to begin with and now even militarily. China represents this development most palpably.
India’s own international profile has changed. Its economic growth, market size, entrepreneurial talent, advances in the knowledge economy, human resources, its role in addressing global challenges of climate change, energy and food security, financial stability, international trade negotiations etc are reasons why it is now considered an important pillar of the global system.
It now no longer needs its leadership of the nonaligned movement to make its weight felt in international affairs. The opposing Cold War camps-which in any case have disappeared-do not need to woo it for its influence amongst the developing countries. In this perspective, India has become more like China in terms of the interest it now evokes in the international community.
All these developments signify that space now exists for us to play an enhanced international role, which we seek. While the US can facilitate it because we are not competitors, China will be remain an obstacle because we are.
We should, of course, continue our engagement with China bilaterally and in regional and international forums. Our relationship with the US and China are not exclusive. We should, however, not forget that our real adversary is China not the US. China claims our territory, the US our partnership. We can tactically send reassuring signals to China, even as we become “enlightened” partners with the US, but we need not equate our relations with the US with those with China to preserve our strategic autonomy.