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The United States and India

Letter from America The United States and India There is a consensus among the US policy elites on where India stands in relation to the US and what India should mean to the US in the future. Does the Indian elite agree with such a vision?

Letter from America

The United States and India

There is a consensus among the US policy elites on where India stands in relation to the US and what India should mean to the US in the future. Does the Indian elite agree with such a vision?


he past few weeks have seen a growing crisis in India over what the India-US nuclear deal means for relations between the two countries. While debate rages in India and the future of the current government has been thrown into question, there is surprisingly little commentary in the US. This reflects the large measure of agreement among US policy elites about where India belongs as part of American political, strategic and economic plans for Asia.

The new US view of India dates back at least to the March 2000 visit of president Bill Clinton. The joint statement issued at the end of that visit declared India and the US had “a common interest in and complementary responsibility for ensuring regional and international security”.

The Bush administration shared these goals. It negotiated the first concrete new agreement, the 2004 Next Steps in Strategic Partnership. This announced that the US and India would “expand cooperation” in civilian nuclear activities, civilian space programmes, and high technology trade, as well as on missile defence. US officials made clear the purpose of this agreement. A senior official announced that “its goal is to help India become a major world power in the 21st century”.

In 2004, Ivo Daalder, an adviser to John Kerry in his bid for president and now an adviser to Barack Obama, proposed the US should create an “Alliance of Democracies”, with India specifically included in the list of would-be members. The goal of this alliance would be to “confront their common security challenges”. To do this, the alliance would have to “develop doctrine, promote joint training and planning and enhance inter-operability among its member militaries. These efforts could cover high-intensity warfare and peacekeeping operations.” Daalder argued that “the alliance’s ultimate goal would be for it to play a role akin to what NATO did for its members during the cold war”.

The US and India signed the New Framework for the US-India Defence Relationship in 2005. This claims to chart “a course for the US-India defence relationship for the next 10 years”. It said the two countries would “conduct joint and combined exercises and exchanges, collaborate in multinational operations when it is in their common interest, strengthen the capabilities of our militaries to promote security and defeat terrorism, expand interaction with other nations in ways that promote regional and global peace and stability, enhance capabilities to combat the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction” and, last but not least, “expand two-way defence trade”.

Ashton Carter, assistant secretary of defence in the Clinton administration, has offered the following list of what the US wants from India: Firstly, “Washington should expect to have India’s help in curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions, even if India’s assistance would risk compromising its friendly relations with Iran”. Secondly, “The United States will also want India’s assistance in dealing with a range of dangerous contingencies involving Pakistan”. Thirdly, “Down the road, the United States might also want India to serve as a counterweight to China.” Fourthly, “the cooperation of India in disaster-relief efforts, humanitarian interventions, peacekeeping missions, and post-conflict reconstruction efforts”, and critically, “operations not mandated by or commanded by the United Nations, operations in which India has historically refused to participate”. And, fifthly, “US military forces may also seek access to strategic locations through Indian territory and perhaps basing rights there. Ultimately, India could even provide US forces with ‘over-the-horizon’ bases for contingencies in the Middle East.”

Some of these things have already come to pass. The US has pressed India to distance itself from Iran. In May 2007, key members of the US Congress wrote a letter to the Indian prime minister warning that they were “deeply concerned” by India’s relationship with Iran, and that “India’s increasingly broad cooperation with Iran is especially disturbing in terms of its impact on the United States”. They warned that if India did not address this then there was “the potential to seriously harm prospects for the establishment of the global partnership between the United States and India”. In short, India was being told to choose, in the classic phrase, “our way or the highway”.

The goal of preparing India as a counterweight to China and developing the capacity for joint military operations has become evident in the growing number of military exercises that India has been involved in with the US. The Malabar series of naval exercises have become increasingly large and complex, bringing together US aircraft carrier strike groups, other ships, submarines, and aircraft. The US and Indian air force have been training together in the Cope India exercises held in 2002, 2003 and 2005. The 2005 exercise included for the first time a US E-3 Sentry AWACS plane, used for aerial surveillance, command, control and communications.

The US hopes for share of the Indian arms market. Richard G Kirkland, Lockheed Martin’s president for south Asia, has claimed that “India is our top market” when it comes to “potential for growth”. It is easy to see why. India is now the second largest buyer of weapons in the third world, and responsible for about 12 per cent of arms purchases. India signed arms deals for about $3.5 billion in 2006. It may spend some $40 billion on weapons purchases over the next five years. High on the list is a contract for 126 jet fighters, with a possible price tag of over $10 billion. A US state department official announced the government will try to help win the order for a US company.

In a recent article in the Washington Post, Nicholas Burns, the US undersecretary of state for political affairs, argued “within a generation Americans may view India as one of our two or three most important strategic partners”. It is less clear how Indians will view the US.



Economic and Political Weekly October 13, 2007

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