A Friend Indeed

May 1, 2007 Topic: DefenseEnergySecurity Regions: South AsiaAsia Tags: Diplomacy

A Friend Indeed

Mini Teaser: While U.S.-India strategic ties are coalescing, both nations will have to overcome stillformidable political obstacles to see this relationship through.

by Author(s): Robert D. Blackwill

How permanent is the new U.S.-India strategic partnership?

WHILE ONE can argue that no positive bilateral relationship is "permanent" in the very long run, it is safe to say that the alignment between India and the United States is now an enduring part of the international landscape of the 21st century. The vital interests of both Washington and New Delhi are now so congruent that the two countries can and will find many ways in which to cooperate in the decades ahead. Over time, the U.S.-India relationship will come more and more to resemble the intimate U.S. interaction with Japan and our European treaty allies.

It must be stressed that this in no way means that India and the United States will agree on every policy issue. Nor do I foresee any formal treaty of alliance being signed, one that would, say, integrate the two countries' militaries in some sort of cooperative structure like NATO or the U.S.-Japanese security alliance.

And it is going to take time for this relationship to mature-it is not going to happen overnight. For one thing, neither the U.S. nor the Indian bureaucracies at present are yet prepared instinctively to facilitate a deeper and more intimate degree of cooperation between the two countries. Indeed, there are pockets of resistance in both countries which hold a great deal of antipathy toward the very notion of closer U.S.-India strategic ties, particularly among those that deal with nuclear issues-our non-proliferation ayatollahs versus their nuclear scientists. It is going to take leadership and direction from the top to change old habits and attitudes-and the top echelons of the White House, State Department and Pentagon are seriously committed to making this new relationship ever more effective. Over time, the Indian national security perspective is going to exercise increasing influence over the American decision-making process.

I do not anticipate any major ruptures in the future that would reverse the rapprochement between Washington and New Delhi, but there are still a number of factors that could slow down or impede comprehensive cooperation. I am happy to say that a change of government in either the United States or India is not one of them. Significantly, the transformation in U.S.-India relations began under the Bharaiya Janata Party (BJP) coalition government of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh grasped the baton. The overwhelming support for the U.S.-India civil nuclear deal by congressional Democrats demonstrates broad bipartisan support for the overall direction charted by the Bush Administration. The importance of pursuing closer ties with India is now sufficiently embedded in the strategic consciousness of the United States that the relationship is going to be pursued no matter who succeeds President Bush in 2009. Yes, there might be some differences in the quality of diplomacy or the tone of discussion depending on whether there is a BJP or Congress government in India, or whether there is a Republican or Democratic administration in Washington. Regardless, the fundamentals of the new strategic direction will not change.

What factors might complicate the relationship?

THE FIRST is any problem arising out of the codification of the U.S.-India civil nuclear deal in what is called the "one-two-three" agreement-this is the document that works out the technical details of how the bilateral nuclear agreement will be implemented. Without this agreement we cannot get from here to there, nor can we then move to lift the restrictions placed on India by the Nuclear Suppliers' Group. This agreement should be completed by the summer of 2007; then Congress will have to vote to accept or reject it. Complications could emerge if the one-two-three agreement does not completely adhere to the provisions of the "United States-India Peaceful Atomic Energy Cooperation Act" passed in December 2006. Some of the provisions of that act are binding, others are not. So it is always possible that the original deal-announced by President Bush and Prime Minister Singh-could fall apart if both countries cannot agree on the technical provisions of the one-two-three agreement that fall within the parameters set by Congress. I think this is highly unlikely, however, given that so many in both India and the United States, starting with the two chief executives, have so much vested in its success.

The second is the possibility of a divergence over what to do about Iran's nuclear-weapons program. Some members of Congress feel very strongly that India needs to see exactly eye to eye with the United States in how to deal with Iran. There are no differences between Washington and New Delhi over the goal: Neither country wants a nuclear-armed Iran. But there may emerge tactical differences regarding the best way to go about accomplishing this. Right now, there is no disagreement. The United States, under the able leadership of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Undersecretary Nicholas Burns, is pursuing an intense diplomatic effort via the United Nations Security Council-an approach India has endorsed. But in the months ahead it is not clear whether the Security Council will adopt sufficiently coercive sanctions if Iran continues its uranium-enrichment program; or, even if such sanctions were to be enacted, that they would change Iran's behavior. Iran may be determined to proceed regardless of the consequences.

If diplomacy is not effective, then the president may have to consider whether the time has come to adopt more forceful action, perhaps even the military option. And in such an event, India (along with many other countries, it might be noted) would likely condemn U.S. military action against Iran's nuclear facilities.

It is important here to stress that for India, "Iran" encompasses much more than just the present regime. Ties between Indian and Iranian civilizations date back for millennia and there are deep historical and cultural connections.

Beyond that, Indian views of U.S. policy on Iran are deeply influenced by the current problems the United States is experiencing in Iraq, which have weakened Indian confidence in American policy in the Middle East. They question whether Washington has operational intelligence of sufficient quality, depth and breadth both to conclusively prove Iran is seeking a nuclear-weapons capability and that the United States would be able to successfully target and attack such a program with its military forces.

Pakistan is the third unpredictable factor. Prime Minister Singh has made it one of his highest priorities to make progress on improving bilateral relations with Pakistan, continuing the process begun by his predecessor, and political contacts will continue. Indeed, one can argue that the relationship between India and Pakistan is the best that it has ever been since partition in 1947.

But the major stumbling block remains the future of Kashmir. Here, unfortunately, I do not see any progress toward a solution. President Pervez Musharraf has insisted that Pakistan be given some formal role in the governance of Jammu and Kashmir-that is, the state within the Indian Union-a demand that no Indian government is prepared to accept. So, how long does the current situation drag on until either President Musharraf concludes that there will be no Pakistani role in Kashmir's governance, or relations between India and Pakistan begin to deteriorate and cross-border terrorism emanating from Pakistan again begins to surge?

Such a downturn could affect the U.S. relationship with India. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, on a visit to Pakistan, stressed the importance of Pakistan in prosecuting the War on Terror, as well as its indispensable role in stabilizing Afghanistan and combating the remnants of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. As long as Pakistan-India relations are on the mend, close U.S. ties to Pakistan present no difficulties in pursuing a closer relationship with New Delhi. But a sharp deterioration between Islamabad and New Delhi could lead to a situation where the United States' need for continued Pakistani cooperation on counter-terrorism and Afghanistan might lead Washington to put pressure on India to soften its position on Kashmir-which would certainly have the net effect of slowing down cooperation between Washington and New Delhi.

Finally, differences on trade matters, notably in the context of the Doha Round over agriculture, could continue to be irritants.

Fortunately, the U.S.-India relationship also has two sources of ballast that can help to keep things on an even keel. The first is that both countries are democracies. This is no small thing. We are not dealing with an autocratic regime that can suddenly change its policies with no warning; indeed, the budding U.S.-India relationship has the strong support of the vast majority of the people of India. This means that we can work with New Delhi as a reliable partner and that disagreements with India will resemble those we have with our treaty allies. It is far easier to weather differences with a country that shares our democratic values.

The second is the slow but inexorable emergence of the extraordinarily talented Indian-American community (now more than two million strong), anxious to make this bilateral relationship work, that is beginning to organize itself as a classic U.S. interest group in its approach to politics, especially lobbying Congress. This is all to the good.

Essay Types: Essay