RPI Author Rajesh Rajagopalan: Why India-US Should Look at Developing a Soft Alliance

RPI Author Rajesh Rajagopalan: Why India-US Should Look at Developing a Soft Alliance

If high-level visits were a positive indicator of the state of bilateral ties, India-US relations would be in fine shape.

American Vice-President Joe Biden arrives in India on Monday and it comes barely a month after Secretary of State John Kerry came for the India-US Strategic Dialogue. Last week Finance Minister P Chidambaram was in Washington, and in September Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will travel there.

Moreover, both sides have set an ambitious agenda for themselves, including untangling the nuclear commercial issues by the time the prime minister goes to Washington.

Walking & Chewing Gum

In preparation for his trip, Biden gave a speech a few days back on US foreign policy priorities that was focused on Asia and he devoted considerable attention to India and China. He reiterated President Barack Obama’s characterisation of the India-US relations as the “defining partnership” of the century and dismissed any talk of conflict between the US and China, calling it instead “competition” that was “good for both”.

New Delhi should be happy with the level of attention that Biden gave to India in that speech. But if they have to keep up the positive momentum of these visits, both sides will need to resist the pressure of other priorities in the coming months. In New Delhi, the coming general election is likely to prevent significant initiatives on all fronts, and foreign policy is no exception.

Considering that most analysts expect a split verdict at the polls, it is unclear how important foreign policy will be for the next government in New Delhi, irrespective of who heads it. This is all the more reason to put some momentum in the relationship now. Washington has its own problems.

An important one is the level of attention that the Obama administration will devote to this region. In his speech, Biden argued that Europe will continue to be the “cornerstone” of America’s global engagement. In addition, though Biden only briefly mentioned the Middle East, Kerry has had a breakthrough in restarting the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. But it came after a lot of shuttle diplomacy, and as the real negotiations resume in the coming weeks, American attention is likely to shift towards the Middle East. One unfortunate consequence could be that its attention to the Asian region will flag.

Biden has dismissed such concerns, arguing that great powers can do all these things simultaneously, that they can “walk and chew gum at the same time”, as he put it. Maybe the US can indeed walk and chew gum, but recent experience suggests that the US has difficulty in focusing on multiple strategic theatres at once. With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US’s attention to the Asian region waned for almost a decade. The fact that the US had to “pivot” back to Asia shows that Asian concerns about Washington’s propensity to take its eye off the ball are not misplaced. Commentators in the region have already noted the mixed message in Biden’s speech.

Middle East Temptation

For Washington, it is important to convince India and other Asian powers that it will not yet again lose the plot. This requires Washington to resist the temptations of putting all its focus on just the Middle Eastern peace process, as important as that issue is.

These immediate obstacles are only part of the problem. There are also deeper problems that need addressing. It is difficult to get over the impression that neither Washington nor New Delhi is entirely comfortable with their relationship. It is as if both sides know it is the right thing to do but not necessarily the most enjoyable.

Nevertheless, for both sides, it is important to develop a relationship that will not be hostage to the vicissitudes of temporary circumstances and election cycles.

What India and the US need to focus on is developing a soft alliance that can withstand temporary pressures on the relationship. A good example would be the kind of relationship that India and the Soviet Union and later Russia had.

Though the two sides signed a “Friendship” treaty, their relationship went much beyond that. It was a relationship that was based on strategic empathy in which both sides generally took into consideration each other’s strategic concerns. Both sides supported, defended and helped each other on a variety of international issues even when they did not always agree.

India’s nuclear policy made Moscow as uncomfortable as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan did India, but neither made a public issue of these problems.

It is unclear if India-US relations will ever reach the level of comfort of the Indo-Soviet relations during the Cold War. But even as they try to overcome temporary obstacles in the relationship, they should strive to develop a partnership that would not be worried by such obstacles.

The writer is professor of international politics, JNU, Delhi

This article originally appeared in The Economic Times.