View: US needs an explicit India strategy
The ‘India Fatigue’ lens essentially looks at the trajectory of the US-India ties from the conception (or rather misconception) of strategic synergy as described by US and therefore a false sense of the outcomes.
The flux in US-India relationship has evoked consternation within the analyst community, particularly in the US. In a recent article, analyst Sameer Lalwani wrote that repeated “India fatigue” (a term to describe India’s inability to match US strategic engagement expectations) is a consistent feature of defense discussions in US and that structural factors are not in consonance with the expectations of the relationship. The article ended on a pessimistic note by conceding that the potential of the relationship is likely to be held hostage to those factors.
The ‘India Fatigue’ lens essentially looks at the trajectory of the US-India ties from the conception (or rather misconception) of strategic synergy as described by US and therefore a false sense of the outcomes. A large part of this can be attributed to the fact that structural factors in the relationship are often relegated to US concerns only. This can be corrected if US has an explicit India strategy to counter the structural impediments rather than the ragtag mix spread across documents to no avail.
The momentum in US-India relationship is driven by the understanding reached at the level individual leadership but constrained by divergence on individual issues. The founding basis of US-India strategic convergence was however always about concurrence on the kind of role US-India ties would play in the world order and not convergence of views on individual countries or issues. Yet this is what has come to define the consensus and success of the relationship. So, a large part of the analysis is based on how India has not delivered for the US on the nuclear deal, trade issues, US disappointment about defense deals, India relationship with Iran and so on.
US is aware yet fails to appreciate India’s complicated security environment. India is perhaps the only country that is hemmed in between two adversarial nuclear powers, faces an externally sponsored terror threat from an irresponsible nuclear weapon state backed non-state terror outfits, and a conventional challenge both maritime and territorial from a more powerful nuclear weapon state in the east. It must divide its limited defense resources both in man and material to cater to these multitude of threats besides incurring expenditure for a manpower intensive internal security requirements. Simultaneously, US trade policies drive a hard bargain despite India’s need to cater for the poorer sections of its very diverse populace and geography, socio-developmental challenges and non-traditional security threats. And yet India is the only military power in the region that had the heft to stand up to China in Doklam, firmly opposed the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and is slated to become a five trillion dollar economy by 2024. It would be a strategic folly to let the structure dictate the potential of relationship with such a partner.
In fact, what US should have done was to invest more in setting up of the process than judge the relationship on outcomes. Though the arrival of President Trump and his unpredictable and often problematic statements may have brought the attention back on the extant transactional element, fact is that US-India ties have never tried to break out of the mold they were set in, with the exception of President Clinton who broke the status-quo with his visit to India in March 2000. The US-India joint statement at that time had a crucial one line that read “Our partnership is not an end in itself but a means to all these ends”. This outlined a process to alter and if not alter then mitigate the structural element. Unleashing the potential of the relationship rather than conform to the convergence-divergence problem as a given. This process was taken forward by President George W. Bush to culminate into the nuclear deal. Since then that out of the box thinking has evaded this relationship.
US has an Indo-Pacific Strategy and even a South Asia strategy but none of them amount to an India strategy. In fact, these strategies are often contradictory in the goals they set out to achieve. US South Asia strategy is essentially an Afghanistan exit strategy that hinges on Pakistan’s support. To that end US dangles carrots for Pakistan including the recent deal a $125 million package in support of its F-16 fleet. This mitigates the military edge that India has over Pakistan and has the ramification of locking India with a west-centric threat perception. Unintentionally US aids the structural impediments in India reconfiguring itself as a maritime power and undercuts its own Indo-Pacific strategy that is crucially weaved around India. In essence the Indo-Pacific strategy clashes with the South Asia strategy, despite the multiple positive affirmations on US-India ties in the 2017 National Security Strategy, 2018 National Defense Strategy and the 2019 Indo-Pacific Strategy documents.
Similarly, US has complained heavily about India defense relationship with Russia and in particular about the purchase of the S-400 Triumf system. But the attention on getting rewarded by big ticket defense purchases again takes the focus away from the process, that of reducing India’s military-technological dependence on Russia. Only way US could reduce India’s military-technological dependence on Russia is not through CAATSA but by offering what Russia does or go a step ahead and infuse energy into the failed Defense Technology Trade Initiative (DTTI) . To view India as just a market for finished defense products without helping India leapfrogging technology development cycle perpetuates the structural problem. This could be under the rubric of strategic barter and not necessarily that of strategic altruism, India could procure some US defense platforms off the shelf in exchange for technology sharing in another. India’s legacy Russian platforms may make this transition slow, but if US supports India’s indigenous programs it could carve out a space incrementally at the cost of Russia in support of its larger strategic objectives in the Indo-Pacific. True a difficult deal to contemplate but everything looks difficult until the details are ironed out. US could start by focusing on specific service arms like Indian Army and Indian Air Force (IAF) which are better placed to make that transition than the Indian Navy.
This will not go down the drain, an India that could save money on defense expenditure will be able to catalyze its economy, thereby expanding the market for US products. An understanding can be reached on this count for preferential market access. Bilateral ties though transactional in nature can still aim for strategic benefits than be limited by the market rationale of give and take. The former has longevity while the latter is transient. Crystallization of that goal will require breaking down structural impediments with an explicit India strategy document.
Joy Mitra is a fellow in the Asia-Pacific program at the EastWest Institute in New York and a former visiting fellow with the South Asia program at the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C. He tweets at @sysandstrat.