The strategic partnership between India and the US has slowly and steadily been moving in an upwardly trajectory through periodic turbulences. However, as the world's balance of power has entered a serious phase of transition, New Delhi and Washington need to sort out certain key issues to keep the partnership on track.
The most critical challenge comes from lack of adequate support from China and Russia to Indian and American efforts to combat terrorism. All forms of terrorist organisations in south and south west Asia have survived more than fifteen years of the war against terror led by the US and supported by India.
It is an open secret that Pakistan’s treacherous double game is the main culprit that sustains and emboldens these terrorist groups. Islamabad took money, material and military equipment from the US and passed it on to those groups whose targets were Americans and Indians!
In the initial years of the war against terror, Washington did put pressure on Pakistan to refrain from anti-India terror activities. Pakistan was also under pressure to move troops to its border along Afghanistan, thus bringing down the volume of its anti-India activities along the Line of Control (LoC).
However, Pakistan altered its strategy - particularly since 2007 - and its support to the Haqqani militias in Afghanistan and anti-India groups most active in Kashmir resumed. The US decision to draw down its troop presence in Afghanistan, rise of the Islamic State (IS) and the shifting of US' attention to the IS has enabled Pakistan to reactivate its involvement by backing all kinds of terror groups it nurtures in Kashmir.
While the US openly backed India in the recent spate of terror attacks in Kashmir, condemned the Uri attack and appeared supportive of the Indian Army’s surgical strike against terror bases across the LoC, Washington is not prepared to come down hard on Pakistan. China, on the other hand, consistently extends its protection to all kinds of criminal and terrorist activities indulged in by the Pakistani establishment.
US policy-makers and strategic analysts repeatedly make the point that Pakistan’s stability is important and Pakistan’s help in fighting terror is indispensable. The time has come to contest both these points. First of all, disorder in the Pakistani state and society is purely an internal development. The Pakistani establishment has given priority to nurturing terror groups and interfering in the neighbourhood over promoting economic development by creating an enabling environment. The result is the Frankenstein syndrome. External help in keeping Pakistan stable has considerable limitations unless its government changes course.
The idea that Pakistan is indispensable to fight terrorism needs serious rethinking by US strategists. Pakistan is a nuclear weapons power that gives birth to, incubates, and uses terror groups. It uses terror groups as a political tool to extract US' assistance and to foment trouble in India. Indo-US cooperation in combating terrorism clearly needs refinement and upgrading.
While India expects more from the US to tackle Pakistan-backed terrorist activities, the latter perhaps expects more from India in handling China. The US finds it difficult to restrain Chinese expansionist policies in the Asia Pacific. The Indo-US joint statements on developments in the South China Sea and the Indo Pacific region are welcome developments. But clearly, there is no well defined project.
It is a fact that China is a bigger economic partner of the US and Pakistan is a major non-NATO ally. Compared to these, the Indo-US strategic partnership is a new and ongoing project. But the recent developments show that China, a nuclear weapons power, fully protects Pakistan - another nuclear weapons-armed Islamic country - in the latter’s persistent use of terror as an instrument of state policy. What can be done about it?
Added to this is Russian political activism that is partly against US policies and partly aimed at creating space for its involvement in regional politics and economics. Russia and China have begun to collaborate in an undertaking to impede US policies in the Asian and Eurasian region. One of the fallouts of this undertaking is Russian military exercises with Pakistan. There are many in India who point at the Indian government’s failure to prevent this. But the reality is that India could not have prevented it since this is part of a larger game against perceived 'American hegemony'.
The India-US strategic partnership is shaping up in the midst of a relative decline in the US' ability to preserve the global order, and Russo-Chinese collaboration to expedite that American decline. Pakistan thus has benefitted a great deal by getting US' financial support, Chinese strategic support and Russian political support. The resilience of the Taliban in Afghanistan, IS in West Asia and shifting informal alliances bolster Pakistan and pose a great challenge to Indian national security. How India and the US redefine, reshape and concretise their strategic partnership is the real test.