fHas the recently concluded Indo-US Strategic Dialogue restored any faith in the partnership between these two democracies? Or was it just another example of symbolism lacking deliverables? More broadly, how valid is the Indian perception that the strategic partnership has been downgraded in favor of the US’ immediate security challenges in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as its financial dependency on China? Has President Obama in fact discarded Bush’s strategic vision of Asia, where India would play the key role as a counterweight to China?
The fate of the Indo-US strategic partnership lies in an examination of both countries’ short and long-term interests. While India and the US share the long-term challenge of a rising China, Af-Pak is essentially a short-term challenge for the US, but most certainly a long-term problem for India. Thus, Af-Pak, much more so than China, threatens to spoil the strategic partnership. If the US does not carefully consider Indian equities as it seeks to end its involvement in the region, it could essentially sacrifice a key partner on many of the global issues on which it desires India’s assistance. Hence, the dialogue’s focus on ‘low politics’, promises to be crucial in increasing India’s overall power, which contributes to maintaining a balance of power in Asia. However, the more immediate issue, Af-Pak, was not a focus, as no one from India’s security establishment attended.
Despite the perceived loss of Bush’s strategic vision of India as the future counterweight to China, Obama’s China policy of ‘strategic reassurance’ should not necessarily be too disquieting to India. Aimed at convincing the Chinese that the US has no intention of containing their power, analysts interpret the policy as a shift away from the zero-sum game of power balancing techniques. Still, a glance at Obama’s recently released National Security Strategy reveals a marked contrast between the effusive language towards India and the much more guarded tone towards China. With more than just words, the Obama administration’s intense, mutually beneficial engagement with India on a range of important issues amounts to effectively the same strategy as Bush, only with less provocative rhetoric. If India, in fact, was to ever balance China, the key to doing so would be increasing its overall power, and so Indo-US cooperation on issues such as trade, investment, health, education, and agriculture, while not as headline-grabbing, serves that purpose perhaps even more than the civilian nuclear deal. The Strategic Dialogue and the preparation for Obama’s visit to India in November, contributed to this objective.
However, more so than any other issue, the Obama administration’s immediate problem in Af-Pak threatens to spoil its sound, long-term interest in a strategic partnership with India. While backing away from statements of possible US intervention on Kashmir, Obama’s Af-Pak policy has warranted great anxiety in India. The leaked McChrystal report revealed the top US commander in Afghanistan’s belief that “Increasing Indian influence in Afghanistan is likely to exacerbate regional tensions and encourage Pakistani countermeasures in Afghanistan or India.” Obama’s West Point Speech announcing his new Af-Pak policy only exacerbated Indian fears, stating that “we will act with the full recognition that our success in Afghanistan is inextricably linked to our partnership with Pakistan.” This new dawn in US-Pakistani relations, combined with the announcement to begin the drawdown of troops in July of 2011, signaled to New Delhi that its grave concerns over Pakistan’s support for terrorism would not be addressed. At the following London Conference, New Delhi’s apprehension over reconciliation with Taliban elements was also ignored. While the US eagerly seeks to end the longest war in its history, India fears that ultimately it will be left in the most precarious position.
Noting these concerns, it would seem then that if the US’ immediate challenge in Af-Pak forces it to commit entirely to Pakistan, withdraw too soon, and ignore Indian equities, the US potentially could forfeit a key strategic partner on many of the global issues of the 21st century, not only the rise of China, but also climate change, nonproliferation, maritime security, and many others.
No easy solutions exist for the US in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Nevertheless, the US must balance its short and long-term interests, a difficult task given short electoral cycles. While the US will ultimately act pragmatically, it should factor India’s long-term Af-Pak concerns into its decision-making process. To prevent its short term crisis from derailing long-term benefits, the Obama administration would be wise to carefully consider Indian equities as it moves forward in the Af-Pak region, while forging ahead with its bilateral relationship to increase the cost to both sides of losing such an important partner. Together, both can achieve this by finishing the implementation of the nuclear deal, continuing defence cooperation, working towards a bilateral investment treaty, and reforming export controls to allow high technology and dual-use exports to India.
The Indo-US Strategic Dialogue took a significant step towards addressing one shared long-term challenge. Unfortunately, the more immediate roadblock to realizing that dream will be Af-Pak, and no effort seems to have been taken to avoid it.