The Endangered Asian Century
America, China, and the Perils of Confrontation
ON THE ROCKS
In his critique of U.S. President Barack Obama’s India policy, Nicholas Burns (“Passage to India,” September/October 2014) correctly identifies the issues that have bedeviled U.S.-Indian relations, such as differences over international agreements on climate change and trade. But he overestimates both India’s desire to improve the relationship and the benefits doing so would bring.
Like many advocates of stronger U.S.-Indian ties, Burns fails to recognize that two countries with the same system of government do not necessarily develop similar interests or policies. In the case of India, the burdens of colonialism and economic underdevelopment have led it to oppose much of the U.S. agenda. Like China, India continues to view the United States as a presumptuous superpower and competitor. And if India realizes its goal of becoming an economic powerhouse with global influence, New Delhi’s rivalry with Washington, particularly in South Asia, will likely intensify.
Although Burns writes that “the United States and India should continue to strengthen their defense and political coordination in the Asia-Pacific region,” he neglects to mention that India appears uninterested in cooperating on this front. The United States has included India in multilateral strategic discussions on the Asia-Pacific region, such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, with Australia and Japan, which sought to respond to increased Chinese power, but India has not made such meetings a priority. New Delhi has also been conspicuously absent from the two combined naval task forces the United States assembled to combat terrorism and piracy in the Indian Ocean. And despite providing development assistance to Afghanistan, India has refused to participate in the International Security Assistance Force, NATO’s security mission in Afghanistan.
When India does participate in multilateral organizations, it routinely opposes initiatives proposed by the United States and other Western powers. India’s opposition to interfering in other countries’ domestic affairs has led New Delhi to vote against human rights resolutions in the UN General Assembly and to openly criticize UN involvement in such crises as the civil wars in Libya and Syria. New Delhi has also opposed the West on many economic issues, working with the other so-called BRICS nations—Brazil, Russia, China, and South Africa—to create alternatives to the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and other Bretton Woods institutions.
Still, Burns holds out hope that Obama and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will “work together to promote stability in India’s South Asian neighborhood.” If India’s actions are anything to go on, however, it appears that the country prefers to work alone to maintain its regional dominance—and it views the United States as a threat. As a U.S. diplomat serving in South Asia from 1985 to 2004, I watched Indian officials repeatedly pressure neighboring countries not to cooperate with Washington, often because New Delhi believed, erroneously, that such cooperation would raise the U.S. military’s profile in South Asia. In early 2014, India protested U.S. calls for fair and inclusive elections in Bangladesh because it feared that voters would not elect a pro-India party. To gain leverage over its neighbors, India has had its foreign intelligence agency provide financial support to antigovernment insurgencies in Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. Two of the insurgent groups India has backed—Maoist militants in Nepal and Tamil separatists in Sri Lanka—have killed thousands of civilians and been designated as terrorists by the U.S. government.
Burns suggests that an increasingly powerful China may spur a stronger U.S.-Indian nexus in Asia. But even though border clashes with China have aggravated security concerns in New Delhi, Modi openly admires China’s development model and may prefer to engage China diplomatically and economically rather than try to contain it. And many Indian analysts do not believe that the United States would come to India’s defense if a U.S.-Indian military partnership provoked Chinese aggression.
Modi still remains a mystery to U.S. policymakers. He appears to want the United States to help revitalize India’s economy, but it is unclear if he wants the longer-term political and defense partnership that the United States seeks in South Asia. A staunch Hindu nationalist, Modi likely wants to continue India’s quest for regional dominance, a move that would not endear him to the United States. His endorsement of his party’s vision of Akhand Bharat, or “undivided India,” which sees most of South Asia as belonging to India, does not bode well for a more accommodative regional foreign policy.
Of course, India is firmly within its rights to define its own interests and chart its own strategies. But U.S.-Indian relations—and U.S. strategic interests—would be best served by a realistic appraisal of Indian values and goals, which Burns fails to provide. Contrary to Burns’ assertions, India is unlikely to become a “critical partner” to the United States anytime soon. New Delhi will strengthen its ties with Washington only if doing so serves its interests; Washington should do the same.
India has not always been an easy or even compatible friend to the United States. I suspect Robert Boggs and I agree on that fundamental point. We both served in U.S. administrations that tried to elevate bilateral ties with New Delhi. The difference between us may be traced, in part, to the fortune of timing. During the 1980s and 1990s, U.S. presidents and secretaries of state struggled to find common ground with a succession of Indian prime ministers.
I was fortunate, however, to work with India on behalf of the U.S. government at a very different time—during President George W. Bush’s second term in office. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made building stronger relations with India a major priority. We negotiated a landmark civil nuclear agreement, strengthened military ties, and oversaw a major expansion of trade and investment between the two countries. Bush and Rice produced the closest relationship between Washington and New Delhi in decades. Missing from Boggs’ response is an acknowledgment of that undeniable progress.
Boggs also errs in describing my article as a “critique” of the Obama administration’s India policy. In fact, my main argument was that India should be a higher priority in the president’s remaining two years in office, following two difficult years for Washington and New Delhi. And I placed more responsibility on the Indian government than the Obama administration for the slowdown in progress.
I try to be realistic about what can and cannot be accomplished with New Delhi. For decades, India has been a difficult and often dyspeptic partner for the United States at the UN on major multilateral issues. Even during the past few years, India has shown little vision or courage in working with the United States on global trade, climate change, or critical security threats, from Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons to NATO’s intervention in Libya.
But I don’t agree with Boggs when he concludes that the current Indian leadership sees the United States as a “competitor” and that there is little real strategic value in the U.S.-Indian relationship. In fact, there have been many positive changes in relations during the Bush and Obama administrations. Washington and New Delhi have both supported the Afghan government against the Taliban, and India values the U.S. military role in Afghanistan so much that its real worry is that the United States will leave too soon. As victims of Islamist terrorism, the two countries have become close partners on homeland security. Their defense ties continue to broaden and deepen. And both share a concern about China’s newly aggressive behavior in the East China and South China seas. These shared concerns with India have produced concrete benefits for the United States.
In many ways, China is at the center of the new strategic cooperation between the United States and India. Both Washington and New Delhi will partner with China on trade, investment, and climate change. But the United States and India will also compete with China for military power in the region. As a result, the United States and India will continue to build closer security ties, often in partnership with Japan, due to a basic, common self-interest: balancing China’s increasing power in Asia.
I agree with Boggs that the new Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, should articulate more clearly his aims for the U.S.-Indian relationship. But Boggs is on thin ice when he suggests that Modi will pursue a Hindu nationalist vision of an “undivided India” encompassing most of the countries of the region. There is scant evidence for that very serious charge.
Boggs appears to see India as an unreliable partner. Washington will surely continue to have its share of disagreements with New Delhi. But I see a glass half full, given all that has changed for the better under Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush in Washington’s growing, sometimes frustrating, but undeniably strengthening strategic partnership with India.