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Home > News > Columnists > Rajiv Sikri

The limits of Indo-US partnership

January 02, 2007

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For India, the nurturing of the relationship with the US has been the most important foreign policy priority in recent years. This has not been a wasted effort, for India-US relations have never been better. One hopes that this upward trend in ties will continue, notwithstanding widespread misgivings about the wisdom of hinging the future of the relationship on the Indo-US nuclear deal.

During US President George W Bush's visit to India in March 2006, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said that there are "no limits" to the India-US partnership. Earlier, in Washington in July 2005, he had said that India had a long-term and strategic vision of relations with the US and that the path on which the two countries had embarked was "not just for tomorrow but� for generations to come." Presumably, these were only rhetorical flourishes, since a sober assessment would show that there are, and always will remain, severe limits to this partnership.

Recent US official reports such as the National Intelligence Council Report entitled "Mapping the Global Future" (2004), National Defense Strategy (2005), the Quadrennial Defense Review Report (2006) and the National Security Strategy (2006) starkly bring out that the US is committed to retaining its global "leadership" and domination in all respects -- political, military, economic, technological and cultural. With the rise of Asia, the impact of globalisation and the falling dollar whose future is in the hands of Asian central banks, the US rightly sees this position as being under threat. From the perspective of its own national interests, the US is understandably searching for means to counter this disturbing trend and "to hedge against uncertainty over the next 20 years."

Recognising that its leading position in world affairs will continue "to breed unease, a degree of resentment and resistance," the US sees its interest in forging "broad-based and capable partnerships with like-minded states." High priority is to be given to shaping the choices of "countries at strategic crossroads," and to work to ensure that all major and emerging powers are integrated as "constructive actors and stakeholders" into the international system. As a rising power that the US regards as being "poised to shoulder global responsibilities in cooperation with the US in a way befitting a major power", India understandably figures high in US foreign policy priorities for the next couple of decades.

How can these US goals be reconciled with India's own foreign policy traditions and its legitimate aspirations to have a greater say in global affairs in the coming decades? Whereas the US wants the current so-called unipolar world order to continue, India believes that the world should be multipolar, with India itself as one of the poles.

The US claims to be engaged in a long-term 'war' against terror that seems to provide a cover for arbitrariness and is, worryingly, widely regarded by Muslims around the world as having an anti-Islamic character. India is fully committed to combating terrorism, including in cooperation with other countries, but we do not identify terrorism with any religion. It is difficult to see how India, with the world's second largest Muslim population, can share the US goals and strategy in this war.

Finally, isn't there a contradiction between the deeply rooted pacifist tradition in India going back to our freedom movement, and the aggressive behaviour of the US as a power that is ruthlessly and systematically extending its reach to all corners of the world, in pursuit of its national interests, unmindful of the concerns of other states and of the global environment?

It is fatuous for the US leaders to say that they will "help India become a major world power in the 21st century", and na�ve for credulous Indians to believe them. In international affairs, no state has been known to cede its power willingly to another. Power is always taken, never given. If the US wants a stronger India, it is to serve US, not Indian, interests. There are no free lunches. A rise in India's influence can only be at the expense of existing power centres including, in the first instance, the United States. Currently, a prolonged struggle is under way in all the major international organisations such as the United Nations, the World Trade Organisation and the International Monetary Fund over the redistribution of power. In these battles, India, a rising power, is ranged against the US, a declining even if still unquestionably the pre-eminent global power.

A fundamental problem for any country in having a strategic relationship with the US is that it can never be one of equality. No ally or partner of US is treated as an equal by the US. On issues where the US feels strongly enough or exerts sufficient pressure, all are expected to fall in line, and they invariably do. As a result, their limited ability or willingness to chart an independent course is further constrained.

India, on the other hand, is firmly committed to pursuing an independent foreign policy. Non-alignment as a policy option for India, as distinct from the Non-aligned Movement, was essentially about resisting pressures to join rival camps during the Cold War and examining foreign policy options on merit. This national consensus remains very strong in India, and has nothing to do with the so-called Cold War mentality.

At present, the US considers China as its main rival. Russia too is flexing its muscles and is resisting US forays in its backyard. Both cannot individually take on the US, but together they pose a serious challenge, which could become formidable if India were to join them. The US goal is to ensure that India does not do so. It is not lost on the Americans that China, Russia and India are the only major countries on the Eurasian landmass that collectively have the economic, military, and technological potential, as well as the critical geographical landmass and demographic structure, matched by political will, to challenge US global hegemony. Techniques used against the 'axis of evil' countries viz. Iraq, Iran and North Korea (whose only common factor to merit their inclusion in this dubious category is their aspiration to have an independent foreign policy), cannot be used against these bigger powers. The latter have to be kept divided and, where possible, co-opted on the side of the US. In this scenario, India assumes great importance for the US as a 'swing' state.

India has had a time-tested strategic partnership with Russia, which remains even today extremely valuable for India in the defence, space, nuclear and energy sectors, not to speak of its reassuring political support in the UN on many critical issues. It would not be wise for India to dilute this strategic partnership. As for China, although India has no intention of allowing itself to be used for containing China, China seems to have misgivings about the true import of the India-US strategic partnership. Such suspicions would slow down the process of normalisation of China-India relations, which can already be discerned in the hardening of the Chinese position on the border question and the rather humdrum outcome of Hu Jintao's recent visit to India, the first by a Chinese President in a decade. It will also complicate India's strategic objective to wean China away from Pakistan to the extent possible.

India will always remain a stunted global player unless it can exercise decisive influence in its immediate neighbourhood. Pakistan remains the principal obstacle to India's larger aspirations. It has been able to block and neutralise India in large part because of US military, political and economic support to Pakistan, which has been forthcoming in recognition of the important role that Pakistan occupies in US long-term strategic plans for the Gulf, Afghanistan, Iran and Central Asia -- as well as South Asia. The consistent US support to Pakistan has been a major factor that has kept India and the US estranged for so many decades. Indian protestations to the US have not managed to change US policies in this respect. Now, for reasons that remain inexplicable, we no longer protest, at least with any real conviction, US military supplies to Pakistan and US indulgence of Pervez Musharraf as a so-called ally in the 'war against terror.'

It is easy to see why it is in the US interest to de-hyphenate the India-Pakistan relationship, since this does not put any pressure on the US to make difficult choices between India and Pakistan, each important in its own way to the US. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice has publicly spoken both about wanting to influence the regional dynamics in South Asia by maintaining strong relations independently with India and Pakistan, and about ensuring peace through a "military balance" in the region. As such an approach ignores India's larger security requirements, India can hardly have a true strategic relationship with the US when US policies do not coincide with ours in our immediate and strategic neighbourhood.

While Pakistan is a very special case, even in the rest of South Asia, India appears to have ceded strategic space to the US. At best, what we have is a co-sharing or coordination of responsibility. In the Gulf, home to about 5 million Indians, there are dangers for India in identifying itself too closely with the US, which is looked upon with mistrust and suspicion by the local population. India and the US also have differing views on handling Iran -- and rightly so, for India needs friendship and cooperation with Iran for many reasons including energy security, access to Central Asia and Afghanistan, and stability in the Gulf. Indian strategic planners should be worried about the massive US military presence, that will be a long-term one, in the northern Indian Ocean and the Gulf region, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia. To the east, while Myanmar is a crucial country for India that impinges on the security and development of India's northeast and is a key country to ensure the optimal success of India's 'Look East' policy, US policy of isolating and sanctioning Myanmar does not correspond with India's interests.

India claims to have some kind of strategic relationship with all the major global players viz. Russia, France, UK, Germany, EU, Brazil and China, Japan, even Iran and Saudi Arabia! It is simply not credible that India can have such a multiplicity of "strategic" partnerships without any contradictions. India has tended to use the concept of strategic partnership in a rather loose sense, perhaps with short-term priorities in mind rather than as a well thought out long-term global policy.

With the two countries having many divergent goals and interests, it is premature to characterise the India-US relationship as a true "strategic" relationship. At best, it can be described as a tactical partnership that serves both countries' short term interests -- such as getting more investments, generating more business and creating greater US economic stakes in and dependence on India, as well as reassuring the increasing numbers of Indian-Americans and their relatives in India that they may not have to make hard choices between loyalties to the land of their birth and the land of their adoption.

As there are good reasons to believe that the fundamental long-term interests of the Indian nation, as opposed to those of the Indian elite, may not necessarily coincide with those of the US, it would be prudent to keep expectations low and avoid hyperbole in looking at the future of the India-US relationship. The rules of engagement need to be mutually agreed upon, so that there is no misunderstanding. India also needs to bear in mind the growing anti-Americanism around the world, and consider whether it is really in our interest to jettison our traditional constituency among the developing countries and be so closely identified with the US. After all, it is from the developing countries that we will get the resources to fuel our economic growth, and the political support for a possible permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

It is not coincidental that the majority of current India-US initiatives are knowledge-based. By tapping into our enormous talent pool, the US hopes to ensure that it remains the global centre of scientific R&D and technological innovation. Given that a shortage of talented people is already being felt in several sectors in India, it is unclear how the accelerated migration of our most talented young people to the US, even as it benefits individuals, will help India realise its potential to be a knowledge superpower in the 21st century.

Nations, Lord Palmerston had perceptively noted, have no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests. We can be sure that, notwithstanding platitudes about common values binding the US and India, if India were to threaten the US dominance in any way, it would become a country of concern to the US, one that the US will seek to contain, just as is being done with China today. That is why the US will always keep all options open on India, including the time-tested one of using Pakistan to put pressure on India.

Even as India rightly continues to pursue closer all-round ties with the US, hopefully as equal partners, the challenge for a wannabe great power like India will remain to reciprocally develop 'hedging' strategies and points of pressure on the US.

Rajiv Sikri recently retired as Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs, New Delhi after more than 36 years service as a diplomat. He can be contacted at

Also see:

Rajiv Sikri: Nuclear deal - The road ahead for India

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Number of User Comments: 9

Sub: India's strategic interests

With the death of Cold-War and the widening economic compulsions, foreign policy in the present day World has to take into consideration economic and emotional ...

Posted by Murali Swaminathan

Sub: Missing reality

I disagree with Mr. Sikri that friendship with US will hardened China. Instead China will try to settle the boundary question and try to wean ...

Posted by Gautam Sinha

Sub: Same old recycled crap

This is nothing but same old recycled crap decked up in new clothes. The author seems to be still living in the fossilised age of ...

Posted by Shankar

Sub: Excellent Article

Excellent analysis of Indo-US partnership. I can't agree more to the author.

Posted by steeve

Sub: Limits of Indo-U S Partnership

Sir: Mr. Sikri has hit the nail right on the head. It is a pipe-dream of all governments at centre, regardless of their political affiliations ...

Posted by Rajesh Vyas