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Lt GENERAL BHOPINDER SINGH | 17 JUNE, 2016

US-India: 'Natural Allies', Really?


PM Narendra Modi’s address to the joint members of the US Congress reiterated the expression ‘natural allies’ to explain the Indo-US equation. The term was first expressed in the rapprochement phase of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee and George Bush meeting in 2001, whilst, overcoming the awkward freeze following the second Indian nuclear test in 1998.

The semantical construct was aptly capturing the transformational thawing - that was manifesting in the agreements that are typical of the exclusive preserves of only the most trusted allies e.g. agreements on missile defence, civilian nuclear and space programs and high technology trade.

Jaswant Singh and Strobe Talbot had worked furiously in the background to mutually explain the respective positions that ultimately led, the-then President Bill Clinton to state on Pakistani soil, “This era does not reward people who struggle to redraw borders in blood…There is no military solution to Kashmir. International sympathy, support and intervention cannot be won by provoking a bigger, bloodier conflict” – a succinct understanding that captured the entirety of the subcontinental issues and frustrations from the Indian perspective on the hyphenated, Indo-Pak relationship and our angst with the Americans, till then.

In the hard-nosed world of realpolitik diplomacy, historical, cultural and civilizational connects are genteel and vacuous expressions used only in the pre-prepared state visit statements, however, they carry no weight to qualify countries as ‘natural allies’ – as, India has most in common with Pakistan, North Korea with South Korea and Serbia with Bosnia.

It is usually the commonality of security concerns and strategic impediments to economic ambitions, of the two nations that define the ‘naturalness’ of their joint-outlook. Given that both security and economic concerns change with time, the dynamic nature of the time plays a vital role in defining the type of allies.

The India of the cold war era of the with a socialistic/protectionist economic construct was a natural anathema to the US sensibilities as it naturally belonged with the proverbial, ‘other bloc’ – hence, PM Modi’s speech alluding to the earlier call of Vajpayee to step out of the ‘shadow of hesitation of the past’, as India was now the land where, “ties of commerce and investment were flourishing” and further, “Defence purchases have moved from almost zero to ten billion dollars in less than a decade”.

So, the four principal concern areas for the US are, containing global terror, containing the Chinese juggernaut, containing the global proliferation of the WMD’s and the ensuring the health of the economy. There is no country other than India that can claim to mirror and share the exact dimensions of all of the four principal and strategic US fears and aspirations – India is at the geographical cusp of taking on the ‘incubating’ nurseries of terror and the dragon’s aggressive overreach, also, we share the economic models and systems, as indeed, the fear of the only Islamic nuclear bomb from falling in the wrong hands! None of the traditional US allies like the NATO countries or the other American nations can stake similar levels of alignment of joint-fears and aspirations. As Henry Kissinger presciently noted, “the geopolitical objectives of India, which they are pursuing in a very hard-headed way, [and] which are quite parallel to ours”.

But there is an element of realism and practical necessity that may occasionally confuse relationships, especially when viewed from an isolationist lens of gauging US intentions vis-à-vis Pakistan (and to a lesser extent China). Having sub-contracted the American war to the Pakistani allies in the 80’s, the Americans are in the exact know of the complexities and intrigues that afflict official corridors of Islamabad and Rawalpindi, therefore given the past commitments, wars on the Af-Pak theatre and the nuclear status of Pakistan, a sudden withdrawal or cessation of American support and footprint in Pakistan is neither possible nor desirable as that would embolden the inimical interests in the country. Tactics like drone attacks, congressional blocks (e.g. on the contentious F-16 supplies) and commitment-based support will ensure certain ‘transactional normalcy’ and ‘ally’ status that ought to be overlooked in Delhi, as fait accompli.

Certain geo-political factors have further strengthened the ‘naturalness’ of Indo-US potentials – an aggressive Chinese posturing in the South China Seas and strategic investments like CPEC or the ‘Pearls of Strings’ strategy, a mellowed Iranian equation that may perhaps see an active Indian footprint in Tehran (or Chabahar port) as a safer surrogate for the Americans in the region, and the increasing consensus on the Capitol Hill on the duplicitous role played by the Pakistani establishment in Afghanistan that directly impacts the life and security of American troops.

However, certain things will still remain unsaid, and a lot will only be implied – the American support for India’s bid for NSG is symptomatic of the implied spirit. On the economic front, pooling of resources and preferential terms of engagement are still the underleveraged levers of the Indo-US naturalness that will expand.

By not overemphasizing the Pakistan angularity beyond the diplomatic innuendoes in his speech, Modi expanded the realm beyond the conventional constraints of the typical and sole Indo-Pak dimension, when it came to the US – simply referring to an Asia where, “….. the absence of an agreed security architecture creates uncertainty”, the scope of joint Indo-US engagement has been stretched beyond the traditional contours and geographical expectations. Perhaps the most meaningful symbolism was the reference to the unconventional visit by PM Narendra Modi to the Arlington National Cemetery, the import of which is unmistakably reflective of one between strong allies – as only unquestionable friends mourn the death of the soldiers of the other allied nation.

Still, as the Americans understand best – words can come cheap and a lot of ground has still to be covered. The reality of a new POTUSA and a new regime has to be appreciated, though the geopolitical situations will ensure the relevance of the Indo-US ‘naturalness’.

That said, the wounds of the past are deep and unhealed, the brazen sailing of the nuclear powered aircraft carrier, USS Enterprise in 1971 still rankles India, the steadfast friendship of Russians still means a lot in Delhi and till the time meaningful actions like affording MFN status on each other is done and support for the Indian entry in the UN Security Council is supported, the spiel of ‘natural allies’ will be, yet another addition to the diplomatic niceties and generalities.

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