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US-India Strategic Partnership 2014: A Reality Check

Paper No. 5798                                         Dated 29-Sept-2014

By Dr Subhash Kapila

Cutting across the over-hyped halo bestowed on Indian PM Modi’s ongoing visit to USA, a reality check in mid-2014 is in order as the challenging contextual circumstances portend that unless the United States breaks out of its mercenary approach to India, PM Modi’s personal enthusiasm alone cannot bring a major and substantial resurrection of a faltering relationship.

Reflected in innumerable SAAG Papers of mine in recent years was the evolving reality that the US-India Strategic Partnership was progressively getting marginalised and declining by United States propensity to embark on impulsive tactical strategic expediencies in its policies on Pakistan and China (India’s military adversaries) at the cost of the long term strategic gains of a robust US-India Strategic Partnership. At times these impulsive American tactical expediencies fed the impression in India that they were intended as strategic pressure-points against India.

One is not alone in this assessment as in an article on the Carnegie Endowment think-tank web-site, Ashly Tellis commenting on PM Modis’ meetings in Washington on September 29-30 with President Obama and US Congressional leaders has observed that this visit presents a “golden opportunity to kick-start and repair a faltering relationship”. In a lengthy follow-up to this initial observation, Ashley Tellis ruefully observes that “This relationship has lost its foundational moorings that would have bestowed strategic significance”.

So therefore the harsh strategic reality in 2014 is that the US-India Strategic Partnership is in a serious state of disrepair and would entail a higher call on the United States in terms of contributions to add life to it. Contextually in 2014 the strategic picture suggests that it is the United States which needs India more than India needing the United States.

Prime Minister Modi’s “Mission USA’ is predominantly to invite the United States to make substantial economic investments in India and in return for which US companies can expect good returns on their investments due to improved governance under PM Modi. He has not gone there with a begging bowl but to market India’s growing economy and potential. PM Modi has not gone to Washington to seek United States countervailing power against China or Pakistan as the United States is not in a position to provide the same.

Rather than being accused of my biased approach on US-India Strategic Partnership, let us take-off the 2014 reality check on what could have been a vital strategic relationship from the observations of US strategic analysts and US media analyses commenting widely on PM Modi’s current visit to USA.

The US- India Strategic Partnership  as observed and argued in one of my SAAG Papers in the recent past was “Neither Strategic” and Nor a Partnership” and that it stood reduced in US policy planning processes to milking India of billions of dollars defence contracts from the over 100billion dollars estimated Indian defence purchases. The Congress Government with their Prime Minister’s personal tilt towards the United States obliged USA by short-circuiting defence acquisition purchases by following the FMS route which obviated global tenders. Such was the hold being exercised on Indian defence contracts that when the order for126 MRCA fighters for the Indian Air Force went to France and not to USA the US Ambassador to India resigned his post and left for USA.

Unlike the previous Indian Government where the Prime Minister was a nominated Prime Minister and headed a disparate coalition Government, India’s present Prime Minister Narendra Modi has romped home on a resounding majority unprecedented in the last 30 years of India’s political history. Adding to this Prime Minister Modi’s own personal dynamism and decisiveness the inter-se equations in the US-India Strategic Partnership in 2014 stand substantially changed. This is an important element which the United States policy establishment needs to recognise as they sit down in confabulations with PM Modi in Washington today. Also to be kept in mind is the tremendous show of strength by Indian Americans in the Madison Square Stadium rally yesterday and who are increasingly becoming an electoral factor in US politics.

In terms of the strategic component of the US-India Strategic Partnership, India today cannot hope for any substantial “deliverables” from the United States in terms of contributions to India’s national security as regards China and Pakistan or even a more forthright US assertion on Kashmir, all of which are dear to the Indian heart and shape Indian public perceptions of the United States. Other than some sanctimonious statements on new emerging global terrorism challenges and need for a global effort, nothing more can be expected. India would not be willing to join in any military effort in US war on the ISIS.

India will however be under great US pressure to yield in the area of defence purchases from the United States including a review of the126 MRCA fighters order to France, inordinately delayed by such pressures. The United States will throw carrots to PM Modi in terms of assistance in defence production of Aircraft Carriers and high tech defence technology. The United States is not a reliable source of defence acquisitions or defence technology as ultimately all such agreements have to be cleared by the US Congress. The United States in the past has applied sanctions in provision of arms to India and that should provide lessons to Indian policy planners. Further any such concessions made by the United States in these areas will carry a hefty price tag for India in conceding strategically and economically to US demands.

In the economic sphere there are major irritants in the US-India relationship extending from the Nuclear Liability Law, Doha Round of talks, Climate Change and pressures on India for a greater liberalised opening for US firms investments in India. These are issues on which PM Modi cannot be expected to yield without adverse political costs at home and such issues should not form part of any committal statements by the Prime Minister. These are best left to dialogues between officials of both the countries.

Curiously, the intensity and wide ranging US pressures applied on India to liberalise Indian markets openings for US businesses suggest that US businesses expect and demand “US businesses exceptionalism” from India to the exclusion of all other countries. India has many other sources of FDI other than the United States. Economically today it is the United States that needs India more than India needs the United States.

The United States has been arrogant and demanding on trade and economic issues and Ashley Tellis rightly observes that “obsessive complaints by US officials in economic matters” has affected US-India relations. India under Modi cannot be expected to give-in to such pressures either political, bureaucratic or from US Congressmen.

US analysts argue that personal chemistry between the two political leaders can bring about a transformational change in the US-India Strategic Partnership. But then it has to be remembered that President Obama has not much leeway at hand as he runs into the last lap of his presidency and is besieged by external challenges in the Middle East and a dwindling popularity at home.

So where does this leave the prospects of repairing the fragile US-India Strategic Partnership by USA and India during the Indian Prime Minister Modi’s current visit to Washington? No optimistic portents are visible even on the horizon.

The US-India Strategic Partnership will continue to be fragile even in the years to come till such time the US policy establishments and the US Congressmen to follow, change their attitudinal responses to India to one of “Equitable Equations” and learn to respect India’s strategic, political and economic sensitivities. After all even charismatic US Presidents well disposed towards India have in the past been stymied in their political reach out to India by obstructive US bureaucracies and US Congressmen who ultimately define US policies towards India. Time is on India’s side and India can afford to wait.

(Dr Subhash Kapila is Consultant International Relations and Strategic Affairs with South Asia Analysis Group. The views expressed are those of the author.  He can be reached at