April 04, 2012

Growing Indo-US partnership

Need to look at domestic, regional realities
by S. K. Shrivastav


AS the Iranian nuclear issue appears to be heating up again, Indo-US strategic partnership has come under sharp focus. It is, therefore, pertinent to reflect upon the nature of the partnership between these two nations. Since this strategic partnership has been steadily growing for the last few years and, in President Obama's words, is set to be "one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century", every step taken by the two largest democracies is perceived with great expectations and is closely scrutinised.
However, it may be suggested that the process of analysing Indo-US strategic partnership like any other partnership should be guided not only by expectations but also by the existing ground realities which really determine vision, policy formulations and practices. Only then can right conclusions be drawn and clear directions charted out for a brighter future.
Since the base for Indo-US strategic partnership relies on a solid foundation of shared values and shared interests, the occasional misperceptions between the two partners may only be episodic.
However, it is essential to understand and realise that both India and the US are faced with tough realities at their domestic as well as external regional fronts. These realities pose constraints and do influence foreign policy choices. Now it would be worth deliberating upon these realities in both countries.
On the domestic front, India, despite the spectacular growth it has recorded in at least the last two decades, is still striving hard to successfully deal with challenges like poverty alleviation, providing attentive healthcare, nurturing a vast young population, ensuring energy security, building infrastructure, governance reforms, etc. These challenges may take some time to be overcome if efforts are made with excellent planning and for effective implementation.
India is also a multi-religious, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic society. Thus, the world's largest democracy naturally will always pay utmost attention to the views and aspirations of its domestic constituency. It may be noted that it is the domestic constituency of a nation which ultimately determines foreign policy choices.
The recent heated protest in Parliament and outside on the government's decision for allowing 51 per cent FDI in multi-brand retail in India, which led to its suspension, is one of the examples on how the domestic constituency determines any major policy decision. Earlier, India-Bangladesh Teesta water-sharing deal was put off due to protests by the ruling Trinamool Congress in West Bengal. Meanwhile, the protest by several Chief Ministers against the idea of establishing a counter-terrorism mechanism — the National Counter-Terrorism Centre (NCTC) — is yet another glaring instance which highlights how important it is for the government of the day to convince its domestic constituency on any policy move.
Similarly, the US, which has severely suffered due to the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression in the 1930s, is dealing with pressing domestic challenges of job creation (the unemployment rate in the US was 8.3 per cent in January), controlling high budget deficit, putting its economy on growth path, etc. Now, to reduce budget deficit, the US government will have to implement the mandatory budget cuts over a period of the next 10 years which includes defence budget.
In these challenging times, outsourcing of US jobs to India, China and other countries has been recurring as an electoral issue in US elections. As the process of the fresh US Presidential election is gaining momentum, the issue of outsourcing has once again come to the fore. In a speech on February 17, 2012, President Obama announced that "no company (in the US) should get a tax break for outsourcing jobs". These moves by leaders and policy makers may be aimed at pacifying the domestic constituency in the US, particularly young voters, who are facing hardships due to the gloomy employment scenario.
It is evident that these domestic factors do appear as constraints in policy formulation processes for both strategic partners.
On the regional front, it may be noted that India finds itself in a unique regional strategic environment. On its western side, it is faced with the gravest threat of terrorism emanating from Afghanistan and Pakistan. On its northern front, India faces probably the biggest challenge of our times — managing relations with a rising China with which India has some unresolved issues despite growing economic cooperation between the two.
India is also surrounded by other neighbours which are relatively smaller in size but certainly not in importance. These neighbours have been facing their own internal challenges. India realises that to have a brighter strategic future, it is essential to have a dynamic and robust neighbourhood policy. In recent times, India has been proactively taking several initiatives to improve its relations with neighbours despite limitations in doing so.
Now, the Iranian nuclear programme and the scenario of a conflict in the West Asian region has placed India in a tight spot. The fact remains that on the one hand India gets 12 per cent of its total crude oil imports from Iran, there are more than six million Indians working in West Asian and the Gulf region. India also depends on Iran for most of its equipment and construction material supplies to Afghanistan. On the other side, India's ties with the Israel are also of critical significance as Israel has emerged as the second largest defence equipment supplier to India.
Since Indo-US strategic partnership is growing, Washington DC is expecting New Delhi to support its sanctions against Iran. However, it may be suggested that any Indian position on the Iranian issue needs to be guided by our own interests.
It would be worth mentioning here that no government in India would attempt to take any such decision as might lead to risking the interests of its people. Any unrealistic step will surely be disapproved of by the domestic constituency.
Similarly, the US is also facing a tough external environment. The US constantly remains cautious against the threats of terrorist attacks. After ending its combat operations in Iraq and recently in Libya, it is looking forward to ending its combat mission in Afghanistan by the end of 2014. To safely and successfully implement its proposed exit plan in Afghanistan, the US is looking for cooperation from regional countries. During her visit to India in July 2011, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated in Chennai, "Reconciliation (in Afghanistan), achieving it, and maintaining it, will depend on the participation of all of Afghanistan's neighbours, including both Pakistan and India. We all need to be working together".
A close look at these domestic and regional realities becomes essential for both strategic partners while cooperating and collaborating with each other. This deep understanding by the two sides with regard to expectations, realities, values, interests, opportunities as well as challenges is essential. It will help in reducing frictions and in evolving a clear strategy and vision for a brighter future.
Finally, it may be noted that despite having shared values and shared interests because of the different state of domestic and regional environments, India and the US sometimes may appear to be taking different positions and postures on certain issues which should not be interpreted that they are working against each other.

The writer is associated with the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi

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