The viability of the envisaged United States-India strategic partnership was once again under the microscope at a major conference on 'Power, identity, and security in Asia: Views on regional cooperation and the US role', which was part of the Sigur Center for Asian Studies' multi-year, multi-project research effort, the Rising Powers Initiative.
Dr Deepa Ollapally, associate director of the Sigur Center for Asian Studies and associate research professor of international studies at George Washington University's Elliot School of International Affairs, kicked off the discussion on power and identity in India [ Images ] and how it relates to ties with the US. "India's new popular image of being sort of a confident, energetic, purposeful actor integrating into the international system to play a major role, is at odds when you look at its behaviour."
"On one hand," she said, "India labeling itself as a developing country at the WTO (World Trade Organisation), but then also seeing itself as a major power when it seeks entry into the United Nations Security Council (as a permanent member)."
The discussion was moderated by senior Obama [ Images ] administration official and longtime South Asia hand Alyssa Ayres, deputy assistant secretary of state for South Asian Affairs."
Ollapally said this dichotomy "is well captured by the 2010 National Security Annual Review," put out by an independent body but commissioned by the Indian government where "on the first page and the opening sentence, says, 'India is emerging as a ranking power, but it is at a loss as to how to exercise that power'. That really does capture the kind of crossroads that India is at this point."
This has been a burgeoning argument in recent months, where in some quarters there has been a re-think by senior administration officials -- albeit privately -- and leading policy wonks -- very publicly -- as during the recent conference organised by the American Enterprise Institute titled, 'US-India Relationship Oversold?' whether the concept of the US-India Strategic Partnership where Washington looks to New Delhi [ Images ] to take on global responsibilities and leadership, was overly optimistic and quixotic.
Ollapally argued that "the dominant international profile that India has sought is one of autonomous power since 1947 and at this point of time, there is indeed, the beginning of a debate, but only the pressure of autonomy as a representation of a core value and also the need of efficacy of foreign policy that means some outcomes of the core value of autonomy."
She explained, "There is a three-way competition in the making of India's foreign policy orientation -- nationalist approach, a nationalist normative identity approach, and a realist power approach."
"From a power politics perspective, India has demonstrated significant failures at different periods in time," she said. "For example, it's under-balancing China in the 1960s, its uncertain pursuit of nuclear weapons, and others that include an excessive focus on the non-aligned movement and nuclear disarmament and also its decision not to push its clear advantage over the Bangladesh war in 1971 -- to push its advantage in the west and settle Kashmir [ Images ] vis-a-vis Pakistan."
But Ollapally acknowledged that India's "dominant identity variable -- autonomy -- has remained fairly resilient through major global and regional shifts," and cited the example of "the shock of the 1962 war with China -- what I would call strategic isolation in the 1970s, when China, the US and Pakistan, were kind of a triangle and the end of the Cold War in 1991."
She said, "In fact, the most serious domestic contention over Indian foreign policy did not come until 2005 -- a good decade-and-a-half -- after the end of the Cold War, and this was, I would say, marked by the US-India nuclear accord where clear battle-lines were drawn in India about how close India was going to the United States."
Ollapally said, "The issue really was not at all about the nuclear accord, but all about how close India was going to the US -- was it surrendering its political sovereignty to a untrustworthy and imperial US, or was it kind of becoming a poodle of the Americans and so forth."
"Never mind the US had expended an enormous amount of political capital to get the India exception through US Congress and that India has been railing against nuclear sanctions the US had slapped on its sometime before," when the May 1998 Pokhran nuclear tests were conducted, she said.
Reminiscent of this domestic contention, although at a much lower decibel in recent months, has been the perceived US pressure for India to join in the US-led campaign to isolate Iran over its alleged nuclear weapons programme and also on a another front to walk back from the nuclear liability law approved by the Parliament that has incensed US companies that were looking for a chunk of pie in the nuclear power market, after all of the lobbying they did to get the nuclear deal through the US Congress, and now believe they were taken for a ride by India.
Ollapally said, "From a realist perspective, this development has to be rather ironic. The consensus on the policy seems to be factoring more in response to a perceived ideological shift rather than a structural shift in 2005."
She said, "We see this sort of domestic tension by the release of this new report, Non-alignment 2.0, and I think it was released in part because there is this rising new challenge to perhaps introducing a more realist perspective."
Ollapally predicted that "the contentions are going to be not just about the needs, but also some extent the idea of integrating more into the US-led world order even at the possible cost of some autonomy."
She said, "Two major taboos governing Indian foreign policy in terms of what it is willing to do and what it's not, and that is, no formal alliance structure or the appearance of an alliance, and two, no use of force to settle disputes or fulfill ambitions."
"But these taboos have nothing to do with the material in capacity or lack of structural imperatives," she said. "It has to do with the nature of India's state identity. Both these tend to make India more open or more favourable to a regional cooperation in Asia, but less and more difficult for cooperation with the US and the US role in Asia."
Ollapally said, "The nationalists in India are suspicious of great powers and the role that if you bring a strong US presence into Asia, what that means for an Indian role and the kind of impact that might have."
"But the realists see US inclusion as a way to balance China," she said.
"And, I suspect, most people would say that's something to do with India's democracy, which goes right to the matter of the nature of India, rather than raw power," she argued.