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The Looming Distancing between Delhi and Washington

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By: Dr.Rahul Bharatbhushan Kamble

It was not very long ago that many thought that India had totally abandoned its traditional non-aligned foreign policy and was squarely in the United States’ camp. The 2008 Indo-US nuclear deal which gave Indian critical waivers, increased purchase of arms from the US in preference to Russian makes after the collapse of the Soviet Union; and burgeoning Indo-US trade (now worth US$ 157 billion); were thought to have sealed a relationship “based on shared democratic values.” The glamorous September 2019 ‘Howdy Modi’ event in Texas attended by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Donald Trump, was also cited as proof that India was in the US camp.

But there is a marked departure from that now. Perhaps due to the promising looking Indian foreign interactions on global stage; the emergence of a belligerent Russia as manifested in the brazen attack on Ukraine to stem the advance of NATO; and the deleterious effects on the Global South of US sanctions on Russia, India has been reassessing its world view including its relations with the US. Under Union Minister of External Affairs S. Jaishankar, India is now a proponent of a multipolar world, knit together by individual national interests, in place of a world based on large blocs led by one or the other of the great powers.

As in the ‘non-alignment era’ (1950s-1980s) India is now seeking independence designated as “strategic autonomy”. It seeks to establish relations based on its national interest on a case-by-case basis. It is buying arms from Russia as well as the US. It maintains a political standoff vis-a-vis China but puts no barriers on bilateral trade which has crossed US$ 125 billion. It is telling Russia to find a diplomatic way out of the Ukraine crisis while abstaining from US-sponsored resolutions against Russia at the UN.Indian diplomatic officials at the UN, reiterated New Delhi’s position in favor of peace, diplomacy and dialogue.

India’s position, she explained, “has been clear and consistent from the very beginning of this conflict. The global order is anchored in the principles of the UN charter, international law, and respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states. Escalation of rhetoric or tension is in no one’s interest. It is important that pathways are found for a return to the negotiating table. But Keeping in view the totality of the situation, India decided to abstain on the resolution.”

This was disappointing to the US, but should not have come as a surprise. Jaishankar has been sending enough signals for a long time that India will not toe the US line like a camp follower or a faithful. He had taken on the US liberal Establishment even on the human rights situation in India. Brushing the violations under the carpet he said that India has its own concerns about the human rights situation in the US. He told a press conference in April 2022, Llook, people are entitled to have views about us. But we are also equally entitled to have views about their views and about the interests, and the lobbies and the vote banks which drive that.

So, whenever there is a discussion, I can tell you that we will not be reticent about speaking out.”More recently, an Indian company was sanctioned by the US for trading in Iranian petroleum products with China violating US sanctions against Iran. On September 29, the US Treasury listed the sanctioned companies which included the Mumbai-based Indian firm, Tibalaji Petrochem Private Limited.

Earlier in September, the US agreed to give Pakistan spare parts and services worth US$ 460 million for its F-16s fighters (which will be used only against India). On September 27, after a meeting between Secretary of State Blinken and Pakistan Foreign Minister, Bilawal Bhutto, State Department spokesman Ned Price made it clear that India cannot dictate to the US on US-Pakistan ties. This comes as a surprise move, the United States reversed the decision taken by the previous Donald Trump government. In 2018, Donald Trump had stopped all defence and security assistance to Pakistan alleging that Islamabad was not a partner in its fight against terrorism. Though India is considered as an important ally by the United States to contain China in this region, this sudden change of heart has brought many questions to the forefront. According to media reports, the upcoming upgrade will give a big boost to the ageing PAF F-16’s efficiency and also provide relief to PAF from the component shortage. Overall, this would enhance the operational ability of the Pakistan Air Force to a great extent. On the other hand, the Indian Air Force is struggling with its dwindling number of fighter squadrons and the situation looks quite precarious amidst such developments in the neighbourhood.

Since the United States is finding India to be a recalcitrant partner, given New Delhi’s penchant for “strategic autonomy”, Washington has reverted to its old policy of cultivating Pakistan, India’s rival in South Asia. In the past, Pakistan had its uses for the US, and it could be useful now, but the South Asian nation will pose new challenges to the US that stem from its domestic situation as well as its international links. Pakistan is politically unstable and volatile, and is a hotbed of toxic religious schisms and extremism.

Its close links with China, manifested in the US$ 62 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), will make it difficult for the US to ride roughshod over it. China has now supplanted the US as Pakistan’s chief external partner, though in bilateral trade, at US$ 5 billion, the US is number one. It is for these reasons that commentators on US-Pakistan relations have been advising Washington to reassess old ways and search for new approaches taking into account the changed ground realities. Pakistan and the US have been having close military relations since the Cold War when Pakistan was part of the anti-Soviet, US-led pacts like CENTO and SEATO. The US roped Pakistan into its post-9/11 ‘War or Terror’.

But the two sides did not see eye to eye on the way the war was conducted. Pakistan’s plea that the war had made Pakistan a victim was ignored by the US which accused Pakistan of clandestinely supporting the Taliban and Al Qaida chief Osama bin Laden while taking millions of dollars from the US for the war against them. But at the same time, the Yanks have also been in their traditional shape and size of a ‘not a permanent friend’, following the POTUS remarks on Islamabad. US President Joe Biden, while speaking at the Democratic congressional campaign committee reception in Los Angeles on Saturday, described Pakistan as “one of the most dangerous nations” with holds “nuclear weapons without any cohesion.”

As the world’s oldest and largest democracies, respectively, the U.S. and India share historic ties. India is a founding member of the “Community of Democracies”—a prominent endeavour of the United States on promotion of democracy. However, the India rejected the suggestion of the USA about setting up a Centre for Asian Democracy. India-US relations got strategic content in the early 1960s. The rise of the People’s Republic of China worried the policymakers in Washington. Chinese assertion in Tibet, its role in the Korean War and other such acts concerned Washington.

As the relations between India and China were heated during the late fifties, the Americans found a golden opportunity to take advantage of this situation to promote India as a counterweight to China. But any unidimensional alliance is bound to be short-lived and this alliance was no exception to this general rule. As China ceased to be a headache for the American policymakers by the late sixties, this unidimensional alliance disappeared into thin air.

After the end of the Cold War, Indian and American interests converged in a number of areas, including counter-terrorism, promotion of democracy, counter-proliferation, freedom of navigation in the Indian Ocean, and the balance of power in Asia. In October 2020, US-India signed a military agreement on sharing sensitive satellite data. The Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement, or BECA, allows US’s strategic partners to access a range of sensitive geospatial and aeronautical data which is useful for military actions. In December 2020, US claimed that the ties between the two nations will continue and grow stronger in 2021, as the Biden administration will prioritize their trade deals for a prospering economic relationship.

The US may be having short and long-term plans. At the moment, Washington’s aim is to convey to New Delhi that it can hit where it hurts the most. Although India has been having a long-standing dispute with China over the border, and a geopolitical rivalry has emerged, it is Pakistan that remains the bee in the Indian bonnet.

The writer is an internee Dentist in Sangli Dist. Of Maharashtra

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