Will India Ever Really Be America’s Partner?

Ten big things Washington is still waiting on from New Delhi.

Secretary of Defense Panetta told an Indian audience last week that “defense cooperation with India is a linchpin” of U.S. efforts to “rebalance” its defense presence in the Asia-Pacific. At a time when most American allies are plagued by shrinking economies, aging workforces, and contracting militaries, India stands out as a potential “net security provider” in Asia. Even though the Indian economy has hit a rough patch in the last few months, overall it is expanding — along with the country’s population and military. The problem is that India does not necessarily share the U.S. vision of an ever-closer strategic relationship. Distant for much of the Cold War, the U.S. and Indian defense establishments began intermittent flirtation in the 1990s punctuated by a three-year halt after India’s 1998 nuclear tests. In 2001, the United States and India resumed defense cooperation. But after a decade of hard work, Washington still wants New Delhi to do more. Here are the top ten things on Washington’s wish list.

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Be ready for a conflict with China

Much strategic discussion in Washington today focuses on how India might help the United States in the event of a Sino-U.S. conflict. But India has its own troubled history in past fights with China. On November 19, 1962, in the latter days of the Sino-Indian war, Jawaharlal Nehru wrote two desperate letters to John F. Kennedy, begging for “assistance if the Chinese are to be prevented from taking over the whole of Eastern India.” Fortunately, China declared a ceasefire soon after Nehru’s request. But the lesson is that if either capital cares about how the other might fare in a future conflict with China, they need to start preparing today. The United States also has an interest in a modern Indian military because it compels China to split its forces between the interior west and its eastern seaboard.

Concern over China is one reason the United States has pushed for more joint military exercises, more training, more defense sales, and more technology cooperation. Alas, India has occasionally restricted its military and diplomatic engagement with the United States for fear of offending Chinese sensitivities, most notably by curtailing multilateral exercises involving the United States after large naval maneuvers in 2007 aroused Chinese concerns. India fears that the United States will do just enough to provoke China but not enough to defend India if the going gets tough.

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Fight fires in the Indian Ocean

The United States and India signed a maritime security framework in 2006, and naval cooperation is frequently given priority in official statements. In New Delhi, Panetta described the U.S. vision of “a peaceful Indian Ocean region supported by growing Indian capabilities.” The United States will continue to operate in the region, but it has sought a more active Indian role — in efforts like anti-piracy operations off the Horn of Africa. Unfortunately, Indian hesitance to work in coalitions, particularly those that might include Pakistan, has limited India’s contributions. We want India to do more in the Indian Ocean region so we can do less — focusing our regional attentions instead on the Middle East and East Asia — and we want to do more with India so we can do fewer things alone. But so far India is playing only a modest role in its own backyard.


Help with the transition in Afghanistan

Washington has long welcomed India’s sizeable civilian and economic aid program in Afghanistan. India is by far the most significant regional donor, having pledged over $2 billion towards reconstruction and development to date. India’s commitment is unique both in terms of its scale, and because it represents the only “whole-of-government” approach that India has ever taken in its outreach with another state, with Indian diplomats, aid workers, road engineers, and military officers working to achieve Indian goals. Historically, Washington and its NATO partners have been wary of Indian involvement in the Afghan security sector, concerned that Pakistan’s countervailing reaction would more than outweigh any benefit generated by India’s help.

In the last month, that calculation has apparently changed, with Secretary Panetta asking publicly for Indian “help for Afghanistan’s security forces” last week. Although Washington does not want to give the appearance that India will be left holding the Afghan “bag,” it apparently has concluded that India is one of the last remaining partners with the capacity and will to expend real resources on the Afghanistan mission. Pakistan’s sensitivities simply do not mean as much as they used to, and Afghanistan may be the one problem where India has wanted to do more and the United States has wanted India to do less.


Pressure Iran

The United States wants New Delhi to pressure Iran into abandoning the most dangerous aspects of its nuclear program. But, simply put, India needs Iran — for transit into Afghanistan and Central Asia, and, most importantly, for energy to feed the growing Indian economy. As a result, India has been hesitant to censure Iran internationally, and India’s oil imports provide an economic lifeline to the increasingly isolated Tehran government. The United States wants to ensure that India is not a safe harbor from the storm of international pressure directed at Tehran, but New Delhi is deeply skeptical that the United States can roll back Tehran’s nuclear program. The United States will not make its defense relationship with India contingent on New Delhi’s help with Iran, but American officials will continue to press the point and the issue will remain a major irritant in the relationship until India is convinced that U.S. strategy toward Iran is in India’s interests.


Build a better bureaucracy

India may have the ambitions of a great power, but it has the foreign policy establishment of a developing country. According to Indian official figures, India has a mere 600 foreign service officers to staff 162 embassies and consulates — that’s less than one-tenth the personnel of the U.S. State Department. The situation is even worse for India’s military, which has few defense attaches or liaison officers abroad. Nearly every aspect of U.S.-India cooperation has to funnel through a single official. At the Indian Ministry of Defense, one official — the Joint Secretary for Planning and International Cooperation — is responsible for coordinating India’s global defense engagement. There are probably ten times as many officials in Washington working on India than there are Indian officials in New Delhi working on the United States.

Washington is a quiet cheerleader for improving and expanding India’s national security bureaucracy. Not only does India’s tiny bureaucracy act as a bottleneck on bilateral cooperation with the United States, it greatly reduces India’s global influence. Expanding the bureaucracy will remove a brake on enhanced cooperation with the United States, and help India have a meaningful voice in more areas of the globe. For example, it is difficult to imagine how India could maintain an informed, permanent presence on the United Nations Security Council without a foreign service two or three times as large as it presently is.


Play a role in Southeast Asia

The United States has lobbied for and encouraged Indian involvement in the alphabet soup of Asian regional forums, as well as supporting closer Indian cooperation with ASEAN states. Indian engagement helps ASEAN members resist Chinese pressure and gives both India and China an incentive to build norms for responsible behavior in the Asia-Pacific. President Obama told the Indian parliament in November 2010, “Like your neighbors in Southeast Asia, we want India to not only ‘look East,’ we want India to ‘engage East.'” That goal requires more Indian diplomatic personnel in the region, more Indian military exercises with Southeast Asian partners, and enhanced U.S.-Indian dialogue about common concerns in Asia. India and the United States have begun regular discussions on Asia, but India’s ability to engage with its eastern neighbors remains very limited.


Reform the procurement process

The United States places great emphasis on selling weapons to India, with defense sales featured prominently in White House press releases accompanying President Obama’s 2010 visit. Sales of American military equipment are a way to support jobs at home and to create economies of scale for manufacturers that can then sell weapons to the Pentagon more cheaply. American officials also believe that our hardware will make the Indian military more capable, and it is easier for our forces to conduct joint training, exercises, and operations if U.S. and Indian troops use the same stuff.

The problem is that India’s defense procurement process is arbitrary, cumbersome, and corrupt. Other foreign defense suppliers may occasionally resort to greasing the wheels of India’s bureaucracy with graft, but the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act prevents American firms from playing that game. U.S. companies have become so frustrated with Indian procurement policy that they are threatening loudly to cease competing for contracts. They believe that Indian requirements for so-called defense offsets and technology transfers are so costly and unrealistic that they make even sure-fire bids uneconomical. India understandably wants to extract as much technology as possible through defense imports in order to build up indigenous industry. But India may have less purchasing power than it suspects.


Prepare for the worst with Pakistan

Despite Secretary Panetta’s recent complaint that the United States was “reaching the limits of our patience” with Pakistan, the United States and Pakistan will likely remain “frenemies” for some time. Safe havens for Afghan militants are deadly for U.S. troops but by and large do not threaten the U.S. homeland. By contrast, Pakistani state failure would be catastrophic, and any response would involve a huge role for India, which would have to contend with thousands if not millions of refugees and to prevent the leakage of nuclear or other dangerous material into its territory.

Unfortunately, Indian officials believe that U.S. policies toward Pakistan have been naïve, bolstering a military-dominated regime inimical to its interests. Given decades of U.S. misjudgment on Pakistan in Indian eyes, they are understandably doubtful of the benefits of discussing Pakistan’s future. Both Indian and U.S. military officers and civilian officials will have to trust one another much more than they do today if they hope to confront worst-case Pakistan scenarios. That confidence will only come from practice in exercises, familiarity through shared training, and common experiences in combined humanitarian and other operations. But it has often been difficult to find such opportunities.

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Sign cooperation agreements

The United States is a government run by lawyers, where signed agreements are necessary to permit most types of cooperation. India is a country uncomfortable with signed agreements, particularly those that come with any perceived infringements on Indian sovereignty. The United States believes in cookie-cutter solutions, while India believes it is a unique power that deserves special treatment. Indian civilian officials have also concluded that their military can get by without whatever benefits might come from easier logistics support from the United States, or better maps, or better communications equipment. The result is that a variety of draft defense agreements sit un-negotiated and unsigned. Perhaps the biggest misconceptions surround the proposed Logistics Support Agreement, which is an accounting arrangement that would allow the U.S. and Indian militaries to exchange goods in exercises or operations. Water could be traded for fuel, spare parts could be exchanged, and if the value of such goods was not precisely equal, then the militaries could bill one another for the difference. Somehow India has come to see this run-of-the-mill agreement — which the United States has signed with more than 75 other countries — as giving the United States basing rights in India, something it most certainly would not. Sometimes perceptions drive reality, however, and in this case Indian politicians have chosen to hit the brakes.

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Conduct more exercises

The U.S. military wants to conduct more exercises, more frequently, in more complicated ways with its Indian counterparts, but it is being stopped by an Indian civilian government that wants to manage the pace of cooperation, even if it means fewer opportunities for the Indian military to share best practices with the world’s leading power. In part a function of a civilian desire to micromanage Indian armed forces and in part to keep India’s international profile balanced, the result has been fewer U.S.-India exercises than both militaries desire. Such exercises not only hone skills used every day, but they also prepare both militaries for cooperating in any future large-scale contingency. To return to the beginning of this list, if India and the United States face a major challenge in the future, routine cooperation today provides a foundation for a joint response at that time. Why is the United States pushing so hard for so many little routine things with India, even in the face of apparent disinterest by some Indian politicians and officials? Because in the future, the United States and India may be forced to work on some very big problems together, a task made much easier by preparation today.


<p> Christopher Clary is a Ph.D. candidate in political acience and affiliate of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. From 2006 to 2009, he was country director for India in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy. These are his personal views only. </p>