The South Asia Channel

Strategic Passing: Why India Will Not Be Pakistan 2.0 in U.S. Asia Policy

Despite turning page for a new chapter in U.S.-India ties, New Delhi will not replace Islamabad as Washington's willing and subservient ally in an increasingly complex world. Here's why.

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Key observers in New Delhi and Washington agree that President Obama’s visit to India in January has monumental significance for the future direction of U.S.-Indian relations. While it is being hailed as a “new chapter” in U.S.-Indian relations, the current dynamic between the two countries is not without its critics. Predictably, the left-leaning parties in India spewed vitriolics about Obama’s visit, thanks to their consistent opposition to American policies. Some within the opposition Congress Party have called this a “desperate move” to distract attention from the assembly polls. Others have made fateful claims that India will become another Pakistan especially with the current U.S.-Russian tensions and the fears of another possible Cold War. The argument goes that with U.S.-Pakistan relations becoming increasingly difficult, with seemingly unfinished business still left in a troubled Afghanistan, and a militarily resurging China, India will take Pakistan’s role as a willing ally of Washington — warts and all — in an increasingly complex world. In the process, it might become as disrupted as its neighbor. While this viewpoint is immersed in heavy nostalgia of the nonalignment era, it is both pessimistic and faulty.

India will not become Pakistan 2.0 and here is why.

First, strategic proximity to the United States is not equivalent to subservience. Even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi is forging closer ties with Washington, he is not budging from New Delhi’s core positions on a climate change agreement or the Nuclear Liability Bill. Even when an insurance pool of $250 million is being offered to nuclear suppliers, there seems to be very little possibility of scrapping the Liability Bill entirely for U.S. suppliers. Moreover, while India is extensively increasing its defense purchases from the United States, it is expected to begin co-development of a series of hardware articles in keeping with Modi’s “Make in India” campaign. Unlike the Cold War years, when Washington and New Delhi disputed over technology transfers, the co-making projects will promote technological cooperation between the two countries like never before. In other words, if the co-development projects materialize, then India will not be a mere defense importer of the United States.

Secondly, the fragility of the Pakistani state over time is more culpable for its presently dire situation than its alliance with the United States. The collusion of the Pakistani military with some sections of the Taliban during the U.S.-led Global War on Terror has made the country today both a hotbed and tragic victim of Islamist extremism. Several of Washington’s key allies outside of NATO are recognized democracies — notably Israel, South Korea, Japan and Australia — with whom U.S. ties have been mostly stable and fruitful. India is not only the largest democracy in the world but it also has one of the fastest growing economies in the world. As a result, bilateral relations between the two countries are multi-faceted with defense ties being one of the many key aspects of the relationship, unlike in the Pakistani case.

Thirdly, while the U.S.-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific is a noteworthy effort that makes India a key stakeholder in the Obama administration’s Asian pivot to counterbalance China’s rising geopolitical ambitions in the region, it is not a novel U.S. strategy. Even when Pakistan was a key U.S. Cold War ally, until at least the Sino-U.S. rapprochement, Washington expected India to become an Asian counterweight to the “Chicoms” — as Washington referred to the Chinese communists at that time — along with Japan. India’s unresponsiveness owing to its nonaligned policy together with Washington’s inattention to New Delhi estranged the democracies throughout much of the Cold War. Moreover, it was easier for the United States to inject military and economic aid to Pakistan than to resolve disputes with India, especially given the contrasting Cold War strategic mindsets in Washington and New Delhi at the time. In other words, the two countries finally seem ready and willing to jointly pursue their common geopolitical goals in Asia. These goals are independent of U.S.-Pakistan relations since the Asia-Pacific does not constitute Islamabad’s sphere of influence.

Modi’s action-oriented approach that was evident in his recent appointment of S. Jaishankar as the Indian foreign secretary, who had played a key role in the 2008 U.S.-India civilian nuclear agreement, demonstrates that he is keen to make bilateral relations a priority of Indian foreign policy. Yet again, international politics is not a zero-sum game. It is not supposed to be. While last year Washington replaced Russia as India’s largest defense supplier, India still continues to receive a substantial part of its military hardware from Russia and will continue to do so in the coming years. Unfortunately, the United States may have to make accommodations for the Indo-Russian Cold War legacy. Such accommodation however will not be without its potential strategic utility.

At a time when U.S.-Russian relations are highly strained and a deal on Iran’s nuclear program is largely uncertain, Washington may stand to benefit from its newfound bonhomie with New Delhi, which has historically been on good terms. Much will depend on how the Modi government is able to bolster its words through actions, on the one hand, and how much the Obama administration is able de-hyphenate in its engagement with India on the other.


Jayita Sarkar is a Stanton Nuclear Security Postdoctoral Fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs of Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

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