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'Imagine the signal India would send if it joined the coalition to confront ISIS'

By Aziz Haniffa/
Last updated on: September 10, 2014 11:21 IST
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'The US wants Modi to succeed because we want India to succeed. For our part, when India thinks of its partners in the world, we want it to think of the US first. That means positioning our country as the preferred provider of the key inputs that can help to propel India's rise.'

'The meeting this month between Modi and Obama is, and must be, an opportunity for true strategic dialogue -- not a scripted exchange of talking points, but an open discussion of the big questions. What kind of world do we want to live in? What are our true priorities? And most importantly, why does this partnership still matter?'

US Senator John McCain outlines the contours of the desired India-US relationship. Aziz Haniffa/ reports from Washington, DC.

ISIS terrorists on the march. Photograph: ReutersUnited States Senator John McCain believes the envisaged US-India strategic partnership has reached a key inflection point and hopes Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to the United States and summit with President Barack Obama at the White House on September 29-30 will tackle the malaise that has set in bilateral ties in recent years.

McCain, who visited New Delhi in July, was the first Senator to meet Modi.

Speaking at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC on Tuesday, September 9, he said, "I was very pleased when Carnegie invited me back to this important institution to speak about India, the US, and our strategic partnership. The last time I had that opportunity was nearly four years ago, on the eve of President Obama's trip to India."

Image: ISIS terrorists on the march. Photograph: Reuters.

"Much has happened in that time -- some good, some not so good -- and I believe we have reached a key inflection point in this vital relationship," McCain added

"The election of Modi has transformational potential -- for India and our partnership. Indians are hungry for bold change, and they gave a once-in-a-generation mandate to a leader who is eager to deliver it," the Senator, who lost the 2008 US presidential election to Obama, said, and predicted, "This change will likely extend to India's foreign policy, including its relationship with the US."

McCain said his impression following his meeting with Modi had convinced him that the Indian prime minister, "sees a strategic partnership with America as integral to his domestic goal of revitalising India, economically and geopolitically -- and that India's revitalisation can, in turn, help to re-invigorate our partnership."

"The prime minister and I agreed that this goal is much needed, because recently, our partnership has not lived up to its potential," he added.

"Too often, our relationship has felt like a laundry list of initiatives," McCain bemoaned, "some quite worthy, that amounts to no more than the sum of its parts. Too often, we have been overly driven by domestic politics and overly focused on extracting concessions from one another, rather than investing in one another's success and defining priorities that can bring clarity and common purpose to our actions."

"In short, our strategic relationship has unfortunately devolved recently into a transactional one."

Image: Prime Minister Narendra Modi meets US Senator John McCain in New Delhi, July 2014.

"My sense is that Modi wants India to do its part to change this -- and that he wants India and the US to lift our sights once again, to think bigger and do bigger things together," McCain reiterated. "I fully agree. And I see the prime minister's visit to the US this month as an opportunity to renew our partnership and regain a proper strategic focus."

"To re-energise our strategic partnership," McCain argued, "we first need to recall why we embarked on this endeavour in the first place. It was not for run-of-the-mill reasons. We always had grander ambitions: We affirmed that India and the US, two democratic great powers, can and should lead the 21st century in sustaining a liberal, rules-based international order, supported by a favorable balance of power."

"This world order -- which the US has played an exceptional role in building, defending, and strengthening since World War II -- has contributed to the greatest ever expansion of free societies, free markets, free trade, free commons, and global security," the Senator, who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam during the US war in that country for over six years, said.

"The benefits of this international order for India and the US are difficult to overstate," McCain asserted. "At the same time, the global distribution of power is shifting substantially, and we recognise that, while US leadership remains indispensable, we increasingly need willing and capable partners that share our interests and values to serve as fellow shareholders in the maintenance of a rules-based international order."

"This will, of course, include traditional US allies, but more than ever, we look to a democratic great power such as India."

"This is because India and the US share not only strategic interests, but values of individual liberty, democracy, critical thinking, social mobility, and entrepreneurialism. These shared values are ultimately what give us confidence that India's continued rise as a democratic great power will be peaceful, and that it can advance critical US national interests. That is why, contrary to the old dictates of realpolitik, we seek not to curb the rise of India, but to catalyse it," the Senator declared.

"Our strategic partnership began with closer cooperation between a Democratic administration in Washington and a Bharatiya Janata Party-led government in New Delhi," McCain recalled. "It deepened dramatically during the last decade under a Republican administration and a Congress-led government. It reached historic heights with the conclusion of our civil nuclear agreement -- thanks to the bold leadership of former president George W Bush and former prime minister Manmohan Singh."

"And now it has a historic opportunity for renewal and growth under a Democratic president and a BJP prime minister," he said, reminding the audience, "It is worth recalling this original sense of purpose in our partnership, because I fear we have lost much it in recent years. And there is blame on both sides."

"In Washington," McCain said, "there is a sense that too often the relationship has not met our admittedly high expectations. From trade disputes to setbacks in our civil nuclear agreement, there have been impediments and disappointments -- all of which were compounded by the past several years of economic slowdown and political gridlock in Delhi."

President Barack Obama with then prime minister Manmohan Singh in Parliament, November 2010. Photograph: Jim Young/ReutersHailing Modi's election as an opportunity to resurrect US-India relations to the highest levels, he said, "Though challenges of bureaucracy, capacity, and at times ideology will persist, this is a chance for India to rebuild its confidence and grow more ambitious and strategic in its relationship with the US."

Image: President Barack Obama with then prime minister Manmohan Singh in Parliament, November 2010. Photograph: Jim Young/Reuters.

"However, this depends on India's confidence that a partnership with America is worth investing in. And my sense is that some in India are starting to have doubts," the Senator felt.

"Many Indians I have met are concerned that the US seems distracted and unreliable, especially in its relations with India," McCain noted. "They are concerned that President Obama's declared 'pivot to Asia' seems to be more rhetoric than reality, in large part due to devastating cuts to US defence capabilities under sequestration. They are concerned that US disengagement from the Middle East has created a vacuum that extremism and terrorism are filling."

"They are concerned by perceptions of US weakness in the face of Russian aggression and Chinese provocation. And most of all, they are concerned by Obama's plan to withdraw from Afghanistan by 2017, which Indians believe will foster disorder and direct threats to India."

"Obviously, I am sympathetic to these concerns, which are shared by many other US partners. But I recount this not to score partisan points, but because we must recognise that policies and actions such as these are imposing costs on India, and potentially reducing the value of a partnership with America in Indian eyes."

Reinforcing this contention by recent remarks by former foreign secretary Shyam Saran, McCain said Saran had "suggested that the post Second World War international order, created and dominated by the US and its Western allies, is being steadily and relentlessly dismantled."

"He (Saran) concluded that the value of the US role in Asia has 'diminished.' That is a serious charge from a longstanding proponent of our partnership and the head of India's National Security Council Advisory Board," McCain pointed out.

The Senator offered two broad suggestions in order to address the strategic focus of the US-India partnership, saying, "First, India and the US need to think more ambitiously about how we can invest in each other and improve our capacity to work together. As I have said before, the US wants Modi to succeed because we want India to succeed. For our part, when India thinks of its partners in the world, we want it to think of the US first. That means positioning our country as the preferred provider of the key inputs that can help to propel India's rise."

"Our government cannot direct these private activities, as others can; but US companies and capital are always looking for opportunities," McCain acknowledged, "and they will go where they find transparent governance, effective institutions, rule of law, and a favourable regulatory environment."

"In this way, Modi's domestic reform agenda can help to attract greater US trade and investment. And these US ventures can, in turn, reinforce the prime minister's domestic reform agenda."

"Our governments are currently negotiating a Bilateral Investment Treaty, which is worthwhile. But why not aim instead for a Free Trade Agreement? India and the US have, or are negotiating, FTAs with every other major global trading partner, so we are on course to discriminate only against one another. How does that make sense? Our goal should be to produce a roadmap for concluding an FTA and to start negotiating it," he said.

"We should be India's preferred partner on defence issues as well. Our militaries must work more closely to sustain a favourable balance of power in key parts of the world," McCain asserted. "It means America being willing to transfer technology to India that can make its defence acquisitions more effective, and India being able to protect these capabilities as US law requires."

"It also means arms sales, but more than that, it should mean joint development and production of leading-edge military systems. Anti-tank missiles, as envisioned in the Defence Trade and Technology Initiative, would be a good start," the Senator said.

When Modi and Obama meet, McCain hoped, "They lay out more ambitious joint ventures, such as shipbuilding and maritime capabilities, even aircraft carriers."

"In these ways, we can support India's rise as a fast-growing, innovative economy, a flourishing society, a modern military, and a more influential global actor -- all of which can benefit us," McCain said, and added, "What should follow, then, is an ambitious strategic agenda to shore up a rules-based international order that supports our common security and prosperity. This will require us to prioritise three areas of the world."

"First, South Asia, which Modi has clearly made a top priority. He seems to recognise, correctly, that India's global ambitions can be hindered if fires keep breaking out close to home. This is another reason why a secure South Asia is in our interest, and why India and the US must work together to achieve it."

"Most immediately, we should increase our counter-terrorism cooperation and intelligence sharing. But ultimately, enduring security in South Asia depends on civilian-led democracy and an open regional trading order. These values create an alignment of interests among peoples across the region. Strengthening these supporters of a rules-based international order is the best way to weaken our opponents, especially violent extremists and their persistent sponsors in Pakistan," he added.

"Another strategic priority should be the Middle East, where threats to our security, our interests, and our values have never been greater. Indeed, Al Qaeda's recent establishment of an affiliate in India is perhaps the clearest reminder of the vital stake that our nations have in a stable Middle East," McCain said.

"This growing threat seems to be sparking an evolution of thinking in New Delhi," McCain felt, "which can and should be the basis of expanded cooperation -- diplomatic, economic, and military. Imagine the signal India would send if it joined the emerging international coalition to confront the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria."

"A final strategic priority is East Asia and the Pacific, where the key challenge to a liberal, rules-based international order comes more from strong States and growing geopolitical rivalries than weak States and non-State actors, as in the Middle East," he said.

"The idea that Asia's future will be determined by the rise of any one country is wrong," McCain said. "Across this vast region, more people live under democracy than any other form of government. And more States, democratic or otherwise, increasingly see the value of a rules-based international order and the need to play a greater role in sustaining it."

"For this reason, we see increasing strategic cooperation of every kind in the Asia-Pacific region between the US and its treaty allies, especially Japan and Australia, but also between these countries and emerging powers such as Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam, and of course, India. Indeed, the growing partnership between India and Japan is perhaps most encouraging," the Senatpr felt.

"Whether it is steps our countries can take to enhance our influence, or to project our influence together, the meeting this month between Modi and President Obama is, and must be, an opportunity for true strategic dialogue -- not a scripted exchange of talking points," McCain argued, "but an open discussion of the big questions."

"What kind of world do we want to live in? What are our true priorities amid a large bilateral agenda? And most importantly, why does this partnership still matter?"

US Secretary of State John Kerry speaks on the US-India strategic partnership in New Delhi. Photograph: Ahmad Masood/Reuters"Now, as always, there will be sceptics on both sides," he acknowledged. "There will be Americans who tell their president that this whole strategic partnership is overhyped, that India will never really get its act together, and that it cannot be trusted to cooperate with us in a meaningful way. I'm sure there will also be Indians who tell their prime minister that drawing closer to the US is a net liability, that America is in decline, and that it is increasingly unable and unwilling to exert resolute global leadership."

Image: US Secretary of State John Kerry speaks on the US-India strategic partnership in New Delhi. Photograph: Ahmad Masood/Reuters.

McCain felt it was imperative that "We need to refute these sceptics, because it would be disastrous for both countries if we fail to reach our full potential as strategic partners."

"For India, it would mean squandering perhaps the greatest external factor that can facilitate and accelerate its comprehensive rise to power. And for the US, it would mean missing an irreplaceable opportunity to shape the emergence of a global power that could lead the liberal international order together with us long into the 21st century," he warned.

"In other words, the stakes are high, and each country has to do its part if we are to succeed," he added.

"Both Modi and Obama must know that our relationship will continue to face short-term frustrations, and setbacks, and disappointments," McCain pointed out. "But ultimately, this strategic partnership is about India and the US placing a long-term bet on one another -- a bet that each of us should be confident can offer a big return."

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Aziz Haniffa/ in Washington, DC