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'We don't need the Indians as much as they think we do'

April 20, 2012 20:27 IST

Leading think tanks put a question mark on the India-US strategic partnership. Aziz Haniffa reports

This concludes the four-part series.

Part I: India not oversold, but over-hyped: America Inc

Part II: 'Passivity won't work for India on this trajectory'

Part III: 'US-India relationship has indeed been oversold'

In perhaps one of the most critical and acerbic appraisals in recent times of the United States-India relationship, a senior policy analyst at the influential Heritage Foundation -- the leading Washington, DC conservative think tank, which has had close links with the GOP hierarchy -- implied that India was taking the US for a ride.

Walter Lohman, director, Asian Studies Center, Heritage Foundation, who was a panelist at a conference titled 'Is the US-India Relationship Oversold?,' also implied that Washington was deluding itself in believing it had a strategic partnership with New Delhi.

At the conference hosted by the neo-conservative American Enterprise Institute, he said he too had "bought into the big strategic picture."

"Conceptually, I couldn't agree more with the idea of a strategic partnership, the idea of two major powers -- one a global superpower, the other a regional superpower -- coming together to work together on shared interests," he said.

"I am not sure that at this point that the Indians agree with that big strategic picture. We are fooling ourselves that all these mutual interests add up to some agreement on the big strategic picture."

Lohman, an erstwhile staffer to Senator Jesse Helms, the late ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and a former policy aide to Senator John McCain complained, "We have all of these things that we kind of agree on, then we get together and we talk to them about strategic interests we have, but all that is just talk…  We don't want to admit that Indians are just talking to us and that it's not really reflected in any of their actions."

"What our overlapping interests have really boiled down to operationally really, is in India's development -- its military, economic, and its greater integration into regional, global, economic and security architecture…" he said.

"Moving beyond what's good for India, moving beyond talk and a strategic relationship and them doing something for us, they know they don't have to because out interest is in developing India regardless of what they are able to do for us," he said.

He added, "Whether the Indians, for instance, meet their obligations in ratifying the Convention on Supplementary Compensation, or otherwise reconciling their nuclear liability legislation to the needs of US industry, it really doesn't concern them or with regard to our cooperation on the Security Council."

Thus, Lohman said, it would be naïve for the US to have any expectation of India's support for the US-led efforts to isolate Iran.

"There is a general American naïveté in all of this. We think that we can paint a big strategic picture for India and thereby compel their cooperation on a number of issues that are important to us, things that we think are in our mutual interests," he said.

"I maintain that the Indians approach all these issues -- MMRCA (medium multi-role combat aircraft), the nuclear liability issue, it's GA (General Assembly)-membership votes in the United Nations, etc -- as individual transactions. They determine what's in their interest at any given time… and the big theoretical agreement or discussion on big strategy counts for zero," he said.

India, the US and the UN

Lohman said he thought it was "crazy" to support India's permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

"This is a country that has voted against the US -- in 2010 -- and voted against the US 44 times out of 71. Just for a bit of perspective, their voting record vis-à-vis the US is 0.4 percent better than Cuba. Cuba actually supported us one more time than India did in 2010," he said.

"We certainly shouldn't have supported their permanent seat before they took their non-permanent seat, so we could see how it went. Do we really want India on the Security Council if there is a risk it will play a neutral role -- Non-Aligned Movement role -- in the perennial struggles between the US, France and the United Kingdom on the one side, and Russians and the Chinese on the other? Or worse, that it tries to balance the US influence in the Security Council?" he said.

Nuclear issue

Lohman said while he supports India's membership in the four non-proliferation groups that President Barack Obama highlighted during his India trip, Washington should not do so "until India meets its obligations under current agreements, for instance, the international stance on nuclear liability to ratify the CSC."

"The Indian failure to create an environment for investment for the US nuclear sector is a breach of faith," he said.

"How can we move forward on new commitments when they haven't met that one yet?"

He said, "The big one really is Iran's nuclear programme at this point. (If India) can't support an effort to bring maximum pressure to bear on Iran to scrap its nuclear programme, I don't see what it can possibly support. That programme is a threat to the United States, its allies and to the very existence of the State of Israel."

Though Lohman said he wasn't sure of the right trade-off, he also said, "Our relationship with them is bound by what they are able to do on Iran. And, more importantly, the utility of the relationship to them -- what kind of opportunity they get to train with American forces, what kind of access they get to American technology, other commitments, are contingent on us finding some way to work through our differences with Iran."

He added, "I do know one thing -- I know that a transaction is the only way that we are going to get some agreement with the Indians on Iran."

The China face-off

Lohman felt the US does not need India to leverage the Chinese.

"The Indians should know that we have many ways of dealing with the Chinese -- our alliances, our forward-deployed military, are chief among them. But we also have a lot of diplomatic channels with the Chinese," he said.

"We can talk to the Chinese directly about our issues. We don't really need the Indians as much as they may think that we need them and as much as we sometimes lead them to believe that we need them," he said.

He asked, "How do we know India won't take its strength in 20 years and be a problem for us? We are betting somewhere on a strategic relationship, we are betting somewhere on a strategic convergence, and unless we start seeing those convergences, it may be a bad bet."

Lohman, during the several interactions and discussions that followed, kept coming back to his contention that the US was not leveraging the relationship in its favour.

"What we are not approaching correctly is that the US has the most of the leverage in this relationship," he said.

"The Indians need us. It doesn't surprise me at all that the Indians are making lots of visits here. They need us. We are the only country in the world that can escort them into this international order. We were the only country in the world that could get them the waiver in the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Not only were we the only one that could do it, we were the only one willing to do it."

Thus, he said, it was inexplicable why the US wasn't using that leverage more often and setting the rules "if India wants to be part of the international organisations, the international architecture."

When some of the other panelists did not emphasise sufficiently the importance of the nuclear deal still being in limbo, Lohman said, "That was a huge thing that we did for India -- it was much more in their interest than it was in our interest."

He recalled that he had recently asked an Indian diplomat friend of what India had done differently over the last four years than it would have done without the relationship with the US.

"It completely stumped him," he said. 'He could not think of one thing they've done differently in the last four years because of the relationship with the US while the US has done a lot -- the NSG being the number one thing. And, the Indians can't even deliver on the one transaction that is most specifically associated with that deal," he concluded.

Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC