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The Bandwagoning-Balancing Game: Contradictions of the India-US Partnership

Yogesh Joshi is a research scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
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  • August 05, 2011

    In a world where US primacy will remain a distinctive feature for a considerable time to come, India will require American global leadership to realise its own national interests.

    The last decade saw the world’s largest and strongest democracies – India and USA – getting closer after a tumultuous period of bilateral relationship during the Cold War. The bonhomie between the two countries started with the dialogue between Jaswant Singh and Strobe Talbot during the Clinton administration. However, it was the Presidency of George W. Bush that saw the relationship blooming to its fullest; President Bush was the one who called India and US as “natural partners”. Such has been the legacy of India-US ties during the Bush era that even President Obama has found it difficult to fit in the shoes of his predecessor. In fact, it is because of the momentum generated during the Bush regime that the new Democratic administration could not change the direction of the Indo-US strategic partnership.

    However, the continuing saga of US-India relationship is not without contradictions. These contradictions are most evident in India’s foreign policy vis-à-vis USA. On one hand India seems to use the USA’s global clout to its advantage. Whether it is the permanent seat for India of the United Nations Security Council or Indian membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), India has been constantly entreating the USA for its support. On the other hand, India is also trying to softly balance American hegemony by challenging America’s approach on democracy and human rights as well as ganging up with other rising powers to lobby for a multi-polar world. Therefore, leaving aside the rhetoric of US-India strategic partnership, it is important not to overlook the contradictions that beset India’s relations with the USA.

    Strategy of Bandwagoning

    During his visit to New Delhi last year, President Obama hailed the India-US partnership as “the most defining and indispensable relationship of 21st century”. It was also during this visit that the USA for the first time openly supported India’s bid for permanent membership in the United Nations Security Council. On India’s persistence, it also agreed to help India obtain the membership of four important instruments of the non-proliferation regime - the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the Missile Technology Control Regime, the Wassenaar Arrangement and the Australia Group. Finally, India also successfully lobbied for removal of technology restrictions on its space and defence establishments.
    Clearly, India’s relations with the USA are in tune with the phenomenon of “bandwagoning the powerful”. Rising powers often piggyback on strong states to smoothen their rise in the global order. The most crucial evidence of India’s bandwagoning strategy is the India-US Civilian Nuclear Cooperation Agreement of 2008. Having decided not to sign the Nuclear Non¬-Proliferation Treaty, for more than four decades India remained on the margins of the global nuclear order. It was President Bush who initiated the dialogue on bringing India back into the mainstream of international nuclear politics. And when push came to shove at the Nuclear Suppliers Group and International Atomic Energy Agency, the USA ensured India’s accommodation into the non¬-proliferation regime which it had so assiduously built during the Cold War. France and Russia – the so called other great powers – always wanted to do nuclear business with India, but it was only the USA that who could bring India out of its nuclear exile. The very reason why the nuclear deal was perceived as the cornerstone of a rising India was the fact that the USA, the world hegemon, had accepted India’s candidature in the great power club. Simply put, beyond the rising state’s power capabilities, the perception of its rise by other Great Powers, especially the hegemon, is what matters in global politics.

    The Balancing Game

    India’s foreign policy, vis-¬à-¬vis the USA, however, appears to be, to borrow a phrase from Robert Kaplan's Monsoon, an “ultimate paradox”. A number of recent incidents indicate that India is trying to softly balance America’s global hegemony while simultaneously bandwagoning with it. India, for instance, refused to vote in support of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 and thereby implicitly supported the murderous regime of Col. Gaddafi in Libya. Though its anxieties about Kashmir are obvious, it is far too apparent, given India’s stature and power capabilities, that external intervention in Kashmir is just not possible. When seen in combination with India’s decision to support Syria in its candidature for the United Nations Human Rights Council even in the light of serious human rights violations by the Assad regime, it is amply clear that India is uncomfortable with the American discourse on democracy and the promotion of democracy.

    India also vehemently supports the idea of a multi-polar world order, most evident in the proceedings of multilateral settings such as the BRICS. Interestingly, neither is India a pole in global politics since its power capabilities are limited, nor has there been any thorough appraisal in New Delhi of the consequences of multi-polarity on global stability and peace. India seems to have taken for granted the advantages of an anti-¬hegemonic alliance even though its own rise partially depends on America’s continued hegemony.
    Lastly, even after the personal exhortations of President Obama, India did not consider the bids of two US aviation giants for providing the Medium Multiple-Role Combat Aircraft to the Indian Air Force. Many prominent strategic analysts such as Ashley Tellis had called the successful fruition of such a deal, worth more than $10 billion, as the next important step in bilateral relations. The official response from the Indian side for the rejection of these bids has been that the aircraft offered by Lockheed Martin and Boeing fall short of the criteria set by the IAF and, therefore, on purely technical grounds the bids of these two companies was rejected.
    However, in all these foreign policy decisions of India, the attributes of a soft balancing strategy are quite evident. First, at least in principle, India does admit that the promotion of democracy is good for peace and stability. Its constant complaints about authoritarian governance in Pakistan and the role of the Pakistan military in fomenting trouble against India is a case in point. Further, India's peaceful rise on the global stage has been attributed to India's democratic credentials and India is gung-ho about it. Clearly, therefore, India’s uncooperative attitude on the issues of Libya and Syria is not based on principles but basically aims at balancing the influence of those states, especially the USA, which currently control the dynamics of global politics.
    Second, even though India’s continued rise in global politics is contingent upon America’s global primacy, it openly sides with the other rising powers when it comes to extolling the virtues of multi-polarity. For instance, most of India’s immediate objectives on the world stage – a permanent seat in the UN Security Council or membership of multilateral groups like NSG – very much depend upon the support of the USA and the latter’s ability to play a global leadership role. But, India's rhetoric on multi-polarity dents the legitimacy of US global hegemony.

    Lastly, as far as India's arms procurement policy is concerned, India has often purchased weapons based on shrewd political calculations rather than on technical capabilities alone. India's decision to buy weapons from the Soviet Union during the Cold War and its attempts to diversify its arm supplies after the Cold War were both motivated by politics and what suited India's national interests, and not particularly the requirements of its defence forces in that particular global context. Therefore, the argument that technical specifications determined the course of the MMRCA decision is a non-¬starter. Therefore, what can be inferred from the decision is the presence of latent scepticism in India about the United States as well as the imperative of not becoming overly dependent upon the USA.


    Locating the irony of abysmally low living standards in a huge economy, Martin Wolf calls India a “premature superpower”. However, the metaphor is equally befitting for the strategic thought presently ruling the roost in India’s approach towards the USA. This simultaneous bandwagoning-¬balancing game reflects nothing more than overconfidence in India’s strategic elites that India has already arrived on the global stage and that it is far too important for the USA. Another factor which may explain this paradoxical foreign policy is India’s unhappiness with certain American policies especially in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which it considers inimical to its national interests. However, if India wants the USA to be more sensitive to its regional concerns, positive engagement is the only way forward; India cannot influence American policies by working against US interests.

    In Politics among Nations, Hans Morgenthau noted that the most rational foreign policy is the one defined by national interests and dispassionate assessment of national power; and not a policy defined on the basis of how states perceive themselves or their value judgements. In a world where US primacy will remain a distinctive feature for a considerable time to come, India will require American global leadership to realise its own national interests. For that to happen, Indian foreign policy should remain sensitive to US interests and concerns.