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Contours of the India-United States Strategic Partnership

Sanjeev Kumar Shrivastav is Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • September 29, 2009

    A strategic partnership between two countries may be defined in terms of shared values and areas of cooperation in the spheres of defence, foreign policy, economy, energy, human resource development, and environment by taking into account existing geo-political realities and diplomatic practices. A strategic partnership should be viewed as a long term commitment and it is essential that both partners develop a clear understanding and vision about its objectives and practices. It is also imperative that a strategic partnership be based on mutual trust and respect for each other’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and shared values. Deliberating upon India-United States relations in October 2008, then US Senator from Illinois and presidential candidate Barack Obama had said that India is a “natural strategic partner” for America in the 21st century and that the United States should be working with India on a range of critical issues from preventing terrorism to promoting peace and stability in Asia.

    After four decades of mutual suspicion and mistrust, the transformation in India-United States relations began to take place during the last years of the Bill Clinton presidency and which bloomed during the presidency of George W. Bush. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks on America, US National Security Strategy, 2002 noted that “U.S. interests require a strong relationship with India.” A joint statement issued by Prime Minister Vajpayee and President Bush in January 2004 declared that India-United States “strategic partnership” includes expanding cooperation in the areas of easing restrictions on dual use technology export to India, increase in civil nuclear and civil space cooperation, as well as expanding dialogue on missile defence. These steps were known as “Next Steps in Strategic Partnership” (NSSP). In July 2005, the successful completion of the NSSP was announced by the US State Department under which a series of reciprocal steps were taken, such as expansion of bilateral commercial satellite cooperation, removal or revision of some US export licence requirements for certain dual use items etc. A significant joint India-U.S. statement issued during the state visit of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to the United States in July 2005 and another joint statement issued during President Bush’s three day visit to India in March 2006 further paved the way for a stronger strategic partnership between the world’s largest and oldest democracies. The developing India-United States partnership reached a major milestone when the historic India-United States civil nuclear cooperation agreement was signed in October 2008, marking the end of India's 34 year isolation from the global mainstream in the sphere of civil nuclear energy technology.

    It is now the responsibility of the Obama administration and the UPA-2 government to carry forward the momentum that has already been built. There are indications that the Obama administration looks forward to strengthening the strategic partnership. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a five day visit to India in July 2009, and stated that the India-United States relationship was “overdue for an upgrade” and that her trip to India will serve as the first step towards that vision which she had earlier referred to as “U.S.-India 3.0” version.

    Even before Secretary Clinton’s visit, there were many influential voices in the US Congress calling for strengthened strategic partnership with India. Testifying before the House committee on Foreign Affairs on February 26, 2009, Karl F. Inderfurth suggested that there should be a seven point agenda for building a strategic partnership with India: strengthen strategic ties; address regional challenges; realize economic potential; pursue an expanded nuclear agenda; support India’s United Nations bid; promote a cooperative triangle; and dream big. However, Congressman Gary L. Ackerman in his testimony suggested establishing a United States and India senior-level strategic dialogue that takes place several times a year which will help both countries develop a better understanding of each other’s concerns. During Secretary Clinton’s visit to India in July 2009, it was decided to begin the first round of such an annual strategic dialogue in Washington, D.C. next year, which will continue subsequently in alternate capitals.

    Commenting on the Obama administration’s policy towards South Asia on September 9, 2009, US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Robert O. Blake Jr. said that the new U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue will increase the scope and breadth of cooperation between both the two nations across five key pillars: strategic cooperation; science, technology, health, and innovation; energy and climate change; education and development; and, economics, trade, and agriculture.

    It is essential to highlight the factors that are furthering this developing strategic partnership. The shared value of democracy is a binding factor which leads to the expectation that India and the United States may never have a direct confrontation with each other. Apart from the civil nuclear agreement, defence ties have grown over the years. The “Defence Framework Agreement” signed in June 2005 aimed at formalising and providing a rationale as well as direction to the growing defence relationship. India’s defence equipment imports from the United States since 2008 stands at US $3.1 billion in terms of contract signed. It is expected that the recently signed End Use Monitoring Agreement (EUMA) will provide a boost for US defence technology transfer to India.

    India has conducted more joint military exercises with the United States than with any other country. The Malabar series of joint naval exercises are now an annual feature. Malabar-08 was a purely bilateral exercise in which the major thrust was on Surface/Air Operations, Advanced Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW), Surface Firings and Submarine Operations, etc.

    Institutional mechanisms are in place for counter terrorism cooperation with the establishment of the US-India Counter-terrorism Joint Working Group (CTJWG) in January 2000 and the Cyber Security Forum in 2001. Similarly, the United States International Military Education and Training (IMET) assistance to India has gone up from $0.5 million in 2001 to $1.5 million in 2007.

    Economic cooperation has been growing steadily. According to the US Census Bureau figures, total India-United States bilateral trade in 2008 was $43.38 billion, which is 11 percent higher compared to the previous year when it was $39.04 billion. India has been placed at the 14th position among the 15 largest trading partners of the United States during January-June 2009. Government of India sources suggest that the total value of US Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) inflow into India was $1.8 billion in the financial year 2008-09, as compared to $1.09 billion during the previous financial year, which indicates a 65.47 per cent growth. This progress has been made despite the ongoing global economic crisis and the downturn facing the business process outsourcing industry. There are plans to expand the India-US CEO Forum (constituted in July 2005) so that more senior business persons can be involved in the bilateral economic dialogue process.

    At present more than 90,000 Indian students are studying in colleges and universities in the United States. Now Fulbright-Nehru scholarships are being planned for priority areas like management, agriculture, energy, democratic governance, public policy and environment. Realising the importance of cooperation in the area of space, science and technology, the two countries have taken steps towards further cooperation. A Science and Technology Endowment agreement was concluded during Secretary Clinton’s visit in July 2009. Similarly, partnerships in the domain of healthcare, which includes HIV, tuberculosis, and avian influenza, are gradually expanding. Both nations are committed to a clean energy future and are engaged in new energy and climate change dialogue. The forthcoming United Nations climate change conference at Copenhagen in December 2009 will be a testing forum for the climate change dialogue between the two nations.

    The United States and its NATO allies are engaged in the Afghan conflict which will enter its ninth year on October 8, 2009. India has been actively involved in the reconstruction of Afghanistan and India’s efforts cannot be ignored. India has invested nearly $750 million in recent times thus making it the sixth largest bilateral aid donor. India is involved in many projects in Afghanistan such as construction of road networks, telecommunications development, power transmission, rebuilding the Afghan national airline, construction of the new Afghan parliament etc. There is a wide appreciation in India for the ongoing de-Talibanization efforts of the United States and its allies, given that instability in Afghanistan has implications for India. Similarly, India’s role in the form of economic aid and reconstruction of Afghanistan deserves much appreciation from policy makers in the United States.

    However, there is a growing concern in India about the substantial increase in US military and economic aid to Pakistan, amidst reports that these military equipment and funds may have been diverted by Pakistan for anti-India purposes. Similarly, Pakistan has adopted a dilly-dallying approach in its investigations into the 26/11 Mumbai terrorist attacks which raises alarm in India. According to the latest Congressional Research Service report released on September 24, 2009, the Obama administration has requested for $2.49 billion in military aid for Pakistan for the fiscal year 2010, which is a 25.59 per cent increase from the previous year’s allocation of $1.98 billion The Kerry-Lugar bill has also been passed by the US Senate, which triples non-military aid to Pakistan to $1.5 billion per annum for the next five years. The United States needs to understand and address India’s concerns in this regard.

    Obama has expressed his administration’s commitment to work towards “a world without nuclear weapons” in his Prague speech on April 5, 2009. A new UN Security Council Resolution 1887 passed unanimously on September 24, 2009 calls for strengthening the NPT and CTBT and for a treaty on banning the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons. India remains committed to a nuclear weapons free world. Former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had clearly articulated this commitment in a speech at the UN general assembly in June 1988. India is a non-signatory to these treaties because it strongly believes that such treaties need to be comprehensive and non-discriminatory to be successful and effective. India’s behaviour as a responsible international actor with nuclear weapons capability has been accepted by the United States and the international community. The India-US strategic partnership will be further strengthened if Obama administration builds upon the gains made by the Bush administration in the process of nuclear dialogue and understanding and addresses India’s concerns regarding the existing non-proliferation regime.

    The India-United States strategic partnership appears to be moving towards a higher trajectory with growing co-operation in the areas of defence, economy, energy, education, environment, science, technology and innovation. In this process, the shared value of democracy is likely to consolidate mutual understanding and the partnership.