During every bilateral summit, the Indian media and South Asia watchers in Washington DC and New Delhi tend to over-analyse US-India relations threadbare. No doubt these are important meetings, however, there is an implied grandiosity that is signalled through the coverage.
The fact of the matter is that India is just one part of the United States’ foreign policy outlook — in spite of high-volume events like Howdy, Modi! and bilateral meetings that get huge playback in India. Washington is just too preoccupied with its political and economic interests that are more pressing in less stable parts of the world.
At a recent event at The Hudson Institute, a leading think tank in Washington DC, Senator Chris Murphy from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee waxed lyrical on the US’ priorities and threats from certain regions. He spoke extensively on geopolitical rivalries with Russia and China. He addressed American investors’ concerns pertaining to Brexit. Murphy addressed the volatilities in the Middle East pertaining to Iran and Saudi Arabia. He spoke about allies such as Israel and the recent elections there. Even protests and human right concerns in Latin America featured in the talks, but South Asia wasn’t raised at all. This despite the impending US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the situation in Kashmir post-Article 370 and Pakistan’s heated rhetoric about it at the international stage.
In my interactions with policy planners — the DC strategic community across the Department of State and Department of Defense — I realised there is an overarching emphasis and focus on the “problem child”. The acronym to sum up Washington’s foreign policy concerns can be described as what I call the C.R.I.M.E.A.N. The C stands for China, the R stands for Russia, the I for Iran, the ME for the Middle East, A interchangeably for Asia or Africa (depending on where the crisis is unfolding) and the N for North Korea.
This isn’t to say that Washington has looked away from seeing India as a democratic counterweight to China and a key strategic partner.
But as a former State Department official who spent time in Pakistan and Afghanistan said to me: “India is not a problem child”. He went on to add that “at State, we always said if the US is not thinking about you, then you’re doing something good. The less we think about you, the less we have to worry about you”.
Right in the middle
India-US relations are indeed significant and the shared democratic values between the world’s oldest and largest democracies make them strategic partners in key issues such as trade, defence, counterterrorism and climate change. But this relationship falls outside the arc of the immediate attention spots of C.R.I.M.E.A.N.
A leading nuclear expert in Washington DC narrated an interesting analogy on US-India relations. He said, “India and the US relationship is a boring marriage spiced by the extramarital affairs of Pakistan and China”.And that was proven recently during the hearing on the Capitol Hill on human rights in South Asia. While the topic at large was South Asia, it devolved largely to an India-bashing session on Kashmir. There is concern among US lawmakers that Kashmir is a powder keg, and Pakistan’s bellicosity and nuclear sabre-rattling expedited the need for the House Foreign Affairs Committee to hold a hearing. Democrat members of the committee, such as Chairman Brad Sherman and Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, who were rather scathing, have been pressured by their local constituencies to condemn the Indian government’s actions. However, India’s external affairs ministry is unfazed, and diplomacy between India and the US isn’t affected by ‘Tweeplomacy’ (Senator Bernie Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren’s tweets on Kashmir).
It’s just that the DNA of American foreign policy has always been different from that of New Delhi’s less expansive foreign policy arm and more traditional inward-looking interests.
A Pew poll in 2018 showed bipartisan concerns and interests in how Democrats and Republicans view certain countries. India was right in the middle.
The Democrats didn’t rate India as highly as they rated treaty allies such as Canada or the United Kingdom. At the same time, India didn’t face the Republican ire reserved for adversaries such as North Korea and Iran.
The political barometer showed India right in the middle. Neither an overt fondness nor a sense of West Wing Worry.
In some ways, India is accorded with an AA or A+ rating for its diplomatic bond with the US. It is far from the AAA gold standards of Canada, United Kingdom, France or Japan. But it is neither in the BBB category of Pakistan, China or Russia nor in the B- categories of Iran and North Korea.
There will be continued cooperation between Washington DC and New Delhi with regard to trade, security and cultural exchanges; more engagement with the QUAD and in the Indo-Pacific when it comes to security. There is a sense of economic anticipation in the Republican Party to see India play the democratic counterweight to China and improve its investment climate. However, issues of trade, technology sharing, H-1B immigrant visas will linger. This is par for the course in any bilateral relationship.
The United States may be geographically ensconced in the Western Hemisphere with two of the largest moats on either side of its borders, but it does occupy the centre of the geopolitical world and is at the highest echelons in most country’s diplomatic imaginations. And New Delhi is no different. India, as a young democracy, sought non-alignment in an increasingly bipolar, two super bloc power struggles.
India’s diplomatic DNA has always been strategic autonomy, even though it did yearn for US aid and approval through the years. As ThePrint’s Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta rightly said, India has moved from aid to trade and the overarching emphasis is now on various initiatives that look away from the Western powers, such as Neighbourhood First and the Act East policy.
One of late Stephen P. Cohen’s lasting legacies has been inculcating the importance of India in Washington’s elite strategic circle. And this robust strategic partnership will continue through the years, with minor road bumps along the way, but let’s not be under any illusions of New Delhi being a top priority for Washington. For India is neither an AAA ally nor a B- adversary.
India’s diplomats have worked hard over the years to de-hyphenate the country from Pakistan. Given Delhi’s posture towards strategic autonomy, it’s independent energy deals with Iran and military deals with Moscow, there is no reason why India should find itself hyphenated with the US in a grander context.
The author is a former business and international news reporter with Channel NewsAsia and was based in Singapore. He is currently based in the US and is a two-time TEDx speaker and a graduate of the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy, Tufts. He tweets @Akshobh. Views are personal.
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Originally published at https://theprint.in on November 1, 2019.