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India’s foreign policy concerns in forging close strategic ties with the US can be grouped under three related themes such as India’s sovereignty concerns, its desire for strategic autonomy and its policy of multi-alignment. Although these themes are interrelated as one cannot be attained without the other, they can be separated for analytical purposes. While India’s sovereignty concerns imply a defensive stance in relations to other powers in international forums, the desire for strategic autonomy refers to India’s attempt at maneuverability in its engagement with other powers and the policy of multi-alignment clearly signals an active policy of India in diversifying relations with many players in order to lessen dependence on any single power. Before fleshing out these themes of concerns, there is need to understand why and how Indo-US relations peaked to a level we see today.

Trajectory of Indo-US relations in the post-Cold War Era

The post-Cold War years witnessed a steady rise in Indo-US relations as India lost its close economic and military partner –the Soviet Union which disintegrated into 15 independent states driving India towards diversification of its economic and military relations. Apart from this, the economic slowdown that India was going through towards the late 1980s turned into a balance of payment crisis in the beginning of 1990s with the impact of oil shock after Iraq invaded Kuwait.

All these pushed India to open up its economy in 1991 and shed its obsession with the Nehruvian economic model based on a vision of socialistic pattern of society but largely functioned through allegedly corrupt and sluggish license-permit quota raj system. In this larger context, many sectors of the Indian economy were opened for economic engagements with other countries. India’s inclination to get closer with the US, the lone superpower was very much palpable. But it took much time for the Indian economy to stabilize and register high growth rates which could attract the US for robust economic engagement. Meanwhile, the US slapped sanctions on India following its nuclear test in 1998.

Indo-US relations that began to take off in the final years of Clinton’s presidency were invigorated during the Jr. Bush regime. The national security adviser to Jr. Bush, Condoleezza Rice suggested in an article in Foreign Affairs in the very beginning of the 21st century that the US should pay closer attention to India’s role in the regional balance of South Asia.

Around the same time, the then Indian Prime Minister A. B. Vajpayee referred to India and the US as ‘natural allies’ and underlined the shared values of democracy between the largest and the oldest democracy in the world during his trip to the US. Although leaders from each side ever since have engaged themselves in eulogizing each other, it seems the spur in relations has been driven more by their relevance to each other’s interests than convergence of their values.

While India was looking for partners to offset its economic and military loss with the disintegration of the Soviet Union, help it overcome the financial crisis and set its sluggish economy in the right course, the US was looking for a reliable power to maintain stability in the South Asian region and more prominently, containing the growing Chinese influence and ambitions in the Asia-Pacific region was the key American drive.

Major Breakthroughs in Bilateral Relations

Growing relations in the economic area found resonance in military relations and cooperation in field the civil nuclear energy as well. According to data released by US Department Commerce, US Census Bureau and US Bureau of Economic Analysis, total bilateral trade including goods and services between India and the US rose from $20 billion in the year 2000 to over $126.1 billion in 2017.

Similarly, investment has increased in steady pace amounting to $32.9 billion US investment flowing into India between 2005 and 2016. While bilateral trade between the US and China is more expansive than those between India and the US, close military ties between India and the US and India’s centrality to the Obama Administration’s pivot to Asia strategy and Trump Administration’s Indo-Pacific policy clearly exemplify the American vision of binding India into a close strategic partnership. New Delhi and Washington issued the Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region in January 2015. The US declared India as a Major Defence Partner in December, 2016. Both countries have so far conducted the highest number joint military exercises, held new bilateral Maritime Security Dialogue in April 2016 and signed Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) – one of the foundational agreements for strategic defence partnership. Defence trade between the two countries has risen from $1 billion in 2008 to over $15 billion by the end of 2016.

India’s Sovereignty Concerns

Global power implies a global role and with it comes global responsibilities and global power is primarily exercised through taking up major responsibilities around the globe. The US has taken up a global role for itself by investing resources in different parts of the world, creating military bases world-wide and by actively promoting democracy and humanitarian intervention now known as Responsibility to Protect (R2P) even that amounted to removal of authoritarian regimes.

India, not only has a very limited resource base to support the global role of the US, it has also been a very cautious player expressing its discontent over overly militaristic role of the US and NATO forces in countries such as Kosovo, Iraq, Libya and Syria impinging on their sovereignty. Although growing ties between the US and India prevented the latter from making direct and sharp criticism of the former, India made generalized and context-specific criticisms which implicated the role of the US and NATO.

While the US or NATO played a proactive role in some instances like Kosovo and Iraq by either pointing to disagreements or delay in decision making within the UN framework or by showing inefficacy of peaceful measures against authoritarian regimes thus bypassed the authorization of the UN Security Council, in some other instances like Libya and Syria, the US and allies threw their weight behind UN Security Council resolutions that implicitly promoted the US or NATO’s active role in strengthening anti-regime forces, helped pushing the agenda of democracy and assigned militaristic roles without exhausting all the peaceful options. New Delhi firmly argued that any form of government be it authoritarian, democratic or communist is an internal affair and the consent of the functioning state was required before sending peace-keeping operations. It further argued that it is the state with which lies the prime responsibility of human rights protection (first pillar of R2P) and supported the second pillar of R2P which states that it is only when the state fails or is unwilling to protect its population; the international community needs to come to its assistance.

New Delhi consistently pleaded at the UN that it is only after all the peaceful measures are exhausted, military measures can be used as the last resort but strictly with the authorization of the UN Security Council. While India did not recognize independence of Kosovo, the US-led war efforts against Iraq were criticized in both houses of the Indian Parliament and India decided not to send troops to Iraq in support of American war efforts. India abstained from some specific UN Security Council resolutions that assigned the US forces or NATO with far-reaching mandate threatening sovereignty of target states including Libya and Syria, it made categorical statements in the UN and other forums as to its concerns related to violation of sovereignty starting from Kosovo to Syria.

While some view India’s eagerness to defend sovereignty reflects its values and sentiments that flow from its own hard-won freedom from colonial yoke and hesitation to slip into any form of colonialism again. Some scholars argue that its concerns over status of Kashmir prevent it from throwing its weight behind humanitarian operations that allegedly subordinate abstract sovereignty issues to actual needs of human beings. However, many realists also suspect the role of great powers like the US and its traditional allies and argue that they assume an expansive role primarily to promote their geopolitical interests under the cover of a humanitarian agenda. Putting these arguments aside, what can be culled from differences in perspectives on how both the US and India view humanitarian crises and sovereignty-related issues will drive their respective positions on international issues for years to come and hold them back from embracing each other tightly in the strategic field.

Desire for Strategic Autonomy

It seems India is not interested to lose its maneuverability by forging close strategic ties with the US. India would like to allow the US that much strategic space which would enable India to voice its concerns in global platforms, not impede India’s relations with other countries and take decisions on the merit of issues. Being a developing country, India sought to voice its environmental concerns in global platforms which clearly differed from the perspectives of the developed West including the US. India has sought reforms of the global financial institutions such as World Bank and IMF so as to lessen influence of developed countries in decision-making and make them more democratic and it voiced its trade related concerns at the WTO. India has been advocating reforms of the UN Security Council to make it more representative and democratic.

While signing the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) – one of the foundational agreements for strategic defence partnership – the Indian Defence Minister, Manohar Parrikar, made it clear that the agreement would not compromise India’s ‘strategic autonomy’ because it neither makes logistical support automatic or obligatory nor does it involve allowing military bases.

India has expressed concerns over the second foundational agreement known as Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) which would enable high-end secured communication equipment to be installed on military platforms that India would buy from the US instead of current reliance on less secured commercially available communication systems on high-end American platforms. Experts on strategic affairs, government officials and leaders relating to Indian Defence Ministry have expressed their reservations that the agreement in its current form would facilitate American intrusion into the Indian defence communication systems not only by allowing visits by US officials to Indian bases to inspect equipments safeguarded under COMCASA, it could technologically enable the US closely monitor India’s defence preparedness and moves.

There are also arguments that India’s indigenous military platforms and already existing Russian military platforms may not be compatible with COMCASA. It is believed that the proposed agreement in the present form would seriously impair India’s strategic autonomy by throwing India into the American arms and making India technologically dependent on the US for its military operations. It has been suggested that the agreement in order to materialize has to allay Indian concerns and discussions are underway for a modified version. India has to sign yet another agreement in order to be a key strategic partner of the US – Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-spatial Cooperation (BECA) – which the US has proposed but no discussions have taken place till date.

Policy of Multi-Alignment

India intends to actively pursue a policy of multi-alignment so that it can diversify its relations with many powers, decrease its dependence on any single power and thereby fulfill its economic and military objectives without compromising its strategic autonomy and sovereignty. India has expressed its willingness to continue close defence ties with Russia not only for repairing and updating of its existing Russian made defence equipments but for new defence deals in order to diversify its military supplies as part of its policy of multi-alignment despite the probability of American sanctions given the fact that any major defence deals with Russia are to face sanctions under the American law.

India’s invitation to Russia to become a part of its Indo-Pacific vision while simultaneously engaging the US, Japan, Australia is clearly reflective of India’s policy of multi-alignment and its attempt at normalization of relations with China during Indian Prime Minister Modi’s visit to China is indicative of India’s reluctance to throw its weight behind the American strategy of containing Chinese influence. India’s willingness to forge close ties with Iran for energy supplies and gain accessibility to Afghanistan bypassing Pakistan despite Trump Administration’s introduction of new sanctions against it is likely to be an irritant in bilateral relations but falls squarely with India’s preference for a policy of multi-alignment.

India’s approach to working with other countries to make the Paris Climate Agreement achieve results after the Trump Administration decided to move out of the agreement is indicative of India’s policy of multi-alignment. India has shown willingness to cooperate with other developing countries like Brazil, South Africa and China in providing leadership on climate issues within the framework of BASIC and address the environmental grievances of less developing and underdeveloped countries. These countries along with Russia formed BRICS and expressed their intentions of working closer on issues of development and financing.

India has also been a part of IBSA Dialogue forum consisting of India, Brazil and South Africa to discuss and cooperate on the issues of agriculture, trade, culture and defence. All these indicate India’s willingness to diversify its relations on the basis of commonality of interests and purpose within the rubric of South-South cooperation. Although Indi-US relations are steadily moving ahead, there are divergences in perspectives which are related to their respective power, level of development and concerns. Divergences in perspectives on international issues have resulted in India’s eagerness to defend sovereignty, desire strategic autonomy and pursue a policy multi-alignment.

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