People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 29

July 22, 2012


India-US: Growing Bonhomie


Yohannan Chemarapally


INDIA-US relations seem to going from strength to strength, if high level visits and joint statements are anything to go by. In recent weeks, the US secretary of state as well as the secretary of defence was in India. This was followed by the third US-India Strategic Dialogue in Washington in the second week of June. The Strategic Dialogue is now an annual event. It is a reflection of the extremely close ties that have developed between the two sides since the signing of the landmark 2008 nuclear agreement. The Indian side was represented by the external affairs minister, S M Krishna. He was accompanied by a high level ministerial delegation. Indian officials have said that a gamut of issues were up for discussion, ranging from education to democracy promotion.




The main purpose of the Strategic Dialogue is no doubt aimed at further enhancing the military and strategic ties between the two countries. The US ambassador designate to India, Nancy Powell, has said that the US expects to sell arms worth eight billion dollars to India in the coming years. As the US “pivots” militarily to the Asia Pacific, an important role is being assigned to India. The US defence secretary, Leon Panetta, has described India as the “linchpin” in the American strategy to rebalance in the Asia Pacific. At the Shangri La meet in Singapore in early June, which was attended by the US defence secretary Leon Panetta and the Indian defence minister A K Anthony, there was a similarity of views expressed by both the sides. Both Panetta and Anthony stressed on the freedom of navigation in the Asia Pacific region. China, embroiled in territorial disputes with pro-US neighbours, suspects that the new US strategy is to convert the South China Sea into a US lake and control the key choke points like the Malacca Straits through which most of oil it imports is transported.


But what grabbed international headlines was the American decision to give exemptions to India and close US allies like Japan, South Korea and Turkey from the penalties against them arising from the tough unilateral sanctions imposed on Iran by Washington. The decision was announced by the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, just before the start of the Strategic Dialogue between the two countries. She said that the countries were being granted waivers from financial sanctions for “significantly reducing” their oil imports from Iran. Clinton said that the announcement underscored the success of the Obama administration’s sanctions policy against Iran.


Since the Obama administration imposed its draconian sanction on Iran, India has significantly scaled down its economic ties with Iran. From being one of India’s biggest suppliers of crude, Iran is now in third place after Saudi Arabia and Iraq. In the third week of June, the US State Department, however, clarified that the waiver is valid only for a month. The Obama administration will continue to keep a strict watch over India’s dealings with Iran.


China, along with Singapore, was among the countries not given an exemption. China imports a fifth of its oil from Iran. Iran crude oil is blended in Singapore’s refineries. The White House is of course threatening sanctions but, gives the inter-dependent nature of economic relations between the US and China and the perilous nature of the world economy, it is unlikely that the US government will be taking action against the Chinese banking sector. Singapore is a close political and military ally of the US, besides being a key international trading entrepot. Indian officials are insisting that they did not ask for an American waiver. They claim that the decision to look for oil from other countries was dictated by strategic calculations and market forces. They continue to claim that US pressure had very little to do with the sharp reduction of Iranian oil import.




The second important development was the signing of an agreement between the US and India for the holding of regular trilateral talks, which will also involve Afghanistan. US officials have wanted India for some time to play a bigger role in the training of Afghan security forces as the American military forces prepare to leave the country in 2014. Both Pakistan and India already have separate strategic agreements with the US. According to reports appearing in the American media, it was the sharp deterioration of US ties with Pakistan that prompted the Obama administration to rope in India. Washington evidently hopes that India will act as a counterweight to Pakistan in the post-2014 scenario that will unfold in Afghanistan.


The then Pakistani prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, said on June 14 that the government of Afghanistan is the country’s “most important partner.” Islamabad’s worst case scenario about Afghanistan is an increased Indian footprint on Afghan soil, which it considers as its backyard and a pre-requisite for strategic depth. Till 2010, on Pakistan’s request, the US had agreed to keep India out of conferences involving Afghanistan’s immediate neighbours. But with relations between Washington and Islamabad going steadily downhill since then, New Delhi’s role in Afghanistan was given more importance by the Obama administration. At the recent Strategic Dialogue between the two countries, the role of Pakistan in Afghanistan was disparaged, with the US officials highlighting Islamabad’s role in harbouring and supporting terrorists.


The joint statement issued after the conclusion of the US-India Security Dialogue “reiterated that success in Afghanistan and regional and global security require elimination of safe havens and infrastructure for terrorism and violent extremism in Afghanistan and Pakistan.” In 2011, India was invited to a conference in Turkey attended by Afghanistan’s neighbours. New Delhi also hosted an international conference in late June to encourage investments in Afghanistan. Pakistan was also given an invitation to attend. The Indian external affairs minister, speaking in Washington, said that the new agreement on Afghanistan had a security component. “Security would certainly form an important segment,” Krishna told the media.


During his recent visit to Delhi, the US secretary of defence, Leon Panetta, had evidently raised the issue of increased Indian involvement in Afghanistan. In a speech delivered at the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), Panetta stressed on the need to “further deepen” the military relationship between the two countries. He declared that the two countries have “opened a new chapter” in their relationship, and expressed his confidence that the new relationship would “become more strategic, more practical and more collaborative.” New Delhi has been involved in infrastructure projects in Afghanistan and has given two billion dollars as developmental aid to the war ravaged country. India has been very supportive of the US occupation of the country and was initially apprehensive about the consequences of American troop withdrawal from the country.




During his visit to the subcontinent, Panetta kept on harping that his country’s patience with Pakistan was fast running out. The defence secretary was not at all apologetic about the drone strikes that the US has unleashed on the hapless residents of Afghanistan and Pakistan. New Delhi seems prepared to play along with Washington to an extent, but Indian officials insist that here is no question of any physical deployment of troops in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of western forces. Other countries too are keen to play a bigger role in Afghanistan after 2014. During the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in June, the member countries pledged to play a bigger role in Afghanistan. The Chinese president, Hu Jintao, who hosted the summit in Beijing, said that the SCO will play a “bigger role in the peaceful reconstruction of Afghanistan.” The Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, who was present at the summit, said that China would “play a very significant role in bringing Afghanistan and Pakistan together” to jointly fight the war against terror and extremism.  


Robert Grenier, a retired senior CIA official and an expert on South Asia, wrote that Secretary Panetta’s “gambit in New Delhi is merely a new form of coercion against Pakistan”. Grenier observed that America’s strategic relationships with Israel and India “have more in common than is often appreciated.” The US, he said, was cautious of the practical use to which its alliance with Israel has been put; it should likewise exercise great caution in playing the “India card” against Pakistan.


During his visit to India, the US defence secretary was careful to avoid discussing controversial issues like the Logistic Support Agreement (LSA), the Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum Agreement (CISMOA) and the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-Spatial Cooperation (BECA). The LSA allows the reciprocal use of maintenance, servicing and communications, among other things. On previous high profile visits, US officials had tried to pressurise India into signing these agreements. America’s close partners have all signed these agreements. India has been saying that the agreements will jeopardise India’s strategic independence and imperil operational autonomy while operating American supplied military equipment.


Panetta said in Delhi that signing these agreements were unnecessary. “Not signing these agreements is no barrier to further military relations,” Panetta declared in Delhi. New Delhi too has so far refused to sign the “end users” agreement which allows the US to inspect the weaponry it has sold to India. Panetta said that the US was firmly committed to selling the best defence weaponry to India. “Over the long term we will have transition or defence trade beyond the buyer-seller relationship to substantial co-production and eventually high technology joint research and development,” Panetta said.


India has conducted the largest number of military joint exercises with the US since 2001, to ensure “functional interoperability” between the armies of the two nations. The two armies have jointly conducted counter-insurgency exercises in sensitive areas like Kashmir and the northeast. The military embrace between the two countries is getting tighter by the day.