The most important fact of America’s new strategic partnership with India is not just that it recognizes India as a nuclear power, but that it also represents open American acceptance and acknowledgement of India’s ambitions to be a great power in Asia. The pact was ratified in December. Signed in principle by President Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in July 2005, it overturns three decades of sanctions against India and gives India access to U.S. civilian nuclear technology.
More importantly, however, it recognizes the growing importance of energy, commercial and strategic ties between the U.S. and India. In March 2005, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice stated openly that it was U.S. policy “to help make India become a major world power in the twenty-first century.” Senior officials underscored that they fully understood what such a commitment meant because they also talked about American support for Indian requests for “transformative systems in such areas as command and control, early warning and missile defenses.” Furthermore, it is clear that Indo-American discussions now include, as a matter of course, a review of outstanding security issues in South and Central Asia, if not Southeast Asia, China and the Persian Gulf. The revelation of such discussions has led Pakistani analysts to claim that the U.S. has recognized India’s “sphere of influence” in Asia. Whether the new partnership goes that far, it certainly does accept the fact that India is and will be the primary power on the subcontinent and that therefore this requires intimate bilateral strategic-military, political and economic coordination across a range of issues with India. Indeed, we are seeing the fruits of such collaboration in joint discussions and approaches to seeking an end to civil strife in Nepal and, possibly more important, in Central Asia.
On one hand, this new strategic partnership conforms to India’s history since independence, where it has sought the leverage offered by cooperation with a great power, most prominently the Soviet Union between 1964 and 1985, to realize its strategic ambitions in South Asia if not beyond. On the other hand, Washington’s acceptance of the legitimacy of Indian ambitions and the reality of its present and future economic-strategic capabilities amounts to an unprecedented U.S. recognition that India is reaching or about to reach that status and level of capability on its own. Although psychologically it may be appealing to Indians to have this status conferred upon them by America, India’s indigenous capabilities make such a move both timely and necessary for all major international actors, not just the U.S. Therefore this acknowledgement also represents U.S. acceptance of the fact that this development comports with U.S. strategic interests.
This Indian achievement has long been anticipated. In 1988 Henry Kissinger observed that India was becoming the dominant military country in its region and had not hesitated to use that power to advance its national interests. He concluded, “I expect Indian influence to radiate in the Indian Ocean and down to Singapore, and Southeast Asia will become sort of a four-power contest among China, India, the Soviet Union and Japan.” American military analysts then also expected a substantial growth in Indian defense and power projection capabilities leading into the present. A contemporary geopolitical assessment of India’s place in Asia would have to admit that much of this forecast has or is about to come to pass. Certainly India’s own strategic guidelines, developed by the Vajpayee government in 2003 and carried over into the present government of Manmohan Singh, who was elected in 2004, reflect a fundamental Indian consensus about Indian interests and ambitions to project power throughout the Indian Ocean, its littoral, and even into Central Asia. And this outlook is shared by the Indian Army and Navy, if not the Air Force.
Consequently Washington’s acceptance of this achievement not only marks a milestone in the two states’ bilateral relations, it also reflects that India has become for every key state a most desirable strategic partner. It marks acceptance of the fact that India has what might be called strategic autonomy in its choice of partners, i.e. it can become partners with states or organizations other than the U.S., including the European Union.
The American offer of strategic partnership, as well as India’s overall desirability as a partner to other great powers such as China and Russia, reflects its continuing rate of economic growth, which approaches 8 percent annually. India also has a world-class, “superb, professional military force,” with which it is highly desirable for us to engage on a permanent basis. India’s rising economic and military capabilities not only ensure that it is and will remain the pre-eminent partner in the South Asian subcontinent, they also facilitate its ability to project power and influence abroad.
India has an operational air base in Tajikistan collocated with a Russian base at Farkhor (or Ayni). India is eagerly competing for access to Central Asian oil and gas. It is expanding defense collaboration and economic penetration. Many regional governments in Southeast and Northeast Asia are seeking defense cooperation with India, probably as a balance to China. India also is helping to protect the Straits of Malacca against international piracy and terrorism. And it participates in the Asian Regional Forum and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) 7+1 forum. In the Middle East, it has managed to combine a flourishing defense partnership with Israel with good relations with Iran, for whose energy it is a major customer. And it also serves as a major refiner of Iran’s crude oil.
India’s desirability as a strategic partner for major players in Asia is increasingly visible. Japan is significantly upgrading energy and security cooperation with India to ensure its own energy security and because of apprehensions about China. For more than a decade, Russia has made strenuous efforts to consolidate and advance its political and military ties to India. Arms sales to India constitute between 30 percent and 40 percent of Russia’s annual revenues from arms sales, without which it could not finance the re-equipping of its forces. Moscow has also made serious, continuous and comprehensive efforts, which seem to be paying off, to organize what then-Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov called a strategic triangle with China and India.
The endeavors of Primakov and later of President Vladimir Putin were based on many factors, not least an appreciation of India’s and China’s rising power and the fact that these two great powers could eventually come into conflict in Asia, forcing Russia into a most undesirable choice between Indian or Chinese friendship. Or an Indo-Pakistani crisis could have similar repercussions throughout Asia, including China, that could force Russia to make tough choices.
Russia, India and China also share a common interest in squelching threats from Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism within their boundaries and in Central Asia.
Similarly, as India’s partnership with America grew, the status accruing to India has obliged China to effectuate a highly public rapprochement with India and become a major Indian trading partner. Indeed, India’s nuclear tests, ascension to the role of bona fide nuclear power, rising economic and conventional military capabilities and, especially, its visible rapprochement from China discomfited Beijing considerably, obliging it to make this rapprochement and acknowledge India’s increased attractiveness as a strategic partner. Even as Beijing hints at upgrading its nuclear relationship with Pakistan as a riposte to the Indo-American agreement and seeks to minimize India’s involvement with ASEAN and its associated organizations, it has nevertheless been forced to make and continue a detente with India. Consequently, India’s rapprochement with America obliged China to take more account of India than it was previously willing to do and it has helped moderate Chinese policy.
This fact points to two more conclusions. India’s desirability as a partner has forced major interlocutors such as China and Russia to assent to its observer status in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), thereby recognizing its status. And China has been forced to come to terms with India’s enhanced role, status and capabilities. This despite China’s habitual policy of trying to reduce India’s status and confine it to South Asia, the Sino-Indian rivalry for influence in states such as Myanmar, China’s support for Pakistan, and hints of nuclear assistance to it in the light of the Indo-American agreement, and its presence in Pakistan’s port city of Gwadar, where it is building a major naval infrastructure for Pakistan and possibly for itself. These trends in Asia’s international relations illustrate the benefits that accrue to both India and America merely from the prospect of partnership. Indeed, Russia’s and China’s fears about this partnership have galvanized both to offer inducements to India to support each of them, such as increased trading opportunities with China, observer status in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and better terms on Russian weapons sales to India.
This partnership is not an accident of history. Rapprochement with India began under President Clinton, but what drives this partnership today are common interests and shared threats. Indian elites know full well that if India is to play the larger role they wish for, it must embrace economic globalization and break through the accumulated institutional and cognitive structures that hold much of its population in thrall and poverty. Moreover, it must keep pace with China if it does not want to be eclipsed. This determination is visible in the competition between India and China for access to energy and also in India’s determination to project its power throughout the Indian Ocean. India shares with Washington the dual concerns posed by China’s rise and by Islamic terrorism threats in Central and South Asia. The economic potentials of an unshackled India, as well as the more prosaic possibilities of major U.S. arms sales, energy investments and technology transfer to India, reinforce a common and complementary relationship.
It is important for Washington that Central Asia does not fall under exclusive Russian and/or Chinese influence. The same holds true for India. Indian experts saw Russian weakness in Central Asia in the 1990s as opening the way to a Chinese-orchestrated encirclement of its interests there and regarded such a trend negatively. So even if India becomes a full member of the SCO, it is unlikely to be party to anti-American intrigues there.
But even though Delhi and Washington share common concerns about China’s rise, their pact is not a containment strategy in name or reality. India will not engage in a containment policy or let itself be used for such purposes. This has long been a cardinal point in Indian official statements. Rather, India’s rising power and its improved relationships with all the major powers create a situation whereby China and Russia must reckon with India, thereby limiting China’s interest and ability in challenging Delhi’s Washington’s vital interests too directly.
A source at the Russian Foreign Ministry told Nezavisimaya Gazeta that, since Sept. 11, 2001, Beijing has substantially reviewed its position in South Asia. Much more attention is being devoted to India, and China has realized that Delhi must be brought more actively into the sphere of Chinese geopolitical and foreign economic interests. The Chinese leadership is regarding the Kashmir issue in a new light, finding out for itself that terrorist groupings of radical Islamists from Xinqiang have entrenched themselves in the territory of that former Indian principality. And though Pakistan remains the stronghold of Chinese influence in South Asia, there is evidence of a desire on Beijing’s part to balance its policy in this area. India’s enhanced capacities are similarly regarded as a positive factor in Moscow, which supports the Indo-American nuclear deal. Russian ambassador to India, Vyacheslav Trubnikov, said that Russia does not fear the upcoming competition to provide India with nuclear energy because the Indian market is a huge one. Moreover, he and Russian analysts view India as a thriving democratic country with a strong set of controls over the export of its nuclear technology, and they have promoted the view that the status quo with regard to India in the nonproliferation treaty regime should be changed.
The Indo-American deal has enabled Washington and Delhi to alight upon a moving train and accelerate it, forcing others to seek to catch up lest their vital interests be significantly harmed. Indeed, other powers’ awareness of this partnership is obliging them to compensate India handsomely even as they complain about it. Therefore this agreement is strategic in the highest sense. It transforms the playing field and introduces a new dynamic that everyone must reckon with. But that is to both Washington’s and Delhi’s benefit, as well as to the benefits of the larger security of Asia as whole.
Stephen Blank is professor of Russian national security studies at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College. The views expressed here are the author’s and do not necessarily represent those of the U.S. Army, the Defense Department or the U.S. government.