Are Indo-U.S. relations cooling a bit since ’05 embrace?

McClatchy NewspapersJune 12, 2012 

— High-level official visitors to the Indian capital usually don’t skip a photo-op at Rajghat, the memorial in which the ashes of Mohandas “Mahatma” Gandhi, the father of India’s nonviolent independence movement, are enshrined. But Defense Secretary Leon Panetta did.

Before meeting his Indian counterpart during a two-day visit last week, Panetta stopped at India Gate, a soaring stone arch in the ceremonial heart of New Delhi. Head bowed and a hand on his heart, the Pentagon chief stood silently in the blazing sun at the British colonial-era memorial to Indian soldiers who died fighting someone else’s wars.

Intentional or not, Panetta’s stop seemed to say much about the Obama administration’s hopes for India’s role in the new “pivot” to bolster U.S. security interests in Asia through an integrated defense, economic and diplomatic strategy that top U.S. officials aim to advance in two days of talks with their Indian counterparts that open Wednesday in Washington.

Defense cooperation with South Asia’s superpower is a linchpin of the new U.S. “strategy for the 21st century extending from the western Pacific and East Asia into the Indian Ocean and South Asia,” Panetta declared last Wednesday at an Indian Defense Ministry-funded research center.

Many Indians, however, remain reluctant to openly embrace closer defense cooperation with the United States, one of several hurdles the new U.S. approach confronts.

Both governments also face significant domestic political challenges that are diverting their attention, including slowing economies. They differ over some key international issues, such as policy toward Iran, and they’re embroiled in several serious trade disputes. India has proved to be an unreliable market for U.S. military hardware, with American companies angry over losing out on a $12 billion fighter aircraft deal with New Delhi last year.

As a result, while this week’s so-called Strategic Dialogue meetings will produce a raft of accords such as expanded cooperation in education and science, no major announcements are expected, leading some experts to assert that after years of rapid growth, the momentum in Indo-U.S. relations may be slowing, especially in the security sphere.

“There is no denying the widespread sense that the momentum in bilateral defense relations has begun to lose steam,” C. Raja Mohan, a defense analyst, wrote in The Indian Express on the day of Panetta’s address.

U.S. officials respond that the relationship has expanded so quickly in so many areas that the purpose of the third Strategic Dialogue – to be chaired by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Indian External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna – is to review where Indo-U.S. ties stand and how best to move them forward.

“One of the challenges we face is that there is not one big thing, but a whole bunch of things,” said a U.S. official, who requested anonymity in order to speak more candidly.

“This is less about putting one issue at the top of the agenda than it is to provide the political direction . . . and to sit down and take stock.”

To be sure, both sides favor expanding relations that were badly frosted during the Cold War decades by U.S. support for Pakistan, India’s archenemy, and New Delhi’s close ties with the former Soviet Union. Ties have grown significantly since the world’s two biggest democracies signed a 2005 defense cooperation pact and ratified a civil-nuclear agreement in 2008. Annual two-way trade has risen to more than $100 billion.

The United States and India share major interests: stabilizing war-ravaged Afghanistan, ensuring the stability of nuclear-armed Pakistan as it grapples with an extremist Islamic insurgency, fighting terrorism and Indian Ocean piracy, and, perhaps most important, countering China’s surging military and economic might. India now conducts more military exercises with the United States than it does with any other country.

“There is perhaps no country in the world with whom we have traveled faster and farther than India over the last 10 years,” Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake told a gathering of prominent Indian Americans June 4.

U.S. officials make it no secret that one of their top priorities is convincing India to play a greater role in helping to stabilize Afghanistan and prevent it from reverting to a Taliban-ruled sanctuary for al Qaida and other extremist groups after U.S.-led combat forces complete their pullout in December 2014. These U.S. officials point out that during the Taliban’s 1996-2001 rule, they provided bases to Pakistani terrorists fighting on India’s side of the disputed Kashmir region.

India has pledged more than $2 billion in assistance to Afghanistan, its largest foreign aid effort. It’s helped rebuild air links, power plants, schools and hospitals. It’s training civil servants, diplomats, police officers and 20,000 to 30,000 soldiers under a strategic partnership agreement signed with Kabul last year. It also has constructed a road that will allow the duty-free import of goods from Iran, reducing landlocked Afghanistan’s dependence on Pakistan’s port of Karachi.

At one time, Washington would have been reluctant to ask India to do more for Kabul in order to avoid antagonizing Pakistan. But with U.S.-Pakistani relations at an all-time low – Panetta said last week that Washington was “reaching the limits of patience” with Pakistan’s refusal to close Taliban sanctuaries on its soil – the administration is publicly urging New Delhi to step up its training and arming of Afghan security forces.

Rahul Bedi, an Indian defense analyst, quoted Defense Ministry officials as saying that a senior Pentagon official had asked India last month whether it could supply Soviet-designed tanks to the Afghan army.

The United States doesn’t seek “Indian boots on the ground” in place of its own forces, the U.S. official who spoke anonymously said, but it would like to see India expand its commercial ties with Afghanistan – and Pakistan – as part of a U.S.-led “Silk Road Initiative” aimed at boosting regional prosperity.

“We want India to be as helpful as they can to help Afghanistan become a self-sustaining economic entity,” the official said.

While India has yet to respond, the signs seem lukewarm at best. “Our first concern must remain the war against terror. What does the U.S. intend to do about terror emanating from Pakistan?” asked Chandan Mitra, an upper house member of the opposition Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, his question reflecting an issue of greater importance to many Indians than Afghanistan.

“Given the hesitation and prevarication that mark Manmohan Singh’s government, this dialogue in Washington will end up as yet another talk fest,” Mitra said, referring to India’s prime minister.

India’s economic growth also depends on Iranian oil and gas imports. While it has cut those imports – earning an exemption from harsh U.S. financial sanctions that go into effect June 30 – New Delhi has declined to join U.S.-led condemnation of Iran’s nuclear program.

Many Indian experts, however, are enthusiastic about cooperating with the United States to contain China’s military and economic heft.

India remains deeply wary of its eastern neighbor, to which it lost a brief border war in 1962, even though they’ve worked to maintain good relations. China claims the northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, and it’s extended its military reach into the Indian Ocean region, establishing trade and striking arms deals with Myanmar, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. And it remains a key supplier of weapons and nuclear technology to Pakistan.

But Singh’s ruling Congress Party-led coalition is reeling under graft scams, a stalling economy and falling rupee, staggering inflations and other domestic woes. Being seen as openly allying with the United States against India’s mightiest neighbor could doom the government.

Sundarji is a McClatchy special correspondent. Landay reported from Washington.

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