Kenneth Juster on India-US ties: Buzzwords like 'leading power' heady, but New Delhi must be cautious of Washington's designs

Tara Kartha
The rise of an assertive China presents an unprecedented geopolitical, strategic, economic and military threat to India, and we will need a strong relationship with the US to ensure a semblance of balance in Asia’s power equation.

The recent address by new US ambassador to India Kenneth Ian Juster was a masterpiece of linguistics. It hit all the right notes and made the controversial seem entirely reasonable. References to India's ancient history and contributions to the field of science would have pleased the religious Right, while references to India as a "leading power" €" also made earlier in President Donald Trump's National Security Strategy €" were designed to make Indians feel important.

The apparent readiness to embrace India as a strategic partner, however, is hedged by the role Washington wants India to play, and that will deliver US' objectives.

First, India is recognised as a 'leading power' for the purposes of the India-Pacific region. The term 'India-Pacific' has also been minted, keeping in mind what is required of India in the context of "China Rising".  A red line seems to have been drawn towards the west, where the most intractable issues that bedevil India's strategic interests lie.

Apart from Pakistan €" where the US military aid has been cut, even while economic aid continues €" in other countries, India has had to pay a heavy price because of US policies. The Indian economy has paid for sanctions on Iran, and the conflict in Yemen and Syria. Apart from the heavy reliance on Iran for oil imports, presently at $10.5 billion, is the fact that any Indian strategy for peace in its region has to perforce include Tehran, and to a lesser extent, Saudi Arabia.

A second issue is the seven aspects listed as the basis for India-US cooperation. While much of this is unexceptionable in absolute terms €" for example, a peaceful resolution of disputes; set as it is in the language of US' confrontation with China €" it is one that could make Indian policymakers uncomfortable.

This includes references to the 'rule-based order', the guarantee of freedom of navigation and overflight €" both of which were left out of the Indian statement after the meeting of the Quadrilateral group comprising India, US, Japan and Australia in November 2017. Instead, the Indian statement simply called for a 'free and open India-Pacific'.

India has major differences with China on land. However, with regard to the sea, Indian warships have been challenged only on one occasion and objected to on another. In September 2011, INS Airavat was challenged over the radio while passing through the South China Sea, but not otherwise interfered with. Another was in 2016 when China objected to Indian ships participating in the Malabar Exercises conducted in the area. Any differences in this area are far more likely to be dealt with quietly on a bilateral basis, rather than through a risky and unreliable multilateral construct.

US references to a 'regional architecture', therefore, need to be treated with caution. A close reading of the statements by individual countries who were part of the so-called 'Quadrilateral' showed a somewhat unseemly haste to deny that there was an effort to gang up against China.

India may consider continuing its support to the grouping at present since it commits to nothing more than what has already been agreed to in bilateral agreements. However, an eventual regional architecture should ideally include countries of South East Asia, so that one grouping is knit into the other.

A third aspect of Juster's speech was a reference to India as a 'net provider of regional security', a phrase that has been bandied about for years without any significant initiative from India. That changed when the government launched an airlift operation to Yemen in April 2015, one that also rescued US citizens. Indian aircrafts also rescued US citizens after the earthquake in Nepal, even while delivering disaster relief.

While our record in assistance in disaster management is considerable, some forethought needs to be applied as to what kind of security situations we are capable of, or what we would want to deal with. The intervention in the Maldives in 1988 is a shining example of what we can do, while the Sri Lankan intervention was an example of what we should not. A capability analysis should be clearly outlined before the forthcoming two-by-two (2 by 2) ministerial dialogue, which involves the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Defence on both sides. Of these two, the latter needs to significantly enhance its capabilities to appreciate and react to fast-changing events.

The fourth aspect is that of arms imports from the US. Recently, media carried reports that Trump has called for military attaches and ambassadors to play a bigger role in drumming up orders for US weaponry. The ambassador instead seems to be offering cooperation in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms, and fighter aircraft production.

The further reference to co-production of a Future Vertical Lift Platform or Advanced Technology Ground Combat Vehicle is, however, tied to the earlier paragraph of "shared interests of our companies in growing and creating jobs in both countries". In other words, these goodies are on offer provided the US is satisfied that it creates jobs back home.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is equally determined that Indian youth should get the promised jobs, a key aspect of his election and post-election speeches. There's a tough fight ahead. Apart from this, a further flight into the arms of US manufacturers risks alienating Russia, who remains a major and closer source of power.

Fifth is the suggested level of military-to-military exchanges. Juster makes an almost 'off-the-cuff' suggestion, which is the posting of military liaison officers in respective combatant commands. This would be anathema to most Indian bureaucrats, as well as the intelligence agencies. Yet, it is vital that Indian representatives are placed in key nodes of CENTCOM  (central command) which is the area from which India is presently locked out, to our cost. No reciprocity yet, until we learn to guard our files and our tongues.

Sixth is the issue of upgrading India's status as an investment destination. The suggestion that US Inc is unhappy with China and may well relocate to India is a tempting prize. Juster calls this 'a strategic lens on an economic relationship', which it certainly is. In 2016, the US direct investment position in India was $32.9 billion, an increase of 10.0 percent from 2015. Direct investment in China was $92.5 billion. That's a lot of money to move around.

Such investment will not just kickstart the expected climb of the Indian economy but also bring in the infrastructure €" and jobs €" that is at the forefront of the policies of the present government. The prime minister has been facing strong headwinds in his efforts to improve and simplify the regulatory process that hampers investment.

Juster recently heaped praise on the state of Telangana in terms of its ease of doing business, with all approvals being granted in 15 days. Greater autonomy to states to negotiate their own investment areas and a willingness to protect investments in unstable political climates is a key area often highlighted by visiting business delegations. That, and endemic corruption and delay.

In the end, it is the ability of Indian institutions €" especially the bureaucracy €" to rise to the occasion and decide just how best India's own interests are served by the proposed ties that fall marginally short of a virtual alliance.

In this exercise, the Ministry of Defence in particular needs to upgrade itself to a certain agility in thinking and response. Our reactions are usually based on fear, which in turn is born out of a lack of specialised knowledge on what is required in a particular situation.

Too often, government officers and academia alike are carried away by buzzwords and the latest feed from the internet. For instance, while the Indian Ocean is certainly of vital importance to us, the clear and present danger is from the land €" to the east and the west. Historically, the largest number of wars have been fought on land €" barring a certain trading company. The language of the "Indian Ocean power" may be heady, but we need to take care that our powder is truly dry before getting our feet wet. View More