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The paradox of US-India relations

The paradox of US-India relations
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Secretary of Defense Lloyd AustinLloyd AustinIt's time to drop 'competition' from US defense strategy Push to combat sexual assault in military reaches turning point Overnight Defense: Military sexual assault reform bill has votes to pass in Senate l First active duty service member arrested over Jan. 6 riot l Israeli troops attack Gaza Strip MORE’s visit to India in late March revealed the paradox that underlies U.S.-India relations. Following up on the first-ever summit meeting of the leaders of the Quad — the United States, India, Japan and Australia — Austin and Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh agreed to deepen their joint efforts in the realms of defense cooperation, the sharing of intelligence, and logistics.

U.S.-India defense cooperation has accelerated in the past few years. In 2016, the United States designated India as a major defense partner. That same year the two countries signed a Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) that enabled them to cross-service their logistical needs. In 2018, Washington authorized India to receive license-free access to a wide range of military and dual-use technologies. 

Finally, after lengthy negotiations, then-Secretary of Defense Mark EsperMark EsperOvernight Defense: Former Navy secretary reportedly spent .4M on travel | Ex-Pentagon chief Miller to testify on Jan. 6 Capitol attack | Austin to deliver West Point commencement speech Trump's Navy secretary spent over M on travel during pandemic: report Court declines to dismiss Amazon challenge against JEDI decision MORE and his Indian counterpart signed a Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) in October 2020. The agreement provides for real-time exchange of geospatial intelligence through advanced satellite imagery, as well as topographical and aeronautical digital data for long-range navigation and pinpoint strikes against enemy targets. For India, those “enemy targets” could be located in either Pakistan or China; for the United States, China undoubtedly is the target.

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Yet, despite these many indicators of a burgeoning defense relationship between two countries that as late as the 1980s had maintained standoffish relations for decades, the Austin visit also involved a throwback to those earlier times. Austin voiced his unhappiness with India’s interest in purchasing the Russian S-400 air defense system — the same system that is at the center of a dispute between the United States and Turkey. Ankara has purchased the S-400 and that has resulted in U.S. cancellation of Turkish participation in the American F-35 fighter program. 

India’s military, especially the army and air force, has maintained longstanding and close ties to Russia (and previously the Soviet Union). India seems unwilling to jettison those ties simply because Austin told his hosts that “we … urge our allies and partners to move away from Russian equipment.” An Indian S-400 purchase, therefore, is not at all out of the question.

In his recently published volume, “The India Way: Strategies for an Uncertain World,” India’s external affairs minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, makes it clear that India has no plan to align itself fully with either the U.S. or China. As he states in the book’s first chapter, “This is a time for us to engage America, manage China, reassure Russia, bring Japan into play … and expand traditional constituencies of support. … A longstanding trilateral with Russia and China coexists now with one involving the U.S. and Japan. … Positioning is of increasing value in a fluid world, explaining the importance of engaging competing powers like the U.S., China, the EU [European Union] or Russia at the same time.”

Jaishankar writes with authority that derives from far more than his current office. He is a former ambassador to both Washington and Beijing. He also is the son of Krishnaswamy Subrahmanyam, widely recognized as the father of India’s nuclear program, who maintained close ties with Moscow even as he was perhaps the leading advocate of the 2007 Indo-U.S. Agreement on Civilian Nuclear Cooperation. Jaishankar certainly harbors no ill feeling toward the United States; quite the contrary. But he does not see American and Indian interests as entirely congruent.

Jaishankar’s views — which represent a significant swath of informed Indian opinion — do not mean that Washington should not continue to seek to intensify its relations with New Delhi. Both the Quad summit and the Austin visit signify the potential for further expanding cooperation between the world’s two largest democracies. Nevertheless, India will not become an American ally, nor will it drop its close ties to Russia. Instead, it will carve out its own path in an increasingly multilateral international power structure. 

American policymakers should approach India with a heavy dose of realism and disabuse themselves of any hope for an alliance with India. If they persist with such illusions, they surely will be sorely disappointed.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.