Indo‐​US Ties: Important, Not Urgent

November 25, 2009 • Commentary
This article appeared in Economic Times (India) on November 25, 2009.

While the US needs Pakistan to target the Taliban and China to protect the dollar and sustain recovery in the short term,it sees India as a long‐​term ally against Islamic terror and an ambitious China, says Swaminathan S Anklesaria Aiyar

After reading the McChrystal Report on the Afghanistan issue and watching President Obama’s visit to China, dismayed observers complain that the US views Pakistan and China as more important partners than India.

The truth is more complex. There is certainly a strong urgency to US relations with Pakistan and China right now. By contrast, ties with India are important, but not urgent. This raises short‐​term worries, yet bodes well for the future.

US casualties in Afghanistan are rising, and the Taliban looks stronger than ever. The US urgently needs Pakistani help in Afghanistan. It is getting a mixture of help and sabotage.

Pakistan is cracking down on the Pakistani Taliban, and this diminishes the urgent threat from the Afghan Taliban too. However, the US knows that Pakistan would like to have the Taliban back in Afghanistan eventually, which is why it gives the Afghan Taliban leadership protection to stay in Quetta.

The US lives with this manifest duplicity since it urgently needs at least partial cooperation from Pakistan. Yet, Pakistan’s unreliability as a long‐​term ally is well understood in Washington. The latest Pew Global Attitudes report shows that only 22% of Pakistanis think the US takes their interests into account when making foreign policy decisions, essentially unchanged from 21% since 2007.

Fully 64% of the Pakistani public regards the US as an enemy, while only 9% views it as a partner. So, while the US‐​Pakistan partnership has an urgent short‐​term basis, its longer‐​term prospects are poor, and both sides know it.

A recent report of General McChrystal, US military commander in Afghanistan, has one section that has raised concerns in India. This states that “increasing Indian influence in Afghanistan is likely to exacerbate regional tensions and encourage Pakistani counter‐​measures”.

The statement is obviously true: after all, Pakistan created the Afghan Taliban to reduce Indian influence and increase its own in that country. Indian observers worry that the US will placate Pakistan by trying to reduce India’s role in Afghanistan.

However, whatever McChrystal may say, there is really no chance of the US forcing India to quit its Afghan presence. The US cannot stay in Afghanistan forever, and when it leaves, India will be a more reliable anti‐​terror partner than Pakistan can ever be.

The latest Pew report shows that 76% of Indians have a favourable image of the US, up from 66% in 2008. Indeed, fewer Israelis (71%) have a favourable view of the US than Indians.

Commercial, educational and personal ties between India and the US are strong, and many Indians migrate to the US. Both Indians and Americans see Islamic terror as an existentialist threat. So, economic, social and security considerations provide a solid basis for long‐​term Indo‐​US partnership, even if it lacks the urgency of some other partnerships.

Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek, has succinctly highlighted India’s long‐​term value to the US. “South Asia is a tar‐​pit filled with failed and dysfunctional states, save for one long‐​established democracy of 1.2 billion people that is the second‐​fastest growing major economy in the world, a check on China’s rising ambitions and a natural ally of the US. The prize is the relationship with India. The booby prize is governing Afghanistan.”

As for China, Obama’s recent visit suggested a change of attitude in China’s favour. He did not condemn human rights violations in anything like the terms used by his predecessors.

Given that China is now the global locomotive of growth, helping pull the US economy out of recession, Obama was subdued in criticising China’s mercantilist policies and refusal to revalue the yuan. China is now a major creditor of the US, and debtors cannot be too harsh on their creditors.

The Chinese managed to insert a phrase into the Obama‐​Hu statement saying the two would work for stability in the “south Asia region”. Indian observers took this to mean that the US had officially blessed Chinese interference in Indo‐​Pak affairs, and expressed strong displeasure.

The US said the reference was to Af‐​Pak rather than Kashmir. Yet, it seems clear that China has scored over India on this occasion.

However, this sort of diplomatic point‐​scoring has little long‐​term relevance. China has long been an important ally of Pakistan, aiding its nuclear bomb and building the Karakoram highway and Gwadar port. So, protesting about Chinese ‘interference’ in south Asia is somewhat comic: it has long been a major player, not a mere interferer.

The positive recent development is that China also fears Islamic terrorism, and that complicates its traditional pro‐​Pakistani stance.

The US today rightly views engagement with China as urgent. China has been growing much faster than India for decades, and is streets ahead of India in every economic respect. It is a very important trade partner of the US, and the largest foreign holder of US gilts. Economic circumstances have thrown the two countries together to form what some call Chimerica.

Yet, China’s rising economic strength is getting reflected in rising military strength and assertiveness, and this worries the US. China has potentially dangerous differences with long‐​standing US allies in east Asia, including Japan, Taiwan and South Korea.

Globalisation of China’s economy has the positive effect of making military adventures more disruptive and costly economically. Yet, the greater economic strength globalisation gives China translates into military heft. In this context, India has become important to the US as a potential regional counterweight to China.

Everybody hopes that China will limit its military ambitions, but nobody can be sure. And so, the US sees India as a long‐​term strategic partner with a common interest in containing Chinese expansionism. This is one reason why President Bush pushed so hard for the nuclear deal with India: he saw it underwriting a strategic partnership going well beyond mere nuclear supplies.

This underscores the main thesis of this column: that Indo‐​US ties have less urgency for the Obama administration than ties with Pakistan or China, but have more long‐​term importance. This carries some short‐​term disadvantages, but also major long‐​term advantages.

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