U.S.-India Strategic Partnership: Irritants Cast a Shadow

The U.S.-India strategic partnership is moving on an upward trajectory, but not one that is predictably smooth. In fact, after the euphoric “indispensable partners” phase of the second administration of President George W. Bush, when the Civil Nuclear Energy Cooperation Agreement was successfully concluded in July 2005, the pace of growth has slowed down.
Though President Bill Clinton had realised the potential of engaging India and had begun the process to get India out of the nuclear dog house, it was President Bush who made it a key foreign policy initiative. India was recognised as a state with nuclear weapons outside the NPT, given an NSG waiver to import nuclear technology and fuel and allowed to sign an additional protocol with the IAEA to place only its civilian nuclear reactors under international safeguards while keeping strategic facilities out of the scope of safeguards. India was also permitted to reprocess uranium under safeguards for its pressurized heavy water reactors leading to the development of the three-stage thorium fuel cycle. 
Under the Next Steps for Strategic Partnership and the Defence Framework Agreement of June 2005 signed under the Bush administration, the technology denial regime is being gradually eased and defence cooperation has been considerably enhanced. For both the countries, the growing partnership is a hedging strategy against Chinese hegemony in Asia and will prove to be mutually beneficial in case China implodes due to its internal contradictions. 
Notable achievements of the recent past include enhanced counter-terrorism cooperation. The CIA has not only given India substantial evidence about the Mumbai terror attacks of November 2008, but also assisted Indian agencies to interrogate key plotter David Coleman Headley. The sale of U.S. defence equipment to India has gained momentum. Besides P8I Poseidon maritime reconnaissance aircraft, C-130J Super Hercules aircraft for Special Forces, C-17 Globemaster strategic airlift aircraft and the USS Trenton, an amphibious warfare ship, many other defence acquisitions are in the pipeline. India is likely to spend up to US$ 100 billion on defence purchases over the next 10 years. However, India would like to move away from a buyer-seller relationship towards transfer of technology and joint development, joint production and joint marketing of latest weapons and technology.
While the End User Monitoring Agreement was signed recently, the U.S. would like to see early progress on the Logistics Support Agreement (LSA) and the two technology and information safeguards agreements – the Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA) and the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-spatial Cooperation (BECA). India feels slighted at being left out of negotiations for the resolution of the conflict in Afghanistan despite its obvious strategic stakes and immense contribution to the development effort. The sale of conventional arms to Pakistan, including F-16 aircraft and 155mm artillery, ostensibly for counter-insurgency operations, also rankles with India as U.S. arms have emboldened Pakistan to launch both covert and overt military operations against India in the past.
There is no doubt that the growing U.S.-India strategic partnership will define the contours of the geo-politics of the 21st century. However, expectations from president Obama’s forthcoming visit to India are rather low as he has not so far provided the type of leadership and impetus to the relationship that his predecessor had. At best the two countries might sign a free trade agreement, which in itself will be a good step forward for bilateral trade.
(Gurmeet Kanwal is Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi.)