A Strategic Marriage of an Arranged Partnership

Why are hiccups coming in the Indo-US relationship?....lines are getting crossed...

Why are hiccups coming in the Indo-US relationship?....lines are getting crossed...
Why are hiccups coming in the Indo-US relationship?....lines are getting crossed...

Recent actions by the USA are putting the India-US relationship equation on the horns of unwanted dilemmas

Former US president Barack Obama once said that the India-US relationship could be a “defining partnership of the 21st century”[1]. President Joe Biden reiterated this viewpoint recently[2]. I immensely believe in these statements. India and the USA are two democracies that should be natural partners. Together they can counter an assertive China. Their two militaries can collar PLA (People’s Liberation Army) by the scruff of its neck. The democratic world can counter authoritarian China, only if the USA and India are on the same page. The Indo-USA ‘Strategic Partnership’, overcame historic hesitancies. It is an arranged marriage coming of age. Steering the right course was already putting caution in Chinese sails. However, all of a sudden there is an ocean gust. Lines seem to be crossing. Recent actions by the USA are putting this equation on the horns of unwanted dilemmas. It appears the relationship is becoming a ‘Strategic Marriage’ of an ‘Arranged Partnership’.

For reasons best known to it, the USA has ruffled Indian feathers. Its recent FONOPS (Freedom of Navigation Operations) in India’s EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) near the Lakshadweep Islands was publicly toned in the same way such operations in the South China Sea are broadcast. Uncharacteristic between partners. There is renewed talk about imposing CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) related sanctions on India for its S-400 system deal with Russia[3]. An over-publicised US Intel report says that Indo-Pak and Sino-Indian conflicts are in the offing in the next five years. Well, it’s not exactly in the same class as Newton’s discovery of the falling apple. Are these scare tactics? Politicians, officials and interested groups from the USA keep mewing about human rights in India’s J&K, riots, farm laws et al. Such inexplicable interference and stances are unbecoming of a strategic partner. US sanctions on India stopped working from MTCR (Missile Technology Control Regime) days. Now, there is a ban on the export of raw material from the USA for making vaccines. It threatens to hit vaccine production in India. It prompted Adar Poonawala of SII (Serum Institute of India) to tweet a direct request to President Biden[4]. All these actions posit a basic question. If the USA has so many issues with India – is the partnership strategic? Hey! We are supposed to be on the same side. Our common adversary is China. Forgotten that? India has gone out of its way to shed inhibitions and offload baggage, to get into a partnership with the USA. This has been developed and nurtured over two decades.

India seeks a strategic partnership with the USA, based on democratic principles of equality and mutual respect. Two great democracies need to work with each other not nit-pick.

Very significantly, based on this foundational partnership, the QUAD has been formalised. Current US actions, go against the very grain of the ‘spirit of QUAD’ pronounced by its leaders. The QUAD summit emphasised on ‘vaccines’ to position itself as the saviour of the free world. Implicit in this was that Indian and US capabilities would power QUAD to a post-pandemic world bereft of the Chinese virus. The US ban shoots the QUAD in the head. People will wonder, can QUAD be relied on? Chinese will rub their hands in glee and nod heads as if to say – ‘we told you so. The Quad is ineffective’. ‘Packistanis’ (Pakistan) will say that the USA is an unreliable partner. US behaviour is strange and inexplicable. There is a strong case for USA’s lawmakers to re-evaluate their actions.

I will be blunt. The Indo-US partnership must be on equal footing. Gone are the days when the USA could dictate issues to India. Reality should be kept in view. Let me first tackle the Indian issues and then I’ll get to the USA. India is a rising power. It is not dependent on the USA for everything. No brainer. Remember. India dismembered Pakistan and created Bangladesh in 1971, despite the USA wholeheartedly putting its weight behind Pakistan. To forge a strategic partnership with the USA, India has put its historic friendship with Russia on the block[5]. However, let bygones be bygones. It is hereby acknowledged that the USA has assisted India in dealing with Chinese challenges recently. Notwithstanding this, please realise, India can handle China on its own. That is our history. India might suffer a bit more if it goes alone. However, India will not be cowed down. It will not go down. Come what may, India will solve its Chinese problems. It will also not brook outside interference. Ask the ‘Packistanis’. They know it very well. They have been spanked often. The Chinese are learning about it.

The USA knows the Indian Military is battle-hardened and tough as nails. After 1962, it is the only military to stop China in its tracks repeatedly. We also know that India is full of chaos. Abound with contradictions. Always underperforming. But. Always defying odds. Always rising. Prepared to take losses but be able to counter punch. Not prepared to compromise on core issues. Not dependant on anyone beyond a point. India, China and the USA are the only three nations that have the capability of being isolated and self-sufficient. Examine their histories and it pops out. India’s non-alignment stems from these characteristics. India seeks a strategic partnership with the USA, based on democratic principles of equality and mutual respect. Two great democracies need to work with each other not nit-pick.

The USA should look within its own house. The country is divided and going through internal discord. The number of mass shootings in the recent past gives a fair indication of the social instability within the USA. India stands by the USA in enabling it to tide over such issues. However, the USA should stop preaching. Let us look at US strategy. Despite having the strongest and most experienced military in the world it has faced setbacks repeatedly. Examine Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. All these bear one trait- declaring victory despite failure. History will not be kind to the USA in its judgement. It is not the military that will be judged weak but its leadership. Remember the non-existent WMD (Weapon of Mass Destruction) threat used to rachet up a disastrous Gulf War 2? For seven decades, ‘Packistan’ has been its frontline ally cum enemy. It is an open secret. Yet the USA slept with its enemy for 70 years. Any strategic idiot would have told you – Sort out ‘Packistan’ and Afghanistan is automatically sorted out. The USA has lost so many lives in Afghanistan over two decades (unnecessarily) – without once addressing ‘Packistani’ perfidy for endangering its homeland security. The same ‘Packistan’ has dumped the USA to jump into the Chinese bed. The USA did not tackle ‘Packistan’ when it had the military, economic and diplomatic strength. Today and hereafter it cannot handle ‘Packistan’ without India. If the Indo-US strategic partnership goes on the rocks, it frees ‘Packistan’. ‘Packistan’ will then not hesitate to mount an attack on the USA. That attack will come at China’s behest through ‘Packistani’ homegrown Jihadis masquerading as Afghan Taliban/ Al-Qaeda/ ISI. That is a clear and present danger which the USA should recognise. It is more plausible than the fake WMD theory. Take my word for it.

Someone said that ‘Packistan’ is the most dangerous place on earth…Mad Dog Mattis?… Hmm…sensible General (General James Mattis)! It is also a matter of reflection that, the USA chose to look away when China was building and militarising artificial islands in the South China Sea to advance its nine-dash line claims[6]. If China had been stopped then, we would not have the problem we have on our hands today. With the Paracels (Paracel Islands) are firmly in its hands, China has now set sights on usurping the Spratleys (Spratly Islands). All USA seems to be doing is to send its Carrier Task Forces to take close up photographs of the Chinese activity. Very clearly, there are severe limits to American power projection and execution. From another dimension, there is no doubt that China has grown into a monster today due to the combined generosity and greed of a blindsided USA. Why is the USA’s hand being bitten by those which it fed? Think. India is not in that class. That is because India does not have to be fed. The USA must understand that difference. China’s rise was aided by the USA. India’s rise has been despite the USA, China, Russia and its own governments. This rise is of the people – more solid and sustainable despite the challenges.

If the USA has to regain its pre-eminence, it has to do three things:

  • Stretch China to its breakpoint.
  • Emasculate ‘Packistan’
  • Sideline Russia.

The USA and its NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) cum Asian alliances and partnerships cannot help the USA achieve this goal. It is beyond them. The USA and its allies need India for that. Without India – welcome to the unhindered rejuvenation of the Chinese dream and a ‘Packistan’ which is carrying out reconnaissance of the next ‘Twin Towers’. Also, this entire exercise will not be possible without France (a non-NATO power), which often treads its own furrow. For this broader coalition/ arrangement/ partnership beyond QUAD (call it what you may), India is pivotal. China knows that and was wooing India till it burnt its bridges inexplicably. From another angle, India’s rise might get delayed but is unstoppable. Many of my self-deprecating Indians might not believe in it. I repeat. India’s restitution to great power status is an unstoppable virus or no virus, Hindutva or not, aligned or not. Might not be in my lifetime. Maybe in the next or after that. That is predestined and preordained. You cannot stop 1.4 billion people from rising.

Why am I bringing all these issues up? China has grown too strong for any one nation to handle it. With its maverick catspaws in ‘Packistan’ and North Korea, China has acquired unmitigated lethality. If there has to be a strategic balance and equilibrium in global affairs, there is no choice but cooperation between the USA and India. This defining partnership of the 21st Century has to fire on all cylinders if democracies and their shared values must prevail. If the Indo-US base is strong, it will strengthen the QUAD. In turn, the QUAD plus will evolve. India and the USA alone can put China on the horns of a dilemma. They are a military overmatch to China by a mile. Further if ever, the world needs an alternative to China, it is India.

So let us get back to the start point. Recent events indicate that a part of the USA has its old-time problems with India. This is the same section that loves ‘Packistan’ and wants to continue with business as usual with China. It also consists of many Americans of Indian origin who act more Indian than India and more American than America. This dangerous pontificating variety has to be caged. Overall, the USA has to look within to resolve its internal issues. Even in India, there is a substantial population that still does not trust the USA. India has to get over its own inhibitions. In my personal opinion, both countries must go that one extra step to untangle lines and make this relationship a success. Unless these two democracies work in tandem and bring their mutual strengths to the table together, we will look at a ‘Chinese Rules-Based Global Order’. That is the bottom line. However, from my perspective – we must have fall-back options and India must be prepared to go alone also. That’s been our history. Let us endeavour to be truly Atmanirbhar. If it comes to a situation where we have to handle Pakistan and China on our own, we must be prepared to do that. As Rabindranath Tagore said “ Ekla Chalo Re”. I hope it does not come to that.

1. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of PGurus.


[1] Indo-US ties can be defining partnership of 21st Century: ObamaDec 01, 2017, Economic Times

[2] Joe Biden believes India-US partnership is defining relationship of 21st CenturyNov 08, 2020, Live Mint

[3] Ignoring US objections, India to send 100 air force officials soon to Moscow for training to operate S-400 Missile systems. Supply to start only in December 2021Jan 20, 2021, PGurus.com

[4] US export curbs can limit COVID-19 vaccine production, availability: SII CEO Adar PoonawallaMar 05, 2021, Economic Times

[5] India–Russia relations – Wikipedia

[6] How did the South China Sea dispute begin and where is it headed?Jul 29, 2020, Scroll.in

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Served four decades in the Indian Army as a Gunner in multiple operational areas and appointments with pride, honour and dignity. Currently professor in Aerospace Department of IIT Madras. Mentoring young minds. The transition from a three star general to a academic has been exciting. Sharing some of my experiences and views through this blog.
Lt Gen P R Shankar
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