WASHINGTON: Things are going great with India — don’t screw it up.
That’s the bottom line in a report from the influential Center for Strategic and International Studies entitled “US-India Military Engagement: Steady As They Go,” which the think tank previewed today as President Obama tours through Asia.
“[Go] slow and steady, and the trajectory is inevitably upward,” summed up report author S. Amer Latif in an exchange with Breaking Defense after today’s briefing. (Latif, a Pentagon official on loan to CSIS as a visiting scholar, emphasized he was speaking for himself, not for the Department of Defense. But he is returning to the Office of the Secretary of Defense in a few weeks and he is an influential voice on policy). “The relationship is going to move at a pace that’s comfortable for India.”
“It’s important that we realize how far we’ve come,” retired Adm. Walter Doran, the former commander of Pacific Fleet, told the audience at CSIS, “lest it succumb to the fatigue and the frustration that is flowing around the overall relationship.” Doran, who attended India’s Defense Services Staff College as a young officer in 1979, is more familiar with the subcontinental pace than most US officers. Now is the time, he said, to “reignite” the US-India relationship.
US outreach to populous, growing, democratic India has increased in parallel to American anxiety about the rise of populous, growing authoritarian China. But India has a 60-year tradition of “non-alignment” in great power quarrels and is hesitant even to project power in its own immediate region.
So while New Delhi has its own worries about Beijing — the two countries even fought a brief and, for India, humiliating border war in 1962 — and an increasing assertive regional stance, it has no interest in becoming Washington’s wingman in a Pacific strategy of containment. Indian’s security apparatus is more concerned about internal ethnic unrest, terrorism, and neighboring Pakistan than it is about global or even regional geopolitics. Despite common values of democracy and diversity, despite a common heritage of British colonization and the English language, the US and India remain deeply different countries with divergent strategic goals. As anyone who’s been to Calcutta could tell you, Australia it ain’t.
Latif’s report boils down to cautious optimism, with equal emphasis on “optimism” and on “cautious.” Despite American frustrations that things are progressing too slowly and Indian anxieties that they’re moving too fast, cooperation with India has gone farther than “most knowledgeable observers” would ever have predicted ten years ago, he writes, and we can go still further — so don’t blow it up by pushing them too hard. Again and again, Latif repeats that the US must have “reasonable expectations,” “modest expectations,” and must “refrain from pressuring India about [formal] defense agreements” or even from “overpublicizing military engagement” that already goes on.
There’s certainly a lot of military engagement to publicize. After decades of estrangement and suspicion, when the US armed India’s arch-rival Pakistan while India bought Soviet weapons, India now conducts more military exercises with the US than it does with any other nation. That’s especially remarkable considering that the US and India didn’t engage in exercises together at all until 1992, and that just six years later, in 1998, the US imposed sanctions on both India and Pakistan after their dueling nuclear tests — sanctions which George W. Bush waived within two weeks of 9/11 as he sought regional support against Afghanistan.
Latif attributes the turnaround less to the assiduous diplomatic outreach by both the Bush and Obama administrations than to the trial by fire of the December 2004 tsunami, which brought US and Indian commanders together in doing disaster relief.
Doran commanded the Pacific Fleet at the time — and one of his former classmates from the staff college, Adm. Arun Prakash, was India’s Chief of Naval staff. “We were all scrambling,” Doran recalled. “There was no [formal] command apparatus that we were working under,” he said. Yet, in the crucible of a natural disaster, the two sides came together, improvised, and cooperated in a way no formal process could have produced, he said: “If our two governments had decided to sit down and do this, it would’ve been difficult and would’ve taken a much longer period of time.”
Just months later, the two nations signed a landmark military cooperation agreement and joint exercises began to take off. US-Indian cooperation, historically led by the two nations’ navies, has even expanded to their respective air forces and armies — although, Latif added, in those areas “the strategic underpinnings of the relationship are a little bit more nebulous,” with few specific scenarios for cooperation in the air or on the ground as opposed to at sea. Disaster relief and humanitarian aid, Latif argues, provide the most fertile ground for the US and India to build cooperation and trust across all their armed services without triggering India’s decades-long anxieties about military alliances.
It’s Indian politicians and civil servants, not the officer corps, that Latif sees as the obstacles to engagement. In particular, “the civilian bureaucracy in the Ministry of Defense is an impediment to closer US-India ties,” he said at CSIS, eliciting knowing chuckles around the room. “We consistently found when you talk to the services [i.e. the uniformed military], there is a hunger, there is a great desire to see closer service-to-service relations. But unfortunately, the civilian overseers within the Indian bureaucracy have some reservations.”
Indeed, the Ministry of Defense is not only reluctant about closer cooperation but just plain understaffed to conduct it. Latif recommends the MOD set up a high-level policy shop to serve as a counterpart and interlocutor for the Office of the Secretary of Defense. (He may be grinding a personal axe here, since Latif was OSD’s chief policy official engaging with India for years).
Latif also urges new avenues for collaboration ranging from training more Afghan soldiers and police in India (already underway at a low level) to cooperating on tracking space debris. His most significant recommendations include more exchanges of officers between the US and Indian militaries, joint patrols in the Indian Ocean, and even granting India access to the US mega-base at Diego Garcia in return for US access to India’s strategically located Andaman and Nicobar Islands. But the US should not expect a formal agreement on, say, logistical support any time soon, Latif cautions, and pushing for one could backfire.
So while the US should try to move the relationship onto a more permanent, institutional footing than the ongoing military exercises, “the Indian side may not feel that such a transition is necessary,” he writes. “India feels that military engagement is going quite well and there is no need for further activity [because] the relationship has reached a plateau.” The strategic task for the US is to urge India onwards and upwards towards greater collaboration, without trying to tackle slopes so steep that the relationship tumbles back downhill.
“The US-India relationship is going to be a generational issue,” said Adm. Doran. “As Americans, that’s kind of a difficult pill for us to swallow; we tend to want to move quickly…. This will not develop that way. This is going to be a generational issue — but it is worth a generation of work.”