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A real look at US-India relations

President Biden has not yet called Prime Minister Imran Khan. Pakistanis are rightly upset but largely for the wrong reasons. In the media discourse and in official statements there are insinuations that US-India relations might be one of the reasons.

The truth is Pakistan is looking for answers in the wrong place because it continues to believe that the US should treat Pakistan and India equally, a belief resting on an obsolete world view. This notion deals with a world that is no more: a world of the cold-war days when there was a geopolitical and ideological conflict between two opposing systems that subordinated most countries to one camp or the other. Pakistan cannot somehow wean itself away from the false pride of having been a preferred ally of the US compared to India during those ‘halcyon’ days.

Pakistan continues to see America’s interests and relationships in South Asia confined to the region and limited to India and Pakistan like during the cold war. No wonder India keeps coming up in any conversation about the US Pakistan relations. But the fact is there is a new world now whose arrival was heralded by the fall of the Berlin Wall, offering great new economic and strategic opportunities, and then reiterated with a bang by 9/11 that presented grave new threats. Along with these changes has come the phenomenal rise of China that brilliantly bridged the pre- and post-cold-war eras to its own benefit and that of the world.

It is a world that is globalized, integrated and interdependent, offering great possibilities for global prosperity and allowing countries to rise economically as well as militarily following the devolution of power that used to be monopolized by two superpowers. Middle powers like India, whose potential was held down by the straight jacket of the cold war, have been ‘liberated’ and are rising. And those like Pakistan closely tied to the apron strings of a superpower are floundering, vainly trying to reignite old alliances.

Enhancing economic benefits while tackling unprecedented non-traditional threats, including transnational threats like climate change in a multipolar geopolitical environment under the umbrella of an intense US-China competition that will define the future international relations. In this world, India and Pakistan would have different roles for the US. The two relationships have different trajectories propelled by different dynamics.

Of course, one relationship affects the other and it is quite legitimate for Pakistanis to talk about it. But to keep comparing the two relationships or looking for the meaning of one in the other or to consider them zero sum in that the gain by India is a loss by Pakistan is misguided. Yes, Pakistan has a strategic parity of sorts with India, but its significance is bilateral. It does not enhance Pakistan’s international stature.

The US no longer considers India as an erstwhile South Asian power that couldn’t even manage its relationship with a smaller rival. India has broken through the South Asian ceiling and has acquired global status – though not entirely due to its own achievements but because of vested American patronage.

Clearly, there are strong economic and strategic reasons for the US to have a special relationship with India. But there’s more to it. And that is domestic politics. Domestic politics affects foreign policy to varying degrees in every country but nowhere is its influence so dominant as in the US. Indians are now the most affluent ethnic minority in the US and have significant political clout in the Congress.

Indians are close behind the Jewish community in occupying highly acclaimed positions in the academia and the think tank community on account of their scholastic achievements giving them influence in the media and the public opinion. They have played a visible role in think tanks, both liberal and conservative, especially those closer to the military industrial complex in creating this hype about China pushing US India relations as the answer to the US strategic dilemma. Their presence is also rising in the government. They have thus a considerable policy clout.

The politics and policy of the US relationship with India is in alignment – like in the case of Israel. They can influence US policy towards India and also get political support for it both in the White House and in the Congress. Their profile in the corporate sector is also on the ascendance. And as we know the American corporate sector has substantial influence on policy and politics in the US.

Indian policies back home have no doubt helped. Beginning in 1991, India has been on a steady march to foster external relations conducive to its economic growth and technological development. This would define how it engaged with great powers, especially the US, thus raising its economic weight, military potential, and diplomatic stature. It helps India’s hegemonic ambitions in South Asia, and most importantly puts the Kashmir issue beyond Pakistan’s diplomatic reach.

In sum, India has an important economic relationship with the US, is a major importer of defence equipment and a recipient of FDI. We should not see only China writ large on the relationship. There is more to the US-India relations than China. Look at the language used by the US Secretary of State Blinken during his recent visit to India. No relationship of the US, Blinken said, is as vital as US-India relations. And remember Condi Rice. As the national security adviser in the first term of the Bush administration, she said that the US wanted to help India become a great power. Later in 2005 when the US announced its nuclear deal with India, she said that the same deal could not be given to Pakistan as the nuclear issue had different histories in both countries.

Pakistan’s profile on the other hand has been declining. In the last few decades, especially since the end of the cold war, Pakistan literally seems to have lost its way in foreign policy which has become too security oriented – and that too focused on internal security challenges. Pakistan has suffered from the blowback of not only its own policies in the region but also that of the ill-conceived policies of its partner the US, particularly in the last two decades.

An added factor has been the related issue of weak economy and poor governance which made Pakistan indebted to others and thus subordinated to their interests. Pakistan lost not only the autonomy of decision-making but also diplomatic influence. Acclaimed Indian analyst Raja Mohan has depicted Pakistan’s decline in a well-argued piece in the Indian Express, ‘Lessons from Pakistan: How to Win Friends, Influence Allies, Then Squander It All’.

All is not lost for Pakistan, though. Pakistan has a critically important relationship with China. But instead of using this relationship to become strong, for which it has the potential, Pakistan is relying on borrowed strength. It may now be trying to be on the right track with the policy shift to geoeconomics. But statements are not equivalent to policy. Geoeconomics would also need an enabling environment like a stable Afghanistan and a moderate Pakistan. Extremist elements affect societal attitudes, inhibiting progressive outlook and inclusive world view.

If Pakistan can present itself as a credible economic partner, it will attract American interest. The US also needs Pakistan’s cooperation in Afghanistan and in counterterrorism. So, there are possible areas of convergence. There will of course be areas of divergence as well, like China and relations with India. If there is pressure from Washington on this account, Pakistan should be able to resist it if it has strength. The stronger you are, the more successful the resistance. Pakistan just needs to get serious, not just in thought but in action. It can do it. And not waste its time waiting for a telephone call.

Touqir Hussain, "A real look at US-India relations," The News. 2021-08-14.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political clout , US-India relations , Governance , Economy , Terrorism , Raja Mohan , PM Imran Khan , China , Afghanistan , FDI