U.S.-India ties lose momentum

by Brahma Chellaney

Was the U.S.-India strategic partnership oversold to the extent that it has failed to yield tangible benefits for the United States? Even as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has just held detailed discussions in New Delhi, an increasing number of analysts in Washington have already concluded that the overhyped relationship is losing momentum.

The skeptics cite two high-visibility issues in particular: India’s rejection of separate bids by Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co. to sell 126 fighter-jets, and New Delhi’s reluctance to snap energy ties with Iran. The discussion over these issues, however, obscures key facts.

Take the aircraft deal. Despite that setback, U.S. firms have clinched several other multibillion-dollar arms deals in recent years. These contracts have been secured on a government-to-government basis, without any competitive bidding. But in the one case where India invited bids, American firms failed to make it beyond the competition’s first round because they did not match the price and other terms offered by the French manufacturer of the Rafale aircraft and the European consortium that makes the Eurofighter Typhoon.

The most-startling yet little-publicized fact is America’s quiet emergence as the largest arms seller to India. In the decade since President George W. Bush launched the vaunted U.S.-Indian strategic partnership, India has fundamentally reoriented its defense procurement, moving away from its traditional reliance on Russia. Indeed, nearly half of all Indian defense deals by value in recent years have been bagged by the United States alone, with Israel a distant second and Russia relegated to the third slot.

Given that India has become the world’s largest arms importer and the U.S. remains the biggest exporter, U.S. firms are set to secure more contracts in India, which plans to spend more than $100 billion over the next four years to upgrade its military capabilities, including by buying submarines, heavy lift and attack helicopters, howitzers, and tanks.

Now consider the Iran issue. Just as the Indian rejection of the Boeing’s F/A 18 and Lockheed-Martin’s F-16 bids has made big news even as the U.S. landing of multiple arms contracts has received little notice, India’s reluctance to publicly support U.S. energy sanctions on Iran has been in the spotlight. Less known has been the quiet Indian strategy since the late 1990s to let the share of Iranian oil in India’s energy imports gradually decline — a trend that has seen the importance of Iranian oil supplies for India considerably weaken.

Few in India consider Iran a friend. But given India’s troubled neighborhood, with the country wedged in an arc of problematic states, New Delhi is reluctant to rupture its ties with Iran, its gateway to Afghanistan — the top recipient of Indian aid. India already has paid a heavy price for taking America’s side on some critical issues in its long-running battle against Iran, even though Washington doesn’t take India’s side in its disputes with China or Pakistan.

The Bush administration persuaded India not to conclude any new long-term energy contracts with Iran, and — in return for a civil nuclear deal with the U.S. — to abandon its plan to build a gas pipeline from Iran. New Delhi, by voting against Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency’s governing board in 2005 and 2006, invited Iranian reprisal in the form of cancellation of a 25-year, $22-billion liquefied natural gas deal with terms highly favorable to India. That deal’s scrapping alone left India poorer by several billion dollars.

Now the U.S. energy embargo against Iran has pushed international oil prices higher, significantly increasing India’s oil bill. The embargo also threatens to undercut India’s import-diversification strategy by making it place most of its eggs in the basket of the Islamist-bankrolling, Saudi Arabia-led oil monarchies that continue to play a role in South Asia detrimental to Indian interests. In fact, thanks to the U.S. embargo against Iran, the swelling coffers of the iron-fisted oil sheikdoms are set to overflow, increasing their leverage in the region and beyond.

Lost in the U.S. public discussion is an important fact — the declining share of Iranian crude in India’s total oil imports as part of a conscious Indian effort to reduce supply-disruption risks linked with the lurking potential for Iran-related conflict. Since 2008 alone, Iranian oil imports have fallen from 16.4 percent to 10.3 percent. Given India’s soaring oil imports and search for new sources of supply, the Iranian share is set to decline further, even without India’s participation in the U.S. embargo.

Make no mistake: India shares U.S. objectives on Iran, but the exigencies of its regional situation compel it to toe a more cautious line.

The repositioning of the U.S.-India relationship was never intended to be transactional. Rather it was designed as an important geostrategic move to underpin Asian security and serve the long-term U.S. and Indian interests. But even if the relationship were viewed in transactional terms, the U.S. has reaped handsome dividends.

On Iran, the right course for U.S. policy would be to encourage India to continue reducing Iranian oil imports by granting it a waiver from American sanctions law — as Washington has to Japan and nine other countries — and by helping to finance the retrofitting of Indian refineries that presently have a technical capacity to process only Iranian oil.

More fundamentally, just as the Bush administration exaggerated the importance of a single deal with India, contending that the nuclear deal would be fundamentally transformative, it is an overstatement that the U.S.-India relationship today is losing momentum. The geostrategic direction of the relationship is irreversibly set — toward closer collaboration.

Even trade between the countries has continued to grow impressively, from $9 billion in 1995 to $100 billion in 2011. While it is too much to expect a congruence of U.S. and Indian national-security objectives in all spheres, the two countries are likely to deepen their cooperation in areas where their interests converge, such as ensuring Asian power equilibrium.

U.S. President Barack Obama had stroked India’s collective ego by inviting Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for his presidency’s first state dinner, leading to the joke that while China gets a deferential America and Pakistan secures billions of dollars in U.S. aid periodically, India is easily won over with a sumptuous dinner and nice compliments.

The mutual optimism and excitement that characterized the blooming U.S.-Indian ties during the Bush years, admittedly, has given way to more realistic assessments as the relationship has matured.

Geostrategic and economic forces, however, continue to drive the two countries closer. Indeed, Obama’s recent pivot to Asia has made closer U.S. strategic collaboration with India critical.

Brahma Chellaney is a Bosch Public Policy Fellow at the Transatlantic Academy in Washington.