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Strategists must break out of ‘areas’ to find options

Some US ‘India experts’ see the country primarily in terms of the extremely limited Indo-Pak hyphen.

Cleo Paskal  Manipal | 24th Jan 2015

The concept of Indo-US relations is multifaceted, complex and changing. It could refer to counterterrorism cooperation, academic exchanges, defence procurement, investment, tourism, technological cooperation, immigration, strategic alignment or endless other points of contact.

Much of this engagement will continue, and grow, regardless of who is in 7 Race Course Road or the White House. That is important to remember. The relationship between the Republic of India and the United States of America almost certainly will have headline grabbing ups and downs, but in many other sectors, the ties will continue to bind, and likely tighten.

For example, the Indo-American community in the US is one of the best educated and richest in the country. And, increasingly, it's organised. Its lobby in Washington is one of the largest and most influential. This clout went public when dozens of elected members of the Senate and House of Representatives stood on stage at Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Madison Square Garden event, hoping for the attention, votes and cash of that coveted demographic. That influence from the inside is likely to grow, especially as politicians focus on 2016 and beyond.

However, until recently, the systems at the top of both countries generally served to slow the thrust towards more cooperation, sometimes in order to favour narrow bands of interest, sometimes due to serious disagreements on security issues.

Recently though, Washington has shown a renewed willingness to smooth over some of those road bumps. The resignation of US ambassador Nancy Powell, the investigation of Robin Raphael and, of course, the Republic Day visit by President Obama all signal that, at least at the very top, there is a renewed interest in creating a new "India narrative" in Washington.

So, let's look at the myriad challenges to this single component of engagement.

One of the big challenges is structural. In US strategic circles the world is a divided up region, with experts confined to certain geographic silos (this is a common practice globally).

In this rapidly reconfiguring world, this presents problems. For example, after the break-up of the Soviet Union, the "Central Asian" experts were mostly former Soviet experts — Russian speakers who were used to focusing on shenanigans in Moscow. However, the Central Asian states started to use their own languages and drifted towards China. Additionally, tendrils of Wahhabism, funded in part by Saudi Arabia and facilitated by events in Afghanistan and elsewhere, started to probe the region. That left some analysts blind to rapidly evolving changes. They were trained to look for one set of signals, and so missed some of the new ones.

Similarly, in some cases, the outlook of US "India experts" is shaped by a time when India was at its nadir of global engagement, and so they see the country primarily in terms of the extremely limited Indo-Pak hyphen.

To complicate engagement, some Indian strategists have a hard time believing that any sector of the US strategic community wants to work with Indians as trusted equals. In Delhi, the memories of 1971 are still fresh. Repeated wounds, such as not handing over David Headley, make healing harder. Additionally, some senior members of India's military, strategic and diplomatic communities still think that India is, at best, an Indian Ocean power, nothing more.

So the two limited views meet and discuss in the comfort of their silos.

Meanwhile, some in the US see India differently. And within the Indian strategic, military and diplomatic communities, limited views are being challenged by a confident junior cadre, guided by experienced seniors who feel that India's time has come (again).

This doesn't necessarily mean militarily. Again, analysis can be quite narrow in this regard. An increasingly important group of strategists in India seek to recreate a time when India was an important economic, scientific and spiritual centre. This desire is being supported by many of its neighbours.

At the recent India Ideas Conclave in Goa, both the current Sri Lankan ambassador to the US and the former Prime Minister of Bhutan noted that when India's economy grows, so do theirs. They then called for India to move ahead on economic and security unions in the region that didn't (at least initially) include nations that try to block multilateral engagement, such as Pakistan and China.

To someone used to the India narrative common in the West, this would come as a surprise. It shouldn't have. Places as far afield as Africa and the South Pacific want greater engagement in a range of areas with India. As a small example, many prefer low cost, reliable Indian pharmaceuticals to dodgy Chinese or expensive Western products. This is where the West has to make a decision. Will it put narrow sectoral economic interests ahead of general growth and stability, leading to larger and wider-spread economic gains? Or not?

This is directly relevant in the case of the sort of economic and security union proposed by some of India's neighbours. If it gains traction, there will be a lot of kicking and screaming (and likely attempted sabotage) from Islamabad and Beijing. But if a strategic long-term approach is chosen, probably one of the best things the US could do for security, prosperity and stability in the region is not to put up roadblocks. There might be short-term losses for specific interests, and outside players may have less direct "control" than they are used to, but the long-term growth, stability and naturally friendly US policies would more than compensate.

This is a dynamic that the US will face globally as new geopolitical constellations appear. If they ever were, relationships are certainly not binary anymore. With us or against us doesn't work. The India-US relationship affects, and is affected by, India and US' relationships with other nations. As well as by complex networks of sub national engagement that can, for example, lead from Modi not having a US visa, to having dozens of US Congress-people vying to share a stage with him in New York City.

The implications reach far beyond what many strategists think is India's sphere of influence. So, Japan's concern about China plays into its relationship with India, a relationship that will largely be outside the US remit, but will affect how Washington views Delhi.

If US policymakers decide to ride that wave, rather than try to divert it, it might mean that, as India and Japan grow closer, a whole new set of options appear before the US. For instance, a new naval lend lease programme for allied states such as India or the Philippines may allow for a substantial lessening of the load while maintaining an influential position in the Indo-Pacific. Or not. Who knows — until a very wide range of expertise plays it all out.

Which is the point. Just like the Indo-US relationships, the world is more multifaceted, complex and changing than ever. It presents new challenges. But also new options for those who look. Some may work out, some may fail. But they should at least be examined and assessed.

What is needed is strategic analysis that is truly global, interconnected, adaptable and long term. The expertise is there, it just tends to be structurally boxed in. Strategic silos are no longer fit for purpose — if they ever were.

All who care about democracy, open debate, opportunity, innovation, and pluralistic societies would profit if strategists in the US and India manage to break out of their boxes and find areas where they can truly maximise their engagement for the benefit of all, while still safeguarding areas of national priorities. Area specialists, tear down these walls!

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