Milan Vaishnav on U.S.-India military relations

Milan Vaishnav is a senior fellow in the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His primary research focus is the political economy of India, and he examines issuaes such as corruption and governance, state capacity, distributive politics, and electoral behavior.

He is the author of “When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle in Indian Politics” (Yale University Press and HarperCollins India, 2017) and co-editor (with Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Devesh Kapur) of the new book “Rethinking Public Institutions in India” (Oxford University Press, 2017). His work has also been published in scholarly journals such as India Review, India Policy Forum, and Latin American Research Review. He is a regular contributor to several Indian publications.

Previously, he worked at the Center for Global Development, where he served as a postdoctoral research fellow, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and the Council on Foreign Relations. He has taught at Columbia, Georgetown, and George Washington Universities. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from Columbia University. He spoke with Aaron Yang CMC '17 on April 12, 2017.

Photograph and bio courtesy of CEIP. Milan Vaishnav talked with Jenifer Hanki '20 on October 20th, 2017.

Can you briefly describe the history of U.S.-India defense cooperation? What is the impetus and how far the two countries have come along as partners? Did the recent visit by Defense Secretary James Mattis produce new agreements?

The entire U.S.-India relationship has undergone a complete transformation in the last ten to fifteen years. After independence, India pursued a policy of non-alignment where it set out to be allies with none but a friend to all. India followed what a doctrine of “strategic autonomy” to avoid getting sucked in the Cold War push-and-pull between the Eastern and Western blocs. There was a feeling of equi-distance, not solely from the United States but also from the Soviet Union. Over time, that began to shift particularly after 1971 when the U.S. and Pakistan moved much closer together and the U.S. perceived Pakistan to be became the primary bulwark against Soviet expansionism and South and Central Asia. India, in turn, moved closer to the Soviet sphere of influence.

Part of this shift was also ideological, in the sense that India had had a socialist planned economy rather than a free market economy which found a lot of encouragement and ideological affinity with the Soviet Union. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Soviet Union, India opened up its economy which had dramatic and immediate ramifications for its foreign policy. Over night, one of its closest partners— the Soviet Union—no longer existed, and as India embraced globalization, trade, and investment it naturally grew closer to the United States.

I think the big breakthrough in U.S.-India relations happened during the George W. Bush administration when India was still somewhat of a pariah due to its nuclear weapons program. It was under sanction by the United States and the two countries had very frosty relations. For strategic reasons, the George W. Bush administration worked very diligently to bring India back into the mainstream by regularizing its nuclear program and fostering a strategic partnership for the twenty-first century. What we are seeing now is the reaping of those benefits. Today, the two defense establishments train and exercise together regularly. They exchange highly sensitive intelligence information and hold regular strategic consultations about the Asia Pacific in particular, and transnational and global threats more generally. India is not a treaty ally of the United States but it is a strategic partner and an increasingly closer one with each passing year.

This year the U.S. and India are starting their thirteenth iteration of the Yudh Abhyas series of joint military exercises. Do their activities solely involve UN peacekeeping purposes or do they have other objectives?

I think while the primary objective of those exercises is to strengthening peacekeeping capacities, there are second and third-order benefits. For instance, there is a positive spill over for counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency cooperation. There are the potential building blocks of bringing the two militaries together to work on third-party issues of replicating that in a non-peacekeeping context. Those exercises are often conducted in parallel with high-level strategic conversation between the U.S.-India about pressing hotspots. Therefore, it is by no means restricted to peacekeeping although that may be the stated objective. The potential benefits go far beyond the narrow world of peacekeeping.

Although there have been good times for U.S.-India military relations, such as the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement, are U.S.-India relations entering a rough spot under the new U.S. administration?

Well, the simple truth is this: there is a lot of uncertainty around the Trump administration’s foreign policy. This extends to almost every country around the world, whether it be China, India, Iran, or Mexico; this is not an India specific issue. To date what we’ve seen in the last nine months of this administration is broad strategic continuity with the past few U.S. administrations in terms of highlighting that the U.S.-India strategic partnership remains a cornerstone of our foreign and defense policies. The Trump administration says it wants to deepen and broaden that relationship, but the substance has yet to be filled out and we are just starting to see the outlines of a more detailed South Asia strategy, in which India stands as the most prominent protagonist. But, due to the personnel shortfalls in the U.S. government and the slow pace at which these appointments are being filled, I think we are not going to see muscle on those bones for another several months. Overall, I think the broad trend is one of continuity insofar as India is concerned, but I think a lot of the details have not been filled in.

Recently, President Trump called on India to assist the U.S. in Afghanistan with “economic assistance and development.” But India has not responded positively, and a former Indian foreign minister said that “Surely money is the least relevant consideration.” What does this mean for India’s involvement in Afghanistan? What’s behind India’s apparent reluctance to get involved in Afghanistan?

I don’t think that India has rebuffed calls for economic assistance. I would characterize things slightly differently. I think India has already proven itself to be a steadfast diplomatic and development partner of Afghanistan by providing economic assistance and through other forms of governance and aid. For instance, India helped fund and build the Afghan parliament building which is a centerpiece of their efforts. The Indians are keen to grow that civilian relationship. Where the United States has been less successful is in trying to raise the prospect of putting Indian boots in Afghanistan, and that is a clear red line for the Indian government. They don’t think sending troops to Afghanistan is a good domestic move and it would also complicate what are already very tense relations in the South Asian neighborhood, particularly with their neighbor and arch-rival to the west, Pakistan.

Rex Tillerson has been clear that he believes Pakistan is critical for regional stability. But Pakistan and India see each other as mortal threat. How can the U.S. maintain amiable relations with India while trying to work with Pakistan?

The U.S. has actually made a strategic choice which is that it believes that India is the lynchpin in its Asia-Pacific strategy. This is simply a factual statement, but Pakistan is not on the same level as India. It does not have the same track record of democracy. It has provided safehaven and even outright assistance at times to militant insurgent groups which have been implicated in cross-border terrorism in both India and in Afghanistan. The relations between India and Pakistan have substantially cooled over the last decade or so. It is true the United States needs to have a relationship with Pakistan. For instance, it’s hard to solve the Afghanistan conundrum without the involvement of Pakistan. A lot of NATO supply lines into Afghanistan have to pass through Pakistan. In terms of the preeminence of the U.S.-India partnership, that is unchallenged. I don’t think the U.S. and Pakistan interact at that same level.

It appears that the U.S. is trying to leverage its relationship with India to counter China’s growing influence. How would you assess the success of this effort to the extent that the U.S. indeed has this objective?

It’s too soon to tell, but I’ll try to give a little bit more of a substantive answer. Clearly, part of the George W. Bush administration’s decision to forge a strategic partnership with India (via the signing of the U.S. nuclear accord) was to help promote India as an alternative power center in the Pacific region. After all, India is a democratic power with which we share a lot of values and mutual interests. In addition, India is an increasingly important trade and investment partner for the United States. So the subtext of promoting India as a strategic hedge against China is certainly present. From a U.S. perspective, China has not always observed international norms and it it seems to have greater ambitions of expanding its sphere of influence.

At a macro level, I would say that the U.S. has not come up with a diplomatic strategy that is fully in sync with these larger strategic objectives. For instance, the Trump administration’s withdrawal frmo from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) creates a huge vacuum which China will certainly seek to fill. As you probably know, China is championing an alternative trade agreement the RCEP, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which India is a part of. There is some concern in New Delhi that by withdrawing from the Asia-Pacific and stepping back from an assumed global leadership role, that the United States is essentially paving the way for China to fill its place. That’s a very worrying prospect for New Delhi.

The U.S. has been trying to get India to downsize their nuclear arsenal without offering explicit support for getting a permanent seat on the UN security council. Do you see this as a potential sore point in bilateral relations?

The politics of the U.N. Security Council seat are obviously complicated and I think what the U.S. has done is to welcome the idea of an expanded U.N. Security Council composition in which India would prominently figure. So they have definitely publicly backed the idea of U.N. Security Council seats for India. The problem is that the politics around that to get the other P-5 members, namely China and Russia to agree, is difficult. China has no interest in welcoming India onto the Security Council. Without the P-5 in agreement, this proposal to expand the UNSC is going nowhere fast. So right now, the U.S. backing India’s seat without having to do very much due to the other members vetoing such a proposition is quite strategic. There is not much the U.S. can frankly do to change that equation in the short-run other than providing some diplomatic encouragement. That it is a source of frustration, certainly, for India. At the same time, New Delhi doesn’t hold the United States responsible. The U.S. can certainly push diplomatically, but China is unlikely to waver anytime soon. India knows the politics well and so can hardly blame the United States for not making Security Council expansion happen.

What needs to be done to advance U.S.-India relationship to a higher and more productive level?

If you look at the broad leap of U.S.-India relations, where the partnership has really succeeded is on the defense side, so we see a much more strategic convergence between the United States and India. There are growing bonds between the two militaries. We’ve seen that with the Logistics Memorandum, an intensified regimen of military exercises, and several new initiatives –– such as the co-production and co-development of defense hardware, . What’s lagged behind is the economic partnership. So the economic partnership has two aspects: there’s the private part which is basically companies investing in India and trading with one another, and that’s made progress; however, the government-to-government relationship—whether it’s a trade agreement or a bilateral investment treaty and finding ways to include India into a broader multilateral regional organization like APEC, those things have lagged behind. So there are a number of thorny issues in the economic domain—they include everything from high skilled worker visas for Indians to domestic protectionism in India when it comes to imports of U.S. goods. That’s really where the two countries have to dedicate themselves to try to forge compromise. My concern is that with this particular administration in the United States, especially the kind of protectionist rhetoric coming from the White House like the withdrawal from TPP and the potential withdrawal from NAFTA, we are unlikely to see much happen in the next three years on the government-to-government aspect of the economic partnership.

Jenifer Hanki CMC '20Student Journalist

Featured Image by U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Brian D. Lehnhardt ([1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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