Review: Friends with Benefits; The India-US Story by Seema Sirohi
A new book aims to show that the relationship between India and the US has shifted from being one of mutual suspicion to one of mutual conviviality
It is a universally accepted rule that friendship is between equals. So, Seema Sirohi’s book Friends with Benefits: The India-US Story got me wondering when these two nations (poles apart in national power, political determination to enforce deterrence, world view, and statecraft) were actually friends, with the US willing to give and take benefits. Interestingly, Henry Kissinger in his book Diplomacy wrote, “Used to the two-power world which existed during the Cold War, the US, at no time in its history had participated in a balance-of-power (give and take cooperation) system.”
Consider the strategic objectives of India and the US in their unequal relationship. Starting with Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s 1985 visit to the US, the country’s stated objective was to get US high-end and dual-use technology. This objective remains unfulfilled. The Vajpayee and Modi governments added India’s second unstated objective: to be identified as being close to the US.
The US objectives, on the other hand, kept pace with geopolitics. In 1985, the strategic objective of the US was to wean India away from the Soviet camp. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, conscious of India’s size, geography, potential, and large standing military, Lt Gen Claude M Kicklighter from the US Pacific Command visited India in 1991 and offered military cooperation across the defence services. From 1998, when India did the nuclear tests and until 2008 when India signed the Indo-US 123 agreement, which closed the Indo-US civil nuclear deal (called the framework document of 18 July 2005) to the satisfaction of the Americans, non-proliferation was the sole objective of the US. They succeeded in this.
Since then, the strategic objective of the United States has been defence trade for interoperability, and support for US military architecture in the Asia Pacific (renamed Indo-Pacific in May 2018). A month before taking over the US Pacific Command, Admiral Harry Harris told me in April 2015 that his objective was joint combat patrols between the two militaries. This critical US strategic objective was accomplished on 27 October 2020, when India signed the last of the four US military foundational agreements — Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) — in a tearing hurry during the Trump administration, a week before the US went for voting in the presidential elections. This is where Sirohi’s book ends with the perplexing remark, “Personalities will continue to matter in driving the India-US relationship, because it’s still young and not on autopilot.”
The reality is different. The bilateral relationship is now firmly in the clutches of the US, which is known to alter goalposts. With the signing of the four military agreements of the US, India has aligned its security policy with that nation’s Indo Pacific strategy, which is based on “integrated deterrence” (or military power of the US, its allies, and its sole Major Defence Partner, India) against China.
India has accepted its role as the bulwark of the United States against China in the Indian Ocean Region for three reasons: One, as Sirohi says, Prime Minister Modi threw a challenge to his top diplomats saying “Kuch bara karo” (“Do something big”). Two, Modi’s assertion to Russian President Vladimir Putin that “Today’s era must not be of war.” Given this assessment, the Indian military expects, at worst, a limited war with China. And three, by piggybacking on US military power, India hopes to take on the People’s Liberation Army’s challenge in the IOR, which it traditionally considers its backyard.
The quid pro quo is this: the Indo Pacific command has operationally included the Indian military in its global geopolitical competition with China being played out in the Indo Pacific region. With this makeover, India hopes to compete regionally with China. Since no nation can become a geostrategic power (nations with capability, capacity, and political will to influence events way beyond their borders) on borrowed military strength, especially when India is neither a military ally nor a non-NATO partner, India is embarked on a dangerous game.
The strategic congruence of the US and India is not that they are democracies, but that both are worried about China. This message should have been clearly stated in the book but is not.
Perhaps the intention of the writer was not to analyse milestones in the roller-coaster relationship as these would have exposed the perils of the relationship, but to show that the perspective has shifted from being one of mutual suspicion to one of mutual conviviality. In this, the author has succeeded partially as, living in the US, she has had access to US Congress staffers, conventional Beltway wisdom, Indian Americans, and of course, the Indian embassy.
Take India’s May 1998 nuclear tests, when US arrogance and naivety came through. The Clinton administration leaked PM Vajpayee’s confidential letter written to the US President blaming China and the nexus between China and Pakistan as the reasons for India’s tests to the New York Times. This resulted in a tighter embrace on strategic material between India’s two adversaries. Then, the US “almost handed over management of South Asia to China as the kotwal.”
Given this, the two questions that go unanswered in this book are: What was the real purpose behind India’s nuclear tests? And why did the US give a free hand to China to draft the UN Resolution 1172, dated 6 June 1998, which stated that India should sign the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty as non-nuclear weapon state?
Similarly, why did the US abruptly end the 2004 “Next Steps in Strategic Partnership” initiative that it had choreographed after phase one instead of the negotiated three phases? The answer to this would explain why the India-US 2005 framework document or civil nuclear deal was full of landmines for India.
The most applauded issue in India was when President George Bush met Natwar Singh in the Oval Office. This was “was meant to reassure India that de-hyphenation from Pakistan was serious.” The reality is that hyphenation comes naturally to India. For example, at present, far more troops face the Line of Control with Pakistan than the Line of Actual Control with China. And Pakistan is regularly invoked, especially by the Modi government, to win Indian elections.
The book is a feel-good commentary on a consequential relationship. However, it misses the critical imperative that today the US needs India more than at any time in history. And in that miss lies the truth about “friends” hoping to benefit from each other.
Pravin Sawhney’s recent book is The Last War: How AI Will Shape India’s Final Showdown with China.