Can Washington be a Good Ally?
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the United States has generated global interests over the course of the Indo-US relations. There is no reason why India should blindly follow America in a military adventure in Taiwan or elsewhere
A question has been going around in the strategic circles in the recent weeks: should India enter into a military alliance with the US and will the US be a good ally?
Quoting several experts, The Scroll.in noted: “India may eventually help the United States militarily in a security contingency involving China, in some form, to protect its own interests.”
The Indian digital news publication also cites other views, for example an article of Ashley Tellis in The Foreign Affairs magazine in which the US strategist argues that the US policy “of courting India as a partner is a ‘bad bet’ because New Delhi will not follow Washington’s lead in confronting China during a regional crisis.”
There is indeed some truth in the argument as there is no reason why India should blindly follow Washington in a military adventure in Taiwan or elsewhere.
The Scroll.in mentions “a long discussion in foreign policy circles: what exactly should a US-India relationship look like in the age of Great Power rivalry between Washington and Beijing?”
It notes that the US “has increasingly supported India when it comes to defence, hoping that Delhi will reciprocate with military help in case of a confrontation with China.”
While Tellis rightly considers that Delhi would maintain its strategic autonomy in case Washington engages in the Taiwan Strait, other experts believe that even if Delhi does sign a mutual defence arrangement with Washington, India is “still a good bet for Washington.” They argue that Delhi may eventually come around to helping the United States militarily. Just wishful thinking!
The ‘experts’ quote in particular from a US News & World Report which says that “real-time intelligence shared by the United States military helped India stall a Chinese incursion in Arunachal Pradesh in December 2022.”
This refers to the confrontation in Yangtse, east of Bumla in the Tawang sector.
Not only it is difficult to confirm what exact help the Indian Army received from the US at the time of (or before) the confrontation, but there is no doubt that the credit should go to the Indian Army who was fully prepared and hence was able to push the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) back behind their lines in the Yangtze sub-sector; it is indeed only due to the alertness of the local commanders and the bravery of the Jat and Sikh Light Infantry troops posted in the area.
Of course, the US experts usually only take American interests into consideration. This is not new, as we shall see.
The Case of 1962 War
When China invaded Northern India in 1962, India had apparently no other recourse but to appeal to Western nations, particularly to the United States, for support. Washington was only too happy to offer help, thus gaining some leverage over a formerly ‘non-aligned’ India.
It is true that during the Cold War, India, in its ‘neutrality’, often sided with Moscow while Pakistan was deliberately on the West’s side. The US even had a mutual defence pact with Pakistan, itself part of SEATO and the Baghdad Pact, whose objectives were to stem the advance of communism in Asia.
When Chinese troops invaded northern India, it was logical for the US to immediately come to India’s assistance, especially after the two panicky letters sent on November 19, 1962 by the Indian Prime Minister to President Kennedy begging for American assistance.
A few days later (coinciding with the ceasefire announced by China on the two Himalayan fronts), Britain and the United States decided to use the opportunity: with India in a position of weakness the Kashmiri dispute between Pakistan, (the West’s ally) and India (who was now begging for their support), could finally be settled.
Averell Harriman, the US Under Secretary of State, and Duncan Sandys, the British Commonwealth Secretary, visited the Pakistani and India capitals in order to persuade the ‘fraternal enemies’ that it was time to bury the hatchet and find a solution to the then fifteen-year-old Kashmir question. Harriman and Sandys even signed a joint communiqué and asked the two countries to resume negotiations. This was the answer to Nehru’s appeal for support against China.
Although India had doubts about the possibility of obtaining positive results from negotiations conducted under such circumstances, it had no choice but to accept the Western offer.
On December 22, 1962, Nehru wrote to the Chief Ministers: “I must speak to you briefly about the Indo-Pakistani question, especially Kashmir. In four days’ time, Sardar Swaran Singh, will lead a delegation to Pakistan. We realise that this is not the right time to have a conference like this, as the Pakistani press has vitiated the atmosphere with insults and attacks on India.
Nevertheless, we have agreed to go and we will do our best to reach a reasonable solution. It is clear, however, that we do not want an agreement that will be against our basic principles.”
The two delegations eventually had a series of six meetings, from which nothing was achieved. The first round took place in Rawalpindi: Swaran Singh and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the Pakistani Foreign Minister, limited themselves to a historical presentation of the problem and the reiteration of their respective points of view.
During the discussions India reaffirmed its position that Kashmir was an integral part of India. This was in accordance with international law and democratic norms, but this being said, India was ready to explore all possibilities to resolve the issue, as it wanted to live in peace with Pakistan.
Where was the support against China in all this?
But worse was to come, just before the talks began, the Pakistani government announced that it had reached an in-principle agreement with China on the Kashmir-Xinjiang issue. Pakistan was ready to give China a piece of territory (Shaksgam Valley, east of the Karakoram Pass) that India considered its own. What a slap in the face for India just one month after the end of the Sino-Indian war!
Many believe that the agreement on the China-Kashmir border was announced by Pakistan as a way of derailing the talks. It is indeed surprising that Pakistan, an ally of the US and the Western world, chose this moment to make the announcement. It was an indication that Pakistan had no expectations from the talks with Delhi, even though they were initiated by the US.
Nehru was still optimistic, or perhaps, like the ostrich, preferred not to see anything. In a letter to the Chief Ministers, he remarked: “The talks have not yielded any result as far as our problems are concerned, except that they have reduced, to a small extent, the barriers of fear and mistrust which make it difficult to approach these problems.”
Negotiations continued, without tangible results, between 16 and 19 January in Delhi and 8 and 11 February in Karachi. Pakistan wanted a plebiscite, but India insisted on prior demilitarisation of the areas occupied by Pakistan.
Talks were held in Calcutta between 12 and 14 March. India proposed some readjustments to the Line of Control, but this was rejected by Pakistan.
During the fifth round of talks held in Karachi between 22 and 25 April, India protested that Pakistan had ceded part of Kashmiri territory to China.
Since Pakistan had chosen to invite a new player into the game, none other than India’s enemy No. 1 (China), there was no chance of finding a negotiated solution to the Kashmir issue.
In the end, India did not get much military support from the US to face China and additionally lost part of its territory in Shaksgam Valley to China.
The Withdrawal from Kabul (2021)
Another example shows that the US primarily looks after its own interests: it is the American evacuation from Afghanistan on August 15, 2021.
Not being informed of the US plans, the allies of the US were left to manage by themselves in Kabul, though an official US report says: “Once the evacuation had been initiated, President Biden repeatedly gave clear direction to prioritize force protection, relying on the advice of his senior military officials on how best to proceed on operational decisions. As Secretary Blinken testified on September 14, 2021, “Because of that [earlier] planning [for a wide range of contingencies], we were able to draw down our Embassy and move our remaining personnel to the airport within 48 hours.”
But the allies were left behind.
Perhaps less ambitious but more interesting for India and the US are the joint exercises between the two Armies, i.e. the 18th edition of Indo – US joint training exercise ‘YUDH ABHYAS 22’ conducted in Uttarakhand in November 2022 with the aim of exchanging best practices, Tactics, Techniques and Procedures between the Armies of the two nations.
It is a very concrete way for both armies to know each other better and share the best respective practices.
And of course, exercises such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), a strategic security dialogue between Australia, India, Japan and the US should continue as it does not engage India into unwanted alliance or treaties’ obligations, while at the same time puts pressure on China.