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The United States Secretary of Defence, Leon Panetta, visited New Delhi this week on his eight-day tour of Asia. Despite a short stay, Panetta and his Indian counterpart, AK Anthony, discussed issues of major import to the relationship between the two countries – the sale of high-tech weaponry, particularly the AH-64 Apache assault helicopter and the Javelin anti-tank guided missile (AGTM), technology transfer and co-production, India’s contribution to stability in Afghanistan, the US pivot to Asia, terrorism, and China. US State Department sources said that Panetta would focus on how to move the India-US partnership forward to the next phase, presumably in line with the US Department of Defence’s Strategic Guidance document. While analysts have noted that bilateral ties between the world’s two largest democracies have cooled under President Obama and were oversold under President Bush, the DoD report pays considerable attention to India, emphasising, that the United States would invest in a “long term strategic partnership with India to support [India’s] ability to serve as a regional economic anchor and provider of security in the broader Indian Ocean region.” This was reiterated by Nancy Powell and Hillary Clinton during their visits in April and May 2012.

While all this should sound like music to New Delhi’s ears, it should also be noted that the US maintains complex ties with China and Pakistan, two states of great concern to India’s security. Consequently, India cannot bring itself to trust the United States more, and has approached any process of bringing it in line with US procedure, be it the CISMOA (Communication Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement), the LSA (Logistics Support Agreement), or export protocols and end-user licensing for the nuclear deal with great caution. This reluctance has taken cover behind the Indian rhetoric of non-alignment and strategic autonomy.

While India’s motives are understandable, the fact remains that South Block’s policies are increasingly being perceived by Foggy Bottom as hunting with the foxes and running with the hounds, or, in Indian parlance, dhobi ka kutta, na ghar ka na ghat ka. This, in turn, hinders any meaningful relationship that may develop between India and the US, frustrating politicians on both sides and giving naysayers more ammunition. One also wonders what New Delhi’s strategic elite expect from Washington, because right now, it sounds like they want something for nothing. Race Course Road so far seems to pretend that it is doing the US a favour by pushing through with economic reforms, purchasing American military hardware, cooperating with the United States and the international community in matters of civilian nuclear trade, and participating in various global commons initiatives. Yet when denied these same opportunities, New Delhi screams bloody murder.

Questions of strategic wisdom aside, a key question Indian planners need to ask themselves is whether a “non-aligned” strategy is even possible in the new Cold War. During the first Cold War, India received assistance from blocs. Bokaro and Bhilai built India, the PL-480 and US economic aid sustained India, and MiGs, T-55s, and Jaguars defended India. Can this equation be duplicated with China? First, India is no longer in need of such primary aid; secondly, China is incapable of providing the high technology items and investment that India seeks from the United States, Europe, Israel, and Russia; third, defence cooperation with China is highly unlikely given the outstanding issues between India and China and the former’s defence posture.

South Bock reiterates at every opportunity that it perceives no threat from China. In its defence, India has pursued negotiations with China with vigour. However, there is little to show on the ground. Maintaining a distance from the United States has brought India no rewards from China on border negotiations, no reduction of hindrance of India’s membership to elite international fora, or any slackening in the Beijing – Islamabad axis. The only development has been increased trade, which is skewed heavily in favour of China anyway. So why does New Delhi purse a policy that has shown such little dividends so far?

The problem with India’s balancing act between the US and China is that it is premised on an overly demanding view of the US and a mere hope with China. New Delhi’s exertions about good relations with Beijing sound increasingly hollow as border and airspace violations increase along the Line of Actual Control (the de facto border between the two Asian giants) and India augments its defences with longer ranged and more sophisticated missiles that are China-specific. As US Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, testified before the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, “despite public protestations to the contrary, India is increasingly concerned with aggressive Chinese manoeuvres in region and its growing military muscle.”

Ultimately, US disinterestedness in Afghanistan, the Middle East, or Asia would be to India’s detriment in that it would leave the nation alone to deal with the repercussions of its policies. US relations with Pakistan are, to put it mildly, thoroughly tangled, and American polices in South Asia and Afghanistan have certainly given New Delhi headaches in the past. Yet the absence of a stabilising US presence could be worse, and India’s blushing bride routine when it comes to hard decisions is becoming tiresome. It is a common refrain among Indian strategic thinkers that the United States does not understand friendships, only alliances in which it has the upper hand. That may be true, but in times of crisis, friendships are not actionable – alliances are.