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The United States and India conducted the third round of their strategic dialogue last week. Although neither side is entirely happy with the other and analysts have bemoaned the overselling of the relationship under Bush 43, the dialogue saw a wide array of topics come under discussion, from agriculture, education, and counter-terrorism to police training, cyber security, and women’s rights. In some ways, this is a positive sign – ties between the two countries are being forged at a level deeper than a critical American security or economic lacuna. In the long run, these ties will provide greater stability and understanding between the two states. Yet there is a very real chance that strategy may be sacrificed for tactics: if there are no short-term carrots in the offing, there is little to encourage a serious engagement for the longer term.

There is much that can bring the United States and India into a closer partnership – nuclear commerce, high technology trade, cooperation in space, clean energy – and that is not even considering the security and defence aspect – arms sales, joint production, freedom of the seas, the Indian Ocean, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and a resurgent China. But after half a century of relations that have ranged from frustrated to adversarial, India is yet to completely warm up to America’s sudden seduction. Understandably, it is with much trepidation that New Delhi moves closer to Washington – after all, the White House itself is juggling Islamabad, Beijing, and New Delhi as it tries to come up with a coherent Asia policy for the next decade. US Secretary of Defence, Leon Panetta’s stopover in New Delhi on his eight-day tour of Asia was a showcase of how the big-ticket items were not moving forward as smoothly as Foggy Bottom would have liked.

The United States’ new-found interest in India is largely due to its concern over the rise of a militarily assertive China; even the denials have stopped in recent months. For its part, the US  has had its military prepare new battle plans, such as the much-touted Air-Sea Battle (ASB) plan, to counter area denial strategies the Chinese (and Iranian) military has adopted, and has deployed troops to Darwin, Australia, as part of a greater presence in the Indo-Pacific region. Washington has also announced, partly as reassurance to the smaller states of Southeast Asia and partly to garner their support, a pivot in their focus towards Asia. The United States also continues to modernise its nuclear arsenal at a cost of approximately $700 billion over the next decade, and its joint research (with Germany and Italy) on ballistic missile defence continues unabated. In fact, a rudimentary theatre BMD is already being considered in Eastern Europe and the Levant, and may spread to other regions of the globe. The last part of an overall US strategy to contain China is to find allies in the region – Australia is too far, and Japan and the Philippines are not on the Asian landmass. US interest in basing rights in Central Asia has been effectively shut down by Russia and the CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organisation). South Korea has potential, but a bigger state that may be able to hold China off on its own would be better. Enter India.

India is a democracy; it is a large country with a huge population, and has a fairly powerful army; it has advanced weaponry, including nuclear submarines, MIRV-capable ICBMs, and a nuclear triad. While India may not genuinely be the only option for an American anchor in Asia, it is certainly the best. In India, the United States sees its security needs as well as its commercial instinct being satisfied. With its strategic geographic location, its level of development, and the potential for trade (presently at $58 billion) barely scratched, a strong partnership would be a bonanza for the United States – its pivot to Asia would certainly be on a firmer footing.

India has much reason to look forward to an American partnership as well. An American embrace could mean more manufacturing jobs, faster development of indigenous high tech, an expansion of critical industries such as advanced vehicle design (aeroplanes, ships, submarines, space vehicles), and an infusion of advanced technology that could allow India to leapfrog an entire phase of growth. Furthermore, it could raise the quality of the Indian military from a regional force to a world-class “smart” institution. India’s membership to the elite international fora would give it a greater say in matters of sensitive high technology trade. In exchange, there is little that New Delhi would have to concede to. The containment of China, a guarantee of secure sea lanes, and a non-Taliban Afghanistan are all to India’s advantage too. Additionally, a strategic relationship with the United States might give India added leverage to influence US policy on Pakistan.

Perhaps India’s leaders think that they can achieve these milestones on their own or with Russian help; after all, the Brahmos and the joint fifth generation fighter aircraft (FGFA) project are proof of successful Indo-Russian cooperation. However, Russian assistance has its limits (and strings) too, the technology transfer for the T-90S, the limited access to Russian markets for Indian business, and the pricing dispute of the Admiral Gorshkov being just three examples. Furthermore, Russia does not have the resources to invest in India’s trillion-dollar infrastructural needs or most of the host of issues the third Indo-US strategic dialogue covered. Whether India wants to admit it or not, it needs the US as much if not more than the US needs India. What the US offers is not at the cost of India’s strategic autonomy; it is at the cost of India making a strategic decision about its future.

In 1947, India’s non-alignment pushed the US towards Pakistan; in 2012, New Delhi’s unwarrantedly high self esteem threatens to push the US away, forcing it to look for other options. India may well be the best game in town, but it is not the only one. New Delhi’s interminable hesitation over making hard, strategic decisions will ultimately result in the loss of US interest in India, which will in turn decrease the slope of the latter’s diplomatic, economic, and military trajectory. The US has been known to be generous, but India will not get everything for nothing; it must also give something of value to the US. This window of opportunity will not last forever, and it is in New Delhi’s interest to obtain as much as it can from Washington while it lasts. Caution behooves a great state, but India is in danger of substituting caution with indecision. The international system shifts quickly, unpredictably; moreover, political cycles are short in the US, where one has, at most, two four-years chances to write one’s name in the history books. Given a choice, Washington may not be willing to wait too long for India to make up its mind on the more urgent issues.