How the US is Pressuring India to Enlist in its Quest for Global Dominance


A mid-level officer of the Indian Foreign Ministry told me that he was startled by the language used by US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta during his visit to India on June 6. India, Panetta said, is the "lynchpin" in US plans to "rebalance towards the Asia-Pacific region". The officer said that at one point Panetta had said India is the US "doorway into Asia". At least two of the Indian officials in the room later joked that he should have said that India is the US's doormat into Asia. 

Panetta had come to Delhi with a brief that was uncomplicated but not conducive to peace. Panetta's objectives, and that of the third India-US Strategic Dialogue (which began on June 13), seem obliged to isolate three major actors in Asia: China, Iran and Pakistan. The "rebalancing" is not intended to bring these crucial countries to the table to discuss areas of common interest, such as the imbroglio in Afghanistan, the question of energy security and the unsettled border and security disputes between these countries. 

The US has sought an alliance with India for the past decade with the aim of putting pressure on China, of balancing out its reliance upon Pakistan's geographic location, and of isolating Iran in the forums of the non-aligned world (as well as enhancing access for US firms into the Indian market). These are not pathways to peace. They are precisely the opposite. 


Panetta's short-term objective in Delhi was to bring India more firmly into its Afghan operations. He came to India seeking Indian monetary and military assistance for the Afghan mission of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Indian tanks are not going to be airlifted into Kabul anytime soon, although this remains on the agenda. As a precursor, the Indians were asked to increase their reconstruction commitments. 

Whether Panetta's goal is to actually have Indian tanks in Afghanistan seems unclear. What is obvious, however, is that this is an unsubtle way to put pressure on Islamabad to desist from its refusal to allow NATO material to transit from Karachi's port through Torkham into Afghanistan. The US is currently spending upwards of $100 million per day more than beforehand to get its goods into Afghanistan through Central Asia. During Panetta's Delhi visit, the US fired its drones for the ninth time since the Chicago North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit in May, killing three people. The continuation of the drone program has soured the relationship between Islamabad and Washington. Pakistan's Asif Ali Zardari is locked into his presidential residence, afraid of his people and terrified of their reaction if he gives in, once more, to the US. 

What Zardari and the Pakistani military fear more than their own people, however, is the US pivot toward India. The sense that India has used its relationship with Kabul to encircle Pakistan is very strong amongst the ruling circles. Panetta might be playing up the US request for Indian extension into Afghanistan to pressure Pakistan to open up the doors for NATO trucks. 

Nevertheless, to facilitate the short-term objectives of the Obama administration, Panetta is stoking the flames between India and Pakistan. India's natural policy should be to calm tensions with Islamabad rather than to be yoked into a cynical ploy to increase anxiety for US ends. But this policy is of a piece with the US-orchestrated tension between Iran and its neighbors. That the US can assume that there can be peace in Afghanistan without Iranian, Indian, Pakistani and Chinese cooperation is remarkable. 


In 2004, the US opened a new door to India that occasioned Delhi closing its own open door with Iran. The George W Bush administration wanted India to scuttle or put on hold its natural gas pipeline project that would have run from Iran to India via Pakistan (for good reason was it called the Peace Pipeline). Instead, the US promised a new strategic partnership with India, including the provision of nuclear fuel, if India would vote with the US against Iran in the International Atomic Energy Agency in 2005. 

A summary cable from US Ambassador India David Mulford to the State Department put the case for a quid pro quo plainly, "Many in Congress and throughout Washington, [Mulford] reminded [Indian Foreign Secretary Shyam] Saran, were watching India's treatment of Iran prior to Congressional debate on the US-India civilian nuclear initiative." 

Why was India's vote so important? 

"India had a key voice in the [Non-Aligned Movement] and could swing opinion in the [IAEA Board of Governors]; it was time, [Mulford] said, for us to know where India stood." India voted with the US against Iran, earned a nuclear deal and started a US-India Strategic Dialogue (the first round began formally in 2010). The nuclear deal led, during this Strategic Dialogue, to a memorandum for Westinghouse (Toshiba) to build a 1000 mw reactor in Gujarat.

During the Obama years, the Strategic Dialogue picked up and so did the pressure on Indo-Iranian relations. India is a major importer of Iranian oil. The US sanctions on Iran exceed the UN sanctions. India accepted the latter, but not the former. Nevertheless, concerted pressure from the US pushed India to reduce its imports from Iran - Iran used to cover 20% of Indian fuel needs, and now covers just under 10%. The shortfall was made up by Saudi exports to India (the India-Saudi partnership was inked in 2010), although Indian processers are geared to Iranian and not Saudi oil. 

Two days before the current India-US Strategic Dialogue, the US government issued waivers to six countries that had showed good faith attempts to reduce their commercial interactions with Iran. Among those countries was India. "It was a great relief," said a member of the Indian Foreign Ministry. Even though India had said it would ignore the US sanctions, it had become plain that Washington was not going to tolerate this. The waiver allowed the US and India to go forward with their longer-term harmonization despite this objective roadblock. 

That longer-term project circles around China. It did not go unnoticed that the one Asian country that continues to buy Iranian oil and was not given a US waiver was China. 


The language at the Strategic Dialogue was boilerplate, almost generated by a computer generated program: "shared democratic values", "diplomatic priorities", "strategic fundamentals", and "convergence of values". This was the least informative part of the conversation. The more revealing statement came from Panetta on June 6 in Delhi. "We will expand our military partnerships and our presence in the arc extending from the Western Pacific and East Asia into the Indian Ocean region and South Asia." The putative matter here is piracy and terrorism. 

Panetta's "arc" stretches from the US bases in Japan to the new marine presence in Australia to the Indian and US warships that patrol the Indian Ocean through the US bases in Central Asia. NATO's program, "Partners Across the Globe," includes Mongolia, Japan, the Republic of Korea, New Zealand, Australia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq. This list runs from East to West as does Panetta's "arc," with China inside the ring, encircled. 

This network has created anxiety in Beijing. When Panetta was in Delhi, India's Foreign Minister S M Krishna was in China for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting. Chinese Vice Premier Li Keqiang took Krishna aside and told him that the real relationship of the 21st century was not between the US and India, but between India and China. Krishna was forced to agree, pointing out that India and China share "one of the most important bilateral relationships in the world". 

US arms sales to India have increased since 2002, including aircraft to increase Indian strategic lift capability and radar detection and maritime surveillance. Indian ships are now patrolling the Straits of Malacca, the crucial transit point for Chinese goods ships (including oil tankers). Since 2001, the US and India have conducted more than 50 military exercises to increase "functional interoperability" between their armed forces. The Strategic Dialogue pledged to increase these maneuvers. 

Panetta told the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses that the US would increase arms sales despite unsigned agreements on logistics support and transfer of secure and encrypted communications systems. He also said that the US was prepared to begin joint-production ventures for armaments in India. 

It would be a disaster for Asia if India were to fully adopt the US perspective, which is not to build peace in the region but to use its military force multiplier to contain Chinese economic ambitions. The myopic policy toward Iran means that that US has inflamed tensions in West Asia, by allowing the Gulf Arabs to paint the Arab Spring as a Shia-Sunni tussle rather than as a popular uprising against authoritarian regimes. As long as the US believes that the pressure cooker on Syria impacts on Iranian ambitions in the region, ordinary Syrians will suffer with their lives. 

The failure to engage with Iran as a player in the region means that the US loses a major partner for the stability of Afghanistan and Iraq. There can be no peaceful solution for Afghanistan without an entente between its neighbors, including Iran and China. 

By many indications, India has accepted the broad policy orientation of the US on Iran, and to a lesser extent on Afghanistan. On China there is less harmony. Defense Minister A K Anthony told the press shortly after Panetta's visit that there is a need to "strengthen the multilateral security architecture" and to "move at a pace comfortable to all countries concerned." 

The sliver of light between India and the US on China gives hope that India has not fully renounced its commitments to multilateralism and to regionalism. It is not yet the doormat of US ambitions. 

Vijay Prashad is Professor and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, United States. This spring he will publish two books: Arab Spring, Libyan Winter (AK Press) and Uncle Swami: South Asians in America Today (New Press). He is the author of Darker Nations: A People's History of the Third World(New Press), which won the 2009 Muzaffar Ahmed Book Prize. 

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