U.S., India’s Goals Diverge in New Delhi’s Near Abroad

U.S., India’s Goals Diverge in New Delhi’s Near Abroad
Photo: U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, New Dehli, India, Jul. 23, 2013 (White House photo by David Lienemann).
The United States has been active in its policies toward the smaller countries of South Asia in the Indian Ocean region. In recent weeks, the U.S. concluded its third annual security dialogue with Bangladesh and sponsored a resolution against Sri Lanka at the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC) calling for an international investigation into alleged war crimes. Since early 2014, Washington has called for new elections in Bangladesh after much of that country’s opposition boycotted national polls, and last year the U.S. pursued a defense agreement with Maldives that would have allowed rights for U.S. military personnel visiting the country. These policies reflect careful consideration of U.S. strategic interests and democratic principles, but India has not viewed all of them favorably. While there is certainly much convergence between U.S. and Indian aspirations for stability in Afghanistan and East Asia, structural cleavages characterize both nations’ political and strategic approaches to the smaller countries in India’s backyard. The first part of 2014 has been particularly marked by disagreements between India and the U.S. over Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Maldives. In 2012 and 2013, the U.S. received India’s vote for a UNHRC resolution calling for Sri Lanka to investigate alleged human rights violations during the final stage of its war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Yet India abstained from voting this year, explaining that the U.S.-sponsored resolution went too far by demanding an “intrusive approach that undermines national sovereignty” and an “external investigative mechanism with an open-ended mandate.” The State Department expressed disappointment with India’s lack of support. After Bangladesh’s controversial elections in January 2014, in which the alliance headed by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) refused to participate, the U.S. called for fresh elections. Yet India voiced its support for the comparatively pro-India Awami League that won the disputed polls and affirmed the fairness of the process. When differences between the U.S. and India emerged before the elections, Indian Minister of External Affairs Salmad Khurshid asserted India’s “backyard” prerogative: “While the U.S. is at some distance from Bangladesh, we are right next to it.” When news leaked last year that the U.S. was pursuing a status of forces agreement (SOFA) with Maldives, then-Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Robert Blake vowed that the U.S. did “not have any plans to have a military presence in Maldives” and was in close consultation with India about the SOFA. By January 2014, however, new Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen, fresh from his first foreign visit to India, announced that Maldives would not participate in the SOFA due to resistance from India and Sri Lanka. New Delhi reportedly worried that the defense agreement with Maldives could set a precedent for China to secure a foothold in the archipelago, which is just a few hundred miles from India. The pervasive theme of these differences is New Delhi’s perception that the U.S. is intruding on regional affairs: interfering in the domestic affairs of Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, while seeking to alter the strategic balance in India’s backyard through a defense agreement with Maldives. New Delhi’s memories of Western interference during the Non-Aligned Movement era, coupled with a belief in its regional dominance, remain intact, even after a decade of significantly improved relations with the U.S. Despite feeling domestic pressure from the Indian state of Tamil Nadu to vote against Sri Lanka in the U.N. Human Rights Council, New Delhi’s stance reflected a mix of principle and pragmatism. India has repeatedly upheld the primacy of sovereignty in its foreign policy and likely feared the implications for international scrutiny of its own counterinsurgency operations in Jammu and Kashmir and northeastern states. Likewise, New Delhi prefers to see the Awami League remain in power in Bangladesh given the leadership’s commitment to counterterrorism cooperation, in contrast to the previous BNP government. Finally, whereas to U.S. defense observers a SOFA is an innocuous agreement that specifies rights and terms for U.S. troops serving on foreign soil, such as during the U.S.-Maldives Coconut Grove exercise, to India, which has resisted signing technical defense agreements with the U.S., a SOFA with a country in its backyard is fraught with security concerns. The larger context of these disagreements is that New Delhi is intensifying efforts to cement its traditional dominance in the region. In July 2013, for example, India concluded an accord with Sri Lanka and Maldives in which the three countries pledged maritime security cooperation in multiple realms. As a result, those nations have engaged in coast guard exercises off Male and Trincomalee, training in Mumbai and three meetings so far at the national security adviser level. Of course, India’s invigorated approach to its near abroad does not mean that the U.S. should pull back from this economically thriving and strategically important region in the face of setbacks such as the failure of the Maldives SOFA. Smaller South Asian countries have complicated relations with India because of history and proximity. For instance, Yameen was likely anxious to reset ties with New Delhi after a year fraught with tension due to his predecessor’s termination of a contract with an Indian company to upgrade Maldives’ main international airport. Nonetheless, smaller South Asian states want engagement with the U.S. and seek options in addition to India. Moreover, even if New Delhi is reluctant to acknowledge it, the assistance to these states provided by the U.S., Russia and even China, among others, lessens the burden on India. That said, the U.S. should be careful to balance its strategic interests and democratic principles with a respect for India’s differing goals and approaches in the region. While the larger U.S.-India relationship involves more dimensions than smaller South Asia, a better understanding of the dynamics in India’s near abroad will help Washington’s long-term pursuit of a joint security approach in the Indo-Pacific. Nilanthi Samaranayake is a strategic studies analyst at CNA Corporation. She authored a book chapter on the smaller countries of South Asia and their relations with China that was recently published in “China and International Security: History, Strategy, and 21st Century Policy” (edited by Donovan Chau and Thomas Kane, Praeger, April 2014). The views expressed are solely those of the author and not of any organization with which she is affiliated.

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