Strategic partnerships


back to issue

BORROWED from the discipline of organizational theory and business management, the term strategic partnership has come to define a number of diplomatic relationships the world over. Formal alliances are now thought to be passé. Scholars argue that the proliferation of strategic partnerships ‘reflects an international system in transition.’ They are better suited to increase bilateral, trilateral, or even multilateral cooperative efforts between nations to achieve common goals. They are thus, ‘goal-driven’ rather than ‘threat-driven’.1

Unlike formal alliances, strategic partnerships are not hierarchical or vertical structures marked by different levels of bindingness. They are not intended to develop into a confederation of states, where the lead actor, such as Russia in the Warsaw Pact, seeks to enjoy a position of influence that supersedes the authority of other member states. Instead, strategic partnerships represent a system of diplomatic engagement that is really a halfway house between maintaining friendly relations between select states and organizing those relationships under a framework that contributes to furthering mutually beneficial ties. These ties or contracts might not always be cost free, but are created keeping the partners’ national and sovereign strategic objectives in mind.

The few scholars who have written about the distinctive qualities of a strategic partnership are of the view that this is a relatively new phenomenon. However, in India’s case, while the rhetoric of ‘strategic partnership’ might have been evoked only at the turn of the 21st century, its conceptual underpinning – engagement minus the drawbacks of alliance commitments in terms of curtailing the freedom of action and thought – is hardly new.

Until the end of the Cold War, India remained, by necessity, cautious about entering partnerships with other states. The distinct feature of a strategic ‘partnership’ is that it is a joint venture between equals. It is not necessary that equality means maintaining a fifty-fifty balance of political influence, but that the partnering states understand this dynamic. For the first two decades of the Cold War, neither the USSR nor the United States were either willing, or in a position to appreciate that other, smaller states were equal in status. Hence, rather astutely, Nehru remained cautious when dealing with both the blocks.


In the post Cold War period, while India, like many nation states around her, explored options in a de-camped international system, it was not until the turn of the century that India had decided to actively pursue the strategy of engaging everyone. Global engagement was the new mantra. India no longer needed to be too concerned about being treated unequally. Unlike Pakistan or Japan, India had spent over forty years developing her economy and military without having to depend on a third actor for the sake of survival. Barring Nehru’s appeal for arms from the US and later the UK towards the end of the 1962 debacle with China, Indian foreign policy had remained as independent as a post-colonial nation like India could afford it to be.

With a view to further expanding the conceptual as well as empirical understanding of strategic partnerships, this article puts forward two arguments. First, in response to scholars who claim that strategic partnerships are a fairly new phenomenon, the article argues that this ‘new’ phenomenon has to be understood in context. For nations that entered into formal alliances or mutual security pacts during the Cold War, such as the US with Japan or the USSR with the United Arab Republic (UAR), the non-binding aspect of a strategic partnership might be seen as something new and attractive. However, for nations like India, which remained cautious of formal alliances and their supposed benefits, strategic partnerships are nothing new.

To illustrate this point, the article will briefly discuss the 1971 Soviet-Indian Treaty of Friendship, arguably India’s first meaningful strategic partnership, which many have wrongly dubbed as an alliance. The so-called new rules of the game inherent in a strategic partnership are those that India embraced even before the Cold War ended. Embedded in this are lessons which have wider implications for contemporary Indian foreign policy.

Second, the article goes on to look at the several types of strategic partnerships India’s global engagement strategy has led her to forge. In particular, it will look at the partnership with the US. It will focus on President Obama’s attempt to construct a ‘Regional Strategy for South Asia’ in 2009. This brief case study focuses on India’s strategic behaviour having entered into a strategic partnership with the US. It demonstrates that a strategic partnership is not a strategic alliance masquerading behind diplomatic rhetoric. The differences are not merely semantic, but indeed very real.


In writing about strategic partnerships, scholars have propounded a misleading idea that strategic partnerships are a phenomenon intrinsic to the post-Cold War period, and more specifically the 21st century. In their analysis, the division into ideological camps disallowed any form of engagement to be non-hierarchical. However, rather than a new phenomenon, the nature of the partnership between nations is more often than not mandated by historical experiences and the tensions inherent in domestic political cultures. This is important because at some level, every nation remains hostage to its particular national and strategic narrative, which informs its current and future strategic behaviour.

For instance, in the case of Germany and Japan, entering into less binding strategic partnerships is domestically feasible, and strategically preferable. The populations of both nations have experienced extreme militarism, have had little choice but to enter into a binding alliance with the US, and now seem to view strategic partnerships as an enviable system of diplomatic engagement. Their national narrative supports entering into such partnerships, which while far less hierarchical, provides ample opportunity to engage likeminded nations.


In India’s case, the national narrative is outlined by an intellectual resistance to any form of dominance. An extreme sense of independence, not even shared by other post-colonial states like Pakistan and Egypt (which ironically stood at the forefront of the non-alignment movement) has for long determined Indian strategic behaviour. The 1971 treaty with the USSR is a prime example of a strategic partnership forged during the Cold War and in its history are lessons that need to be kept in mind in the present time. The chief lesson is that on the one hand, nations that have participated in hierarchical diplomatic arrangements in the past, either by choice (Australia and New Zealand in 1952) or forcibly (Japan and Germany post 1945), will have greater domestic and elite support to enter into strategic partnerships in the present or the near future. On the other hand, nations like India that have resisted formal alliances in the past and instead, have for long embraced the conceptual underpinnings of a strategic partnership risk finding it harder to ‘sell’ these partnerships as they evolve.

On 9 August 1971, India and the USSR signed a Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation. Article IX of the Treaty came to be read as the most controversial, as it essentially implied that at a time of conflict, Soviet assistance to India was not guaranteed, but highly probable. The treaty was designed to deter hostile intentions of any other actor, within or outside of the South Asian region.

The treaty was signed at a time when India’s foreign policy elite argued that India required a diplomatic shield in the event of Indian military activism in East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. In a meeting on 29 April 1971, Indira Gandhi was told that any military adventurism by India could potentially invite the wrath of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). In addition, Henry Kissinger had sent mixed signals to Indian leaders regarding US’ response in case of Chinese aggression.

While it served as a diplomatic shield, the treaty in no way hindered India’s sovereign right to make decisions. It was non-binding, non-hierarchical, and unlike the Soviet treaty with the UAR, it did not mandate either actor to militarily intervene in case of a conflict with a third party. In fact, on India’s insistence, Article IV of the treaty made clear that this formal relationship would not impinge upon Indian non-alignment.


The generally accepted British and American interpretations of the USSR’s motives for going ahead with the treaty in 1971 indicate that the Soviet leadership had actually believed that it could restrain India. British diplomats argued that the ‘Russians had been extremely worried about the "smell of war" in the air and had been anxious to take some practical measure to defuse the situation.’ For them, ‘the treaty had greatly reduced the chances of conflict in the coming months.’

Unwilling and unable to convince the Indians otherwise, by the beginning of November, Chairman Alexei Kosygin seemed to have understood that India would not be swayed by external advice. New Delhi would make its own foreign policy related decisions, based on its own calculations. Eventually, this is exactly what India did. Having negotiated a diplomatic shield, India found it relatively easy to intervene in East Pakistan.


Notwithstanding that the treaty was mostly accepted by India’s political elite because it was signed in the backdrop of war with Pakistan, two conditions supported its general acceptance. First, Indira Gandhi understood that foreign policy can be made hostage to domestic politics. She waited till the 1971 election, when she received a landslide majority, before going ahead with a treaty that had first been discussed in 1969. Foreign policy might be argued to be a product of elite politics, but elite politics is highly disaggregated. Indira Gandhi appreciated this, and it allowed for a treaty to be signed minus the political bickering evidenced in the passage of the recently concluded ‘N’ deal with the US.

Further, the treaty was sold to both India’s domestic audience as well as to foreign diplomats as a reaction to a potential US-Pakistan-China alignment, which did not impinge on Indian non-alignment. In fact, T.N. Kaul, the Foreign Secretary, and Swaran Singh, the Foreign Minister, made it their mission to convince the world that Indian foreign policy remained as independent as before. There also seemed to have been a coordinated effort between Moscow and New Delhi not to cross each others path in their respective strategic communications. Nothing was taken for granted.

In 1971, foreign policy decisions were contested but yet more or less monopolised by a single party. Currently, relatively smaller regional actors play a far more integral role in the policy debate, even if this might be more because of reasons extraneous to the issue at hand. It is imperative that India’s current leaders appreciate this dynamic better. The political fiasco over the debates on the ‘N’ deal might serve as a reminder that foreign policy is no longer the mandate of a single political organization. The so-called ‘other’ parties are becoming increasingly important, and will continue to be so. For ideological, political, and sometimes simply selfish reasons, foreign policy issues will increasingly become hostage to domestic arm wrestling matches. This is an inherent disadvantage, but a reality that needs to be better understood.

Keeping in mind the above-mentioned conditions, in the past decade, since entering into strategic partnerships in the post-Cold War period, India has done well to retain the ability to say ‘no’. The following part of this article reflects on how India has managed its diplomatic affairs once in a strategic partnership. It seeks to counter the premise that a partnership is more or less the same as an alliance.


In the past nine years, India has entered into strategic partnerships with, amongst others, the European Union, US, UK, France, Iran, Germany, Japan, Australia, Singapore, and Nigeria. Most of these partnerships began with the issuance of a joint statement, leading to the signing of bilateral agreements and memorandums of understanding (MoU). In each of these cases, the idea was to multiply bilateral agreements with potential partners ranging from increasing cultural ties to signing MoUs on defence cooperation efforts and intensifying trade agreements. Of these partnerships, the most politically explosive is that between India and the US.


In March 2000, during President Clinton’s visit to India, the leaders of both countries pledged to ‘deepen the India-American relationship in tangible ways.’ A year later, President Bush decided to take this relationship to a whole different level. His National Security Strategy report of September 2002 made his intentions clear. It simply stated: ‘US interests require a strong relationship with India.’ The American President had taken a personal interest in India, and by 2004, its new Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh. The US and India initiated a series of dialogues under the rubric of the ‘Next Steps in Strategic Partnership’. The purpose was to expand the strategic partnership to include cooperation in what came to be called the ‘trinity areas’, therefore easing restrictions on the export to India of dual-use high technology goods (including those with military applications), civilian nuclear and civilian space cooperation.

By 2005, the strategic partnership had taken on a significant defence dynamic. India and the US signed a ten year defence pact, and a year later they entered into a maritime security cooperation agreement. Currently, Indian and US military exercises include air exercises, the annual Malabar naval exercises (which in 2008, unlike in previous years were conducted bilaterally); and special forces ‘Vajra Prahar’ joint exercises, with a high number of US servicemen having attended the Indian Counter-Insurgency Jungle Warfare School. For the first time in India’s defence procurement history, US systems and platforms have been entered into Indian tenders. Most notable are the fighters in the bid for 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft. India has also purchased a decommissioned US amphibious dock, now the second largest in the Indian Navy, as well as maritime surveillance aircraft, military transport aircraft, aircraft self-protection systems, and counter-battery radars.

However, it is outside of the defence arena that the benefits of the strategic partnership are fully realized. Without going into the now much publicised details, suffice it to state that the civil nuclear cooperation agreement with the US, finally passed by the Indian government and the US Congress in the last quarter of 2008, has gone a long way to cement ties between what are often referred to as the world’s two largest democracies. The nuclear deal and increased defence cooperation has led some to argue that the partnership is really an alliance, which has curtailed India’s independent foreign policy. The last part of this article alludes briefly to a recent case study: India’s response to a US designed ‘Regional Strategy for South Asia’. The intent is to make the point that much like in 1971, India’s negotiations with another actor, and the cementing of ties has done little to influence India’s ability to make independent decisions. India retains the ability to say ‘no’ without incurring a notable cost to the partnership.


On 22 January 2009, only two days after being sworn in, Obama officially named Richard Holbrooke – who negotiated the Dayton accords in 1995 – ‘Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan’. He was apparently supposed to have been named the ‘Special Representative to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India’ but the Indian government lobbied hard to make sure that India was kept outside of Holbrooke’s brief. His ensuing trip in February to India, along with Pakistan and Afghanistan, was subsequently dubbed as a ‘listening trip’.

Holbrooke’s lighter credentials notwithstanding, there is clear evidence that the Obama administration is keen that India and Pakistan engage in some discussion on Kashmir. During his election campaign, Obama argued that India and Pakistan should ‘try to resolve the Kashmir crisis so that [Pakistan] can stay focused not on India, but on the situation with those militants [camped on the border with Afghanistan].’


The logic, at least for this US administration, is fairly simple. If India began a series of discussions on Kashmir, similar perhaps to the series of dialogues led by Z.A. Bhutto and Swaran Singh in 1962-1963, then Pakistan would feel more confident about relocating a bulk of its troop formations from the border with India to that with Afghanistan. This is undoubtedly one of Pakistan’s demands. Those close to Obama have touted this line since 2005. Kashmir lies at the centre of their regional strategy designed to take-on the Taliban in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan, who continue to severely compromise US, UK, Dutch, and Canadian efforts to ‘stabilise’ southern and eastern Afghanistan.

The merits and demerits of this policy aside, India’s response to the Obama approach provides key indicators on how India manages strategic partnerships. Contrary to the view that the nuclear deal has made India diplomatically vulnerable, the Indian government made it abundantly clear that it will not dance to the Obama tune. This is especially important when President Obama was expected by almost all analysts, some within his own coterie, to renegotiate the ‘N’ deal and even nudge India to sign the controversial Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). If India was in a muted alliance with the US, would not she be expected to have behaved differently? For the sake of argument, if the Indian government’s opposition to the suggestion that Kashmir should be discussed was nothing but a public relations campaign, would this not backfire when such negotiations did take place? Something as explosive as the ‘K’ word is not a secret that can be concealed from public scrutiny.

Here again, it is important to keep in mind that the Indian government’s position has been in keeping with the national narrative. In 1962-1963, when President Kennedy tried to use Kashmir as leverage against providing arms to deter the Chinese, the strategy simply did not work. Kennedy eventually wrote to Harold Macmillan, his co-conspirator that ‘Nehru is unlikely to settle Kashmir with too obvious a gun at his back.’ If Nehru, under the threat of a Chinese offensive in the spring of 1963 was unwilling to allow Kashmir to be used as bait for arms, then common sense suggests that India today will not discuss Kashmir, and this with not too obvious a gun at its back.

As stated earlier, strategic partnerships have to be approached in context. India’s national context or narrative makes a fairly clear case: this is a nation that has, is, and perhaps will continue to negotiate partnerships cautiously, tilting the cost-benefit equilibrium to its advantage. Those who have dealt with India – diplomats and international negotiators – understand this dynamic all too well. Negotiating non-binding contracts comes fairly naturally to India’s foreign policy elite. However, as a word of caution, this natural advantage will hold well only as long as India has something to offer the world. Luckily for India, her strategic position, market size, democratic credentials, non-militarised political society, and comparatively healthy civil-military relations will make her the preferred choice for at least some time to come.



1. For details see Thomas Wilkins, ‘Russo-Chinese Strategic Partnership: A New Form of Security Cooperation?’, Contemporary Security Policy 29(2), 2008, 358-383.