Ashley J. Tellis, who served in the US Foreign Service, National Security Council, and state department, is now a senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace specialising in international security, defence and Asian strategic issues. Mr Tellis was in India to give a series of talks. Excerpts from an interview:

What are the topics you plan to speak about in your talks? 

I will be giving talks on the broad range of US-India ties... foreign policy issues. The US-India relationship today is in an extraordinarily good place... In the strategic arena, the US and India today are closer than they have been at any time, I think, since 1962. Broad willingness to engage deeply on international issues, including sensitive issues, commitment to doing things together, and strong convergence of interests... I see those as a key.

Ashley J. Tellis
Ashley J. Tellis is the Tata Chair for Strategic Affairs and a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, specializing in international security and U.S. foreign and defense policy with a special focus on Asia and the Indian subcontinent.
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It’s not as if the relationship is trouble-free, but there is a confidence as both sides have to discuss even troublesome issues without rancour. This is a huge difference, because in the ’80s, for example, our troubles came in the way of having a productive relationship.

Today, there is a clear recognition that you can have all kinds of differences but it doesn’t undermine a broadly productive relationship. The fundamental suspicions have abated. There is a willingness to admit that you can have differences without calling into question motives. These are good trends for the future.

Challenges: Larger global questions about peace and security in Asia are still unsettled. The future of the global trading system is up for grabs. The whole question of Middle East, continuation of radical Islamic terrorism is a challenge not going away. The fears about stability of critical regions, weaknesses of states... these are problems not going away. When you think about global commons, the security of oceans, outer space, these are challenges that will remain for some time to come.

You say fundamental suspicions have abated. We see Hafiz Saeed, who has a $10 million bounty on his head, on TV leading marches calling for the breakup of India. He does not suffer the fire from heaven that fell upon Osama bin Laden and Mullah Mukhtar. Does the US make a distinction between good terrorists and bad terrorists? Isn’t this a fundamental suspicion?

I don’t think so. Would we like to see Hafiz Saeed brought to justice? Yes. But I think there is a recognition that you cannot do in the settled areas of Pakistan what you did to Osama bin Laden. It is a story about the limits of American power, not differentiation between good terrorists and bad terrorists.

It is hard for the US to simply exert its power, especially in Pakistan. We need their cooperation for all kinds of ongoing counter-terrorism efforts.

And are they really cooperating?

It is a mixed picture. If they were cooperating completely they would be called friends. If they were a consistent opponent they would be called enemies... and the US has a way of dealing with those. Pakistan is a mix of the two. They are not consistent and this makes a consistent policy difficult.

It has been 10 years since the 123 Agreement. We don’t see new projects on ground. How do you see the civilian nuclear relations between India and the US?

It has been a huge success at the strategic level. It has changed Indian perceptions of the US. Leave that aside. The biggest payoff it has already had is kept the Indian civil nuclear programme alive by giving DAE access to fuel in global market. If you look at the plant capacity factors from 1995, there was a sharp dip for several years essentially due to shortage of fuel. It has been a bailout for the domestic civil nuclear programme. Beyond that, markets should decide what the economics of future power programmes should be. States cannot force their logic over the logic of markets. If there are alternate sources that are cheaper and safer, countries will evolve in that direction.

How will US presidential elections affect relations between India and the US?

The interests of the two countries are now convergent in many issue areas, and those convergences will survive any change in leadership in the US or eventually in India. Leaders make a very important difference but leaders also operate in the context of national interests... The imperatives that brought the US and India together will not disappear. There will be differences in style and pace, but the broad trend lines are going in only one direction, which is towards greater convergence.

You mentioned domestic unrest in the US having an impact on global trade. What might that mean for the relationship with India?

The bigger question for the US is whether the global trading system will survive in the way we have known it since the end of the Second World War. While globalisation has brought tremendous rewards to the country as a whole, the rewards have been imperfectly distributed within the country. What we are seeing is that those segments which wield votes but have lost out on the rewards of globalisation are now pushing back. The pressures it will bring on the leadership is to reshape globalisation to satisfy these losers in domestic politics, or to retrench on globalisation itself. The latter would be dangerous not only for the US but for the global system as a whole.

How does one see a landscape where the US is renegotiating agreements?

Take TPP for example. After a lot of negotiations we have an agreement. To have to go back to drawing board would be extremely painful. There are huge uncertainties in how this system will evolve. We cannot blithely assume that simply because there have been overall gains to the US as whole, the losers in American politics will simply sign up to a perpetuation of the global regime. The losers are now basically saying we want new terms of trade. It risks throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

This is going to be a long-term issue for the US. If the US weakens in its commitment to preserving an open trading system, there are real risks to American prosperity and global leadership and to key partnerships.

Is there a prospect of military conflict with China and Russia?

There’s no doubt US relations with Russia and China are fraught. Much of the future will depend on how determined Russia and China are to pursue narrow policies of aggrandisement. The position Russia has taken in Ukraine undermines fundamental institutions of the post-war regime.

Yes, but wasn’t Nato being expansionist?

The solution to fears of Nato expansionism cannot be invading a third country that happens to be caught in the midst. It does not serve Russia’s interests or global peace.

Same goes for China. You may have claims on territory, but when you start building exclusionary zones around claims with inference that people who operate in those zones do so at sufferance of China... it’s not constructive.

Both sides need to take a deep breath and figure out where to go from here.

The good news with regard to China is that after the tribunal judgement China has adopted a more muted position. That gives me some hope that China might see that further perpetuation of current policy is not helpful for them.

Russia is a harder case because the Russians seem to be more obdurate with regard to Ukraine.

The situation is fraught and if both sides persist in current course of action the likelihood of crisis will increase, and that is something we ought to do our damndest to prevent.

PM Modi started “Make in India” in defence. Are American companies looking at all these opportunities?

I think it is a very good initiative in long term, but I do not think it will be a panacea in short term for two reasons. Until very recently, India’s FDI policy in defence was relatively restrictive. If 100 per cent FDI allowed, it satisfies the necessary but not sufficient condition.

Companies don’t invest based on equity alone. They also look at what is the infrastructure capacity of the country in which they will be investing? What is the quality and availability of labour force? Where does it stand in protecting sanctity of contracts? What is the protection of intellectual property rights?

Most of the US companies are private profit making companies. They will make their own decisions.

Over the long term, it is a very good policy because it lays out a roadmap. This offers India its first real opportunity to become part of the global supply chain.

You spoke about stability of critical regions. How do you see that playing out?

Take the broader the Middle East. We are at a very interesting inflection point where you see states weakening, societies becoming more and more demanding, and rise of ideologies that are exploiting long-standing societal grievances. There are no easy answers to any of these problems. The US cannot go in to fix state weaknesses. The US cannot go over the heads of weak states to satisfy demands of citizenry.

And ideology is fire in the minds of men. We can’t go out there and suddenly change those ideologies.

The best your policy can do is cope with the consequences. These challenges are not susceptible to silver bullet solutions.The best we can do is contain the problem.

Resolution will come from internal transformation. We are entering a phase particularly in the Middle East where challenges are going to be enduring, and I am not even talking of Israel and Palestine.

Are we back to a time of redrawing of boundaries?

I would hope not. The problem with redrawing boundaries is that you are then opening Pandora’s Box. There are so many things that are wrong with the post Cold War order. After the UN Charter, the assumption was that whatever the history, we try and start afresh.

If you are going to start redrawing boundaries by force or coercion and it succeeds in one place, then what succeeds in one place opens the door to another...before you know it, you have endless multiplicity to people who have grievances and ambitions.

The US has been very conservative, very cautious in endorsing territorial change. The door you open may not be a door you can close.

This Q&A was originally published in Asian Age.