Originally Published 2012-12-18 00:00:00 Published on Dec 18, 2012
Despite a few hiccups in the initial years of the Obama administration, relationship now stands at a comfortable juncture of increased confidence and a substantially high level of cooperation across a host of issues including Afghanistan where the US, despite some initial apprehensions, now increasingly see India's role as positive in nature and pivotal for the economic resurgence of the Afghan people.
Indo-US relations: A reality check
From being "estranged democracies"to sharing an "evolving strategic partnership", India and the United States have indeed travelled a long distance. The increasing profile, regularity and importance accorded to the annual strategic dialogues (three till date) are testimony to the increasing engagement between these two countries. The groundwork that is done today before any Indo-US summit proves the importance accorded to the relationship. Two high stature visits to India preceded the 3rd strategic dialogue held in June 2012 in Washington D.C. Timely visits by the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the Defense Secretary Leon Panetta added gravitas to the whole exercise and helped silence critics of the relationship. The emerging Indo-US strategic partnership is a vital component in the foreign policies of both India and the United States and is poised to gain increasing importance as Washington seeks to reorient its foreign policy with its rebalancing strategy towards the Asia-Pacific aka the Asia Pivot. The US government sees an inevitable role for India in its "rebalancing"strategy towards Asia-Pacific and in managing China's rise. America through this strategy intends to "expand"its "military partnerships"and its "presence in the arc extending from Western Pacific and East Asia into the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and South Asia". And, "Defence cooperation with India"according to Secretary Panetta "is a linchpin in this strategy."Numerous reports have fairly concluded that the rise of a powerful and democratic India in the Asian region and at the global stage is in the interest of the United States and that the sustenance of American power and influence globally and in Asia is in the interest of India. An effective policy convergence between the two countries is vital and will be consequential for issues cutting across a broad spectrum. President Bill Clinton had said: "India and America are natural allies, two nations conceived in liberty, each finding strength in its diversity, each seeing in the other a reflection of its own aspiration for a more humane and just World."In fact, in the last one decade, no relationship has been as pivotal and transforming for India's global orientations as the Indo-US relationship which President Barack Obama aptly called "the defining relationship of the 21st century". But the moot point remains: Despite the ideational factors that pulls India and the United States together, is there enough substance in the partnership?

No lull period

There are a lot of factors that pull the two countries together nevertheless the ties cannot be taken for granted. "Strategic partnership"is the most frequently, and for want of alternatives, one of the most overused phrases in international relations. But a sober analysis of relations, beyond the glares of high flying diplomatic meets is needed to reassess the various nuts and bolts of any relationship and put them in their proper places, with the prospects and the challenges accurately identified. Carpers of the Indo-US relationship have, of late, come up with the argument that the relationship is seeing a long lull period and that the relationship has been oversold, more than its worth. But officials from both the sides have contended that that is certainly not the case and that the relationship is where it should be. India's envoy to the US, Nirupama Rao and her American counterpart Nancy Powell during an interaction at the Center for American Progress in Washington D.C. in June 2012 sought to dispel the view that the Indo-US relationship has not reached where it should be now.

Powell contrasting her previous posting in New Delhi as a Political Counselor in the 90s to the present contour of the relationship emphasized that, "It is an incredible array of activities that we are engaged with in India, and so much broader, so much deeper than when I was there."Rao who previously served as India's Foreign Secretary reiterating the energy and dynamism in this relationship remarked, "The relationship is certainly not oversold, in my view. There is certain logic, a certain rationale for close partnership between India and the United States. That is recognized not only here, but also in India, where there is a multipartisan consensus about the need to progress this relationship forward."The American Ambassador Powell contradicted the apprehensions of the critics of the Indo-US relationship and those who profess the view that it is not worth the time and energy that is being devoted. She said, "I think people that expected India and the US to be in lockstep probably don't have any appreciation of the independence of either of us, that we are going to pursue our interests, our policies. But the consultations that go into that, the ability to say we agree on these things, we agree on this goal, we're going to take a slightly different tactic; I think that piece is increasingly done without acrimony. It's done routinely. There is a transparency."

There are indeed areas of concern in terms of the economic outlook in both the countries. India's growth story has slackened in recent times with many doubting the optimistic picture painted about India. And, the United States is going through a sluggish recovery in the aftermath of a recession that in its severity and impact is comparable only to the Great Depression in the 1930s. And, many questions have been raised on the issue of US foreign orientations and the level of its international involvement in the midst of economic and domestic challenges. But to take a liberal and an 'ought to be' view of the relationship, times of adversities like the one that the two countries are facing today should be seen as an opportunity to prove that the relationship is there to endure and that it is not merely transactional in nature. True, there are still many constituencies in the United States that tend to see India as a reluctant partner at best and in India that see the United States as an unreliable superpower. And, there are a host of issues where the two countries have tactical differences. But over the years, the relationship has matured to an extent where they can agree to disagree, keeping in account one's national interests, over contentious issues without any serious negative impact on the trajectory of the strategic partnership that the two countries have envisioned.

A great leap forward

When one assesses the present and the future of the Indo-US relationship, one needs to factor in history as well. One needs to understand that the two countries were practically on opposite sides of the fence during the Cold War. The Non-Aligned movement (NAM) was conceived during the Cold War with India as a founding member so that newly independent countries like India could stay out of the global race for supremacy between the US and Soviet Union. Non-Alignment is a highly misunderstood concept in international relations. Western countries including the US were blinded by the Cold War power race whereby US officials deemed Non-alignment hypocritical and Communist leaning. India had to take the help of the Soviet Union on various occasions, after the United States roped in Pakistan as an alliance member in its containment strategy against Communism. During the Cold War, Washington often equated Non-Alignment with 'neutrality' which was totally wrong. The basic idea behind Non-Alignment was to enable newly independent countries to make independent decisions based on the merit of the matter, keeping their national interests in mind. Clearly, reticence as expected from neutral countries was not the nature of Non-Aligned countries. Non-Alignment was about maintaining independence to take independent decisions and not about remaining mute and neutral spectators.

India has indeed emerged in many ways, from becoming independent as a poor country to one that commands an economy that is fairly consequential for the health of the global economy. By dint of its demographic and territorial size, it had the potential of being a major power in the regional and international system. But it is only in recent times that India has acquired various determinants that go into making a major power. For instance, its economic prowess, hard power capabilities seen in the increasing modernization of the Indian military, a rising middle class, and India's increasing soft power in terms of the increasing popularity of India's cultural representations. And not to forget, India's entry, even though backdoor, to the nuclear club and moreover, a global recognition that India, despite refusing to sign the Nuclear Non-proliferation treaty (NPT) has maintained an unblemished record in safeguarding its nuclear arsenal and in preventing any unwarranted transfer of technology and also in respecting its unilateral moratorium on further nuclear testing.

The Indo-US relationship turned a new leaf during the closing years of the Clinton administration. President Clinton called a spade a spade during the Kargil War and pressurised Pakistan to withdraw to their side of the LoC. Then, Clinton gave a major turnaround to the relationship with his monumental visit in March 2000. He stayed for five days in India, while spending only a few hours in Pakistan thus signaling the transforming intent of the United States. Thereafter, it went from strength to strength during the two terms of George W. Bush administration. A strategic partnership was visualized and implemented during this period. A major breakthrough was achieved in the form of the Indo-US nuclear deal, with the US later helping India gain a waiver from the Nuclear Suppliers' Group (NSG) that opened the doors for India to international nuclear commerce. The nuclear issue which had remained a thorn in India-US bilateral relationship in the aftermath of India's nuclear tests in 1974 and 1998 was dramatically turned into a positive factor in bringing India and the United States closer. According to Evan A. Feigenbaum, who served as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia during the Bush Administration, "Through their civil nuclear negotiations, the United States and India developed unprecedented habits of co-operation. To earn the approval of the nearly 50 countries on the International Atomic Energy Agency's Board of Governors and in the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the United States and India coordinated more closely than ever before on their diplomatic and political strategies."There are some hindrances towards full implementation of the nuclear agreement in terms of differences over domestic laws both in India and the United States that will determine the terms and conditions of cooperation in the civilian nuclear energy development in India. The road to a full realization of the nuclear deal and its benefits would take some time and some smart joint maneuver but at the same time, it is irrefutable that the two countries have indeed come a long in this field and that the deal has produced major dividends in other fields too.

Moreover, following the September 11 attacks, the terrorist attacks in the Indian parliament and more recently the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai, India and the United States have begun to share more interests in fighting international terrorism and in seeing some elements inside Pakistan as the masterminds of mayhem created in India and across the world. In the entire history of India's relationship with the United States, Pakistan's alliance with the United States has impeded any opportunity of sustaining Indo-US relations. The United States despite its disgruntlement and dissatisfaction with how Pakistan is fighting terrorism still needs the state in its counter-terrorism campaigns, especially with regard to winding down its war in the Af-Pak region. And, America's dalliance with a strategically located Pakistan will continue to create challenges and constraints for India's relationship with the United States, especially in working together to counter terrorism of different forms emanating from the religious extremism that is brewed inside the borders of Pakistan, and supported by state elements for Pakistan's geostrategic leverage in the region. But at the same time, credit should also be given to the American policymakers who have designed and implemented a policy of relative de-hyphenation in US relations with India and Pakistan, what some analysts also call "a decoupling of India and Pakistan in U.S. calculations"

And, despite a few hiccups in the initial years of the Obama administration, relationship now stands at a comfortable juncture of increased confidence and a substantially high level of cooperation across a host of issues including Afghanistan where the US, despite some initial apprehensions, now increasingly see India's role as positive in nature and pivotal for the economic resurgence of the Afghan people. President Obama's succession did bring some concerns in the Indian diplomatic circles around issues of US-China relations, proposed US activism on the Kashmir issue, non-proliferation issues, and presumably reduced zeal for implementing the Indo-US nuclear deal. But, efforts made to dispel the misunderstandings yielded quick results. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's India visit in July 2009 was a significant step in this effort. The visit, coming after much negative speculations, managed to infuse a lot of positive energy. Secretary Clinton made it amply clear on Indian soil that the US was very much interested in timely implementation of the civilian nuclear agreement. This momentous occasion that to a large extent dispelled many of the negative perceptions that Indians had of the Obama administration was quickly followed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's significant visit to Washington in late 2009. This was the first state visit hosted for any foreign dignitary by the Obama administration. President Obama's visit in November 2010 during his first term in office helped accentuate the importance of the Indo-US partnership. President Barack Obama during his address to the joint house of the Indian parliament said that the United States not only welcomed India as a rising global power but also fervently supported it. Besides, he identified India not as an "emerging"country but one that has "emerged".

Evolving strategic partnership: Prospects and challenges

The renewed push given to Indo-US relations during the Bush administration entailed increased engagement over a whole lot of areas, none more spectacular and more consequential strategically than the evolving India-US defence convergence. The Indo-US defence relationship has seen a sea change in the last one decade and this will be one of the most significant drivers of the relationship in future. India forms an inevitable part of the balance of power calculations in Asia. And defence cooperation between the two countries ning across all the forces is an inevitable component of any American strategic plan to share more with India in terms of maintaining security and sustaining strategic stability in Asia-Pacific. In fact, a strategic partnership cannot be envisioned without a robust defence component. The India-U.S. Defense Policy Group (DPG)-moribund after India's 1998 nuclear tests and ensuing U.S. sanctions-was revived in 2001 and meets annually. In June 2005, the United States and India had signed a ten-year defense pact outlining planned collaboration in multilateral operations, expanded two-way defense trade, increasing opportunities for technology transfers and co-production, expanded collaboration related to missile defense, and establishment of a bilateral Defense Procurement and Production Group. In recent years, India has awarded $9 billion worth defence contracts to US companies. Major sanctions on Indian defence entities have been lifted and now mutual business interest exists. India needs high-grade defence technologies from the US and Washington needs India's defence market to create more jobs in America's defence industries. As America hasn't been India's major supplier there are many challenges largely in differences vis-à-vis procurement laws. The US is very restrictive about technical know-how of its weapon systems and has laws which restrict transfer of technology. And many in the Indian side still have some reservations in going too close to the Americans for weapons procurement. They are concerned about possible American demands for political concessions and compromises that might, in turn, erode India's strategic autonomy.

And, there have been other hiccups like New Delhi deciding not to look to American firms for the 126 new medium, multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) deal. But, it is important to note that a strategic partnership of the kind that India and the United States envisions should not be based on the pedestal of business alone, and the failure of a single deal, however large, should not be trumpeted as the ultimate symbol of India's inconsistency and unreliability in the issue. India's former Foreign Secretary Kanwal Sibal commented, "The elimination of US fighters from the competition for the MMRCA contract, which continues to rankle feelings in the US, is not a defining decision. The US expected a political decision in its favour, whereas India wanted to insulate the decision from politics and base it primarily on technical and financial considerations. Despite our exceptionally close ties with Russia historically, the Russians too were eliminated from the MMRCA competition."So, both countries need to work hard on resolving differences. But, one need to recognize that defence cooperation between the two nations has scaled heights in a short time whereby India has conducted more military exercises with the US than with any other country. During the latest Strategic Dialogue, deliberations were held on continuing and increasing cooperation on numerous aspects including in technology transfer, joint research, defence exchanges, maritime cooperation, etc. According to Secretary Clinton, efforts would be made to "convert common interests into common actions."

Managing China's rise is an important component of Indo-US defence relationship. Beijing's muscle flexing has been condemned by many countries in Asia, including India. In fact, many South-East Asian countries concerned of China's hyper-activity have welcomed US presence in the region to offset China's influence. But, things are more complex when one looks at the bigger picture. The US, India and some South-East Asian countries have major differences with China regarding freedom of navigation, especially in the South China Sea over which Beijing claims uncontested authority. But, at the same time, economically, New Delhi, Washington and most of South-East Asia are so inter-linked to Beijing that one can hardly foresee any major conflict. Thus, when it comes to hedging China, responses are subtle and attention geared towards: 'How to manage rising China without provoking any major untoward incident having global ramifications.' Hence, if Defence Secretary Panetta outlined America's new defence strategy in New Delhi, Foreign Minister SM Krishna around the same time emphasized the importance of India-China relations at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in China. Pertinently, Chinese leaders too understand the importance of sustaining India-China ties; seen in the Chinese Defence Minister Gen Liang Guanglie's recent visit to India and the decision to resume India-China military exercises which were stalled in 2008 due to differences over the protracted border issue and their implications. Hence, just as Washington and New Delhi look for ways to control Beijing' aggression, they also prepare various diplomatic cushions so as to prevent any crash landing. Both the countries know that a China economically destabilized will not be good either for the US or India.

The Iran issue and to be more specific, the response to Iran's alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons has been a critical factor in the development of India-US engagement for some time. And, the future of US response to the Iranian nuclear issue will have significant repercussions. In many ways, it already has had a major bearing on New Delhi's equations with Tehran. Differences over the Iran issue is one area where the two countries would have to walk a tightrope. Despite comforting each other that both were on the same page vis-à-vis their policies towards Iran, what has stood out all this while is the fact that tactical differences over how to best to handle the Iran issue still lurks behind all major Indo-US summits. The problem is that New Delhi and Washington looks at Iran through two very different lenses. Given India's increasing need for energy and its geo-strategic and economic interests in the Persian Gulf, it is imperative to maintain ties with Iran. On the other hand, the US government considers Iran a rogue state which not only sponsors terrorism but also flouts international nuclear energy laws and hence deserving to be shunned by the international community. And, in the last decade, it has gone about forming coalitions around the world to pressurize Iran to come clean regarding its suspected nuclear weapon ambitions, or else face sanctions.

New Delhi concurs with Washington in opposing Tehran's nuclear weapon ambition but differs on the means adopted to stop them. Although, India's official statements tells Iran to come clean on its non-proliferation treaty's (NPT) obligations and comply with international standards, it does not believe in tightening the screws too hard against Tehran. As the Indian Prime Minister made it plain in talks with Secretary Clinton during her India visit in May 2012 that India would be guided by national interests when it came to securing its energy supplies. Even as India is reducing its oil imports from Iran marginally, it has categorically denied the argument that American pressure was directly responsible for this decision. Indian officials have contended that the decrease in oil imports from Iran was rather a consequence of commercial considerations. Thus, India has denied any chance for the US to assume that India's decreasing oil imports from Iran was a step towards aligning more with the US. New Delhi seems to be in no mood to scale down its ties with this Persian Gulf State which possesses some of the largest reserves of oil and natural gas in the world and occupies a critical geo-political landmass in the Middle East. The Persian tangle is far from over and Indo-US strategic partnership would be severely tested over this issue as both countries are equally determined on safeguarding their respective national interests.

Indo-US strategic partnership cannot stand on a strong foundation, unless economic content expands. Recent talks centered around expeditious conclusion to negotiations towards a bilateral investment treaty (BIT). Both the countries have put in place a lot of mechanisms on which to take the economic tie forward, like the India-US Trade Policy Forum (TPF), an Agreement on Framework for Cooperation on Trade and Investment, India-US CEO's Forum, constitution of a Private Sector Advisory Group (PSAG) and others. India-US total merchandise trade was US $57.80 billion in 2011. FDI flows from the US into India have recorded a significant increase and there is also a simultaneous increase of Indian investments into the US. The Indian government's decision to allow FDI into multi-brand retail sector has led to a storm of controversy domestically and it needs to be seen how this evolving story plays out and what it entails for Indo-US economic ties.


Both the BJP-led NDA government and the Congress-led UPA government have overseen the growth of Indo-US relations and in the United States; there is a clear bipartisan support for greater Indo-US engagement. Both the Republicans and the Democrats in the United States have least differences when it comes to US engagement with India across the board and particularly in the Asia-Pacific region where they have a convergent interest, most of all, in managing the rise of China. Whatever differences they have is very minute, and are seen in the level of emphasis and nuances. The clear bipartisan support for the rise of India and its importance in the emergence of an India-US partnership is quite evident from the 2012 national platform documents of the two parties. If the Republican platform affirmed and declared that "India is"America's "geopolitical ally and a strategic trading partner,"then the Democratic Party's platform said that the United States "will continue to invest in a long-term strategic partnership with India to support its ability to serve as a regional economic anchor and provider of security in the broader Indian Ocean region."As such, both the parties in the United States embrace the idea that India's rise and success as a future democratic superpower is a core interest of the United States. India's increased engagement with the United States has also come at a time when there is a noticeable presence of Indian-Americans in US politics. Their increased lobbying power was adequately shown when the community rallied behind the Indo-US nuclear deal. Indian-Americans have become one of the most affluent and most educated ethnic groups in the United States. The political leverage that the community has managed to gain there in recent times has created dividends cutting across the political, cultural and economic convergence between the two democracies.

A Council on Foreign Relations and Aspen Institute India report titled 'The United States and India: A Shared Strategic Future' published in September 2011 recognized the importance of Indo-US relationship and said, "For all its continuing power, the United States cannot do it alone, and could do it better with India as a partner; and for all its potential power, India cannot do it alone, and could do it better, with the United States as a partner-indeed, it may well find that, whether it likes it or not, it can only do it with the United States as a partner. The sooner policymakers, and public opinion, in both countries realize this, the better for both."The effort should be to not let the relationship drag from the status quo but to build on the relationship even though incrementally. Clearly, as during the Cold War wherein New Delhi and Washington did not share the best of relationships, there are lingering skeptics on both sides of the fence. Long held suspicions towards US imperialistic policies and India's non-aligned tendencies would continue to raise heads. Undeniably, the diversity of ties and both countries' engagements with other nations on various issues through different perspectives would create more challenges in the future. But, the Indo-US strategic partnership despite occasional hiccups is indeed a smart policy for the long run and is in the mutual interest of both the countries. As such, the Indo-US relationship should be seen as a marathon and not a sprint.

(The author is an Associate Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

Courtesy: World Focus, Volume XXXIII,
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