Indo-US Strategic Relations: Strengths and Limits

The Indo-US strategic relations may not be as promising as some leaders and scholars from both sides epitomize such as natural allies or defining partners, but the history suggests the relations will not decline rather will witness a steady rise.

[Dr. Manoj Kumar Mishra]

Strategic relations between the US and India evolved steadily and were steered by multiple factors like size and population of India, impact of Indian soft power on US’s leaders and people, relative stability of Indian political and economic system necessary for bilateral trade-and-investment and the alignment of interests of these two countries in containing a militarily assertive and muscular China.

India’s relations with the US were placed on a firm footing with robust economic engagement and a defacto nuclear power status for India with the signing of the civil nuclear energy deal in the post-Cold War era. Indo-US relations began to change in a positive direction in the final years of Clinton’s presidency which was further intensified during the Jr. Bush regime. Even before assuming power, Bush made some favorable references to India during the election campaign when Condoleezza Rice, who became the national security adviser during the Bush’s first term, noted in an article in Foreign Affairs in early 2000 that the US should pay closer attention to India’s role in the regional balance of South Asia for it “is not a great power yet, but it has the potential to emerge as one”.

During his trip to the US in 2000, the then Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee seemed to return the complement by depicting India and the US as ‘natural allies’. He referred to the shared values of democracy between the largest and the oldest democracy in the world. Henceforth, leaders from each side have engaged themselves in platitudes calling their relations as natural or defining partnership. However, more than the convergence of their values, each of these countries found the other relevant for own interests. Deepening of ties between the two countries have not been cultivated within a short span of time rather they have evolved gradually where hard and soft power along with geopolitical imperatives left their imprints steadily.

Notwithstanding steady evolution of their relationship, differences in the respective state’s power, ambitions and role and concerns ordain many a times differences in perspectives on international issues. Based on these grey areas, it can be argued that Indo-US strategic relations are not poised to be as promising as some leaders and scholars from each side epitomize, with references such as natural allies or defining partners.

There are still many issues pending and pacts to be signed in the areas of defense in order to take off India’s strategic relations (with the US) to the level enjoyed by some traditional allies such as Japan and NATO member-states. It is worth remembering that the US recognized India as a “major defense partner” in a joint statement issued during Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the US. However, the US Senate rejected a key amendment recognizing India as “global strategic and defense partner”.

When signing the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) – one of the foundational agreements for strategic defense partnership – the Indian Defense Minister, Manohar Parrikar, made it clear that the agreement would not compromise India’s ‘strategic autonomy’ because it neither makes logistical support automatic or obligatory nor does it involve allowing military bases. India’s concerns for sovereignty, idea of strategic autonomy and the policy of multi-alignment come in the way of close Indo-US strategic partnership.

India has expressed concerns over the second foundational agreement known as Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA), which would enable high-end secured communication equipment to be installed on military platforms that India would buy from the US instead of current reliance on less secured commercially available communication systems on high-end US platforms. Experts on strategic affairs and officials and leaders relating to Indian Defense Ministry have expressed their reservations that the agreement in its current form would facilitate US intrusion into the Indian defense communication systems and violate its sovereignty by allowing visits by US officials to Indian bases to inspect equipments safeguarded under COMCASA.

There are also arguments that India’s indigenous military platforms and already existing Russian military platforms may not be compatible with COMCASA. For materializing the agreement, it has to allay Indian concerns, and the discussions are underway for a modified version. India has to sign yet another agreement in order to be a key strategic partner of the US – namely the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-spatial Cooperation (BECA) – which the US has proposed but no discussions have taken place till date.

India’s policy of multi-alignment aims at preventing India’s strategic over-dependence on any major powers, including the US. India’s wish to continue close engagement with Russia in the area of defense, as not only most of the defense equipments and technology still remain Russian, but also Indian interest in signing new defense deals with Russia – for instance, a $500 billion deal to purchase the S400 air defense system from Russia – suggests India’s inclination for a multi-alignment foreign policy rather than putting all its eggs in the US’s basket.

However, despite differences in perspectives, the history of bilateral relations suggests that the graph will witness a steady rise given the diversified nature of their relationship.

Indo-US relations during the Cold War era

India’s relations with the US are perceived by and large frozen except a few instances of US sanctions during the Cold War given (i) India’s policy of non-alignment, (ii) its first Prime Minister Nehru’s leanings towards socialist ideology and (iii) later on India’s proclivity towards forging close ties with the Soviet Union.

The size and population of India persuaded the US to try and bring India into its Cold War military camp, prior to the dawn of the idea of Pakistan’s inclusion. India’s expressed policy of non-alignment led the US – desperate to contain Soviet influence – to seek alliance in Pakistan. Pakistan, at the time, was in a lookout for an opportunity which could enable it to match India’s power and overpower it if possible.

Pakistan became a member of SEATO in 1954 even though it is not a Southeast Asian country and was recipient of huge amount of US aid. However, when requested for military aid to avert border war with China in 1962, India was obliged by the US – something for which Pakistan felt betrayed. It was largely due to the then Kennedy Administration’s belief that a country of India’s size and population provided the bulwark of stability in South Asia against Chinese ambitions.

Furthermore, in 1965, when Pakistan and India fought a war, the then Johnson Administration, moved by the belief that most of the US military aid provided to contain communism has been diverted to military build-up and war against India, suspended military assistance to Pakistan.

The Cold War was a period of occasional – yet valuable – US support. India became recipient of continuous food supply under US PL-480 aid program and, therefore, could avoid poor harvest, famine and divert scarce resources towards industrial development in the heydays of the Cold War. Many scholars, however, expressed their concerns regarding an agrarian country’s [India’s] dependence on the US for food stuff, something that primarily represented corporate interests.

Support of the US government, the role of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the role of the US scientists – all of these elements cannot be underestimated in bringing green-revolution in India, with the possibility of making India more self-reliant in agricultural output. India’s soft power had its impact on the US Presidents like Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy who were aware of the fact that the non-aligned countries like India, Egypt and Indonesia could play a decisive role during the Cold War with their power of attraction and, therefore, sought to engage these countries through constructive diplomacy.

In the very beginning of the 1970s, Pakistan facilitated lines of communication between the US and China, becoming quite favorite of the then Nixon Administration. In support of Pakistan, the US moved its Seventh Fleet to the Bay of Bengal during 1971 Indo-Pak War [also known as the Liberation War of Bangladesh] that was waged on the question to determine the future of East Pakistan [now Bangladesh].

Despite then US Administration’s continued support for the Pakistani army General’s attempt to subdue the independence struggle of East Pakistan [now Bangladesh], the American Gallup poll in 1971 voted the then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi as the most admired person in the world for her role in the creation of the independent Bangladesh. The US Administration eventually withdrew its military support during the last stage of the war.

Growth in Indo-US relations despite US’s dependence on Pakistan for ‘War on Terror’

India opened up its economy in 1991 and shed its professed obsession with socialistic ideology, moving closer towards the West ideologically and in terms of public policy. Many sectors of the Indian economy – hitherto closed for the US – had opened for economic engagements. The US software industries were flush with Indian professionals in the US and many worked for them offshore.

As a semblance of US’s recognition of India’s growing economic clout, the Clinton Administration forcefully intervened to pressure Pakistan to withdraw its forces sent across the Line of Control in Kashmir near the town of Kargil in mid-1999. In the same year, Pakistan was subject to US sanctions following the removal of a democratically elected government by an army chief Pervez Musharraf through military coup. The Bush Administration, being aware of India’s economic and military clout, de-hyphenated the relationship between India and Pakistan by making it clear that while it was keen on having good relationship with Pakistan, India would be treated on its own right and not in reference to US’s ties with Pakistan.

India’s response to the changing US gestures was very positive. India was one of the countries to have responded immediately, positively and enthusiastically to Bush’s allegedly controversial National Missile Defense (NMD) program.

When the US declared the ‘War on Terror’, India expected a greater role in the reconstruction of the economy and polity of the post-9/11 Afghanistan and, therefore, declared its immediate support and within a short time the government had offered all logistic help to Washington. The US lifted nuclear sanctions against India in the wake of 9/11 and eased export controls on so-called dual-technologies, which could serve both civilian and military purposes.

However, once Pakistan joined the War on Terror, its geostrategic location allowed it a bigger role in Afghanistan in the provision of supply routes for the US and NATO convoys, and the US had to rely heavily on intelligence inputs from Pakistan to curb militancy in Afghanistan.

Notwithstanding the US’s increased dependence on Pakistan, the relations between the US and India – during the Bush Administration – cemented with the signing of the Indo-US Civil Nuclear Deal in 2005, with the intention to facilitate the supply of the US’s nuclear energy technology, uranium and reactors to India for civilian purposes. The deal poised to provide India with all benefits that the signatories to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) receive, although India had been refuting to sign the treaty even under the US’s pressure. This is a milestone in bilateral relations between India and the US from Indian perspective despite legitimate concerns regarding liability issues and commercial non-viability of the deal. The deal came with the recognition of India as a nuclear weapons power.

During the time when the deal was in the process, Indian nuclear-power-plants had been facing the problem of uranium shortage and some were on the verge of shutdown. Russia insisted that it would be able to authorize the supply of uranium only after India got approval of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. In this context, the pertinence of this deal rose in significance. The deal is also significant from another perspective as it could never have been possible without the US’s recognition of India as a sensible nuclear-weapon-power with declared policies of ‘no first use’ and ‘minimum credible deterrence’.

It can be seen in contrast to the US’s perception of Pakistan, which allegedly passed on sensitive nuclear information to Iran and Libya and its continued instability raised the specter of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of militants. The deal opened up further possibilities of Indo-US engagement on strategic issues.

As the war in Afghanistan deepened, the Obama Administration’s dependence on Pakistan increased. The administration’s Af-Pak strategy indicated that the US seemed more interested in taking on those terrorist groups who were against the western interests by concentrating on the Af-Pak area whereas the center for cross-border terrorism across the Line of Control between India and Pakistan was [allegedly] located in some of the eastern provinces of Pakistan.

However, the Indian concern that the ‘War on Terror’ should be an all-out fight against militant groups that are organically linked with each other found little resonance in the US foreign policy concerns. Pakistan became the recipient of enormous US aid to fight terrorism, and the territorial integrity and socioeconomic development also deserved the US’s attention and aid with the primary concern that Pakistan did not collapse and its nuclear arsenal did not fall into the hands of militants.    

Mumbai terrorist attacks in 2008 had led the US leadership to condemn such acts and express solidarity with India to fight terrorism. Furthermore, when the US forces killed Osama bin Laden – who was [allegedly] sheltered by the Pakistani authorities[i] – in Abbottabad in 2011, the US-Pakistan relations touched a new low.

What’s more, two US Congress legislators had taken the efforts to introduce a bill designating Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism, showing signs of promising strategic partnership between India and the US following the terrorist attack on Uri military camp in India during the concluding phase of Obama Administration.

However, the Obama Administration’s plan to withdraw the US forces from Afghanistan (by fixing timeline for it) prevented the US from taking harsh measures against Pakistan. Instead, the US’s dependence on Pakistan increased, as the US was seeking a political solution to the Afghan conundrum.

It’s worth noting that the US, under the Obama Administration, and India signed the bilateral Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) giving each of the two military access to the other’s facilities for supplies and repairs in a major attempt to take defense relations between these two countries a notch ahead.

The succeeding US administration under Trump, from the beginning, was categorical about the alleged role of Pakistan in sponsoring terrorism and, therefore, came out with unambiguous expression of deep concerns and criticisms following the alleged mastermind of Mumbai terrorist attack Hafiz Saeed’s release from house arrest in Pakistan. The Trump administration not only withheld military assistance to Pakistan condemning its role in harboring ‘the agents of chaos’, it clearly expressed its desire to cast India in a more prominent role in its policy concerning the South Asian and the Indo-Pacific[ii] regions.

Indo-US strategic relations deepened gradually during almost all the US administrations and different factors contributed to the strengthening of the relations. While the US support for Pakistan waxed and waned quickly, the US relations with India grew independent of the US’s relations with Pakistan. India’s interests and concerns were not completely ignored by the US even during the Cold War years notwithstanding Pakistan’s dissatisfaction as an ally. The breadth of US and India relations has widened considerably after the end of the Cold War with opening up of the Indian economy and deepening of defence ties.

Divergences of roles and interests

India has expressed its willingness to continue close defense ties with Russia not only for repairing and updating of its existing Russian made defense equipments, but also for new defense deals in order to diversify its military supplies as part of its policy of multi-alignment – something that is not a welcome development in the eyes of Washington.

The US has expressed its displeasure at the Indian move to buy air-defense-system from Russia – the state with which any major defense deals are to face sanctions under the US law. India’s invitation to Russia to become a part of Russia’s Indo-Pacific vision will not be seen favorably in Washington.

What’s more, India’s willingness to forge close ties with Iran for energy supplies and gain accessibility to Afghanistan – bypassing Pakistan – is at odds with the Trump Administration’s withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and with the attempt of bringing-in new sanctions against Iran.

The US would find it difficult to abandon Pakistan despite its displeasure and rhetoric castigating Pakistan for not doing enough to contain militancy against US presence in Afghanistan. The alternatives to the Pakistani intelligence inputs to curb militancy and the alternatives to the supply routes for the US and NATO convoys are not currently available to the US. Furthermore, the US-Iran tensions and Russian caution against any heightened US presence in Russian backyard would drive the impetus of the US’s dependence on Pakistan for supply routes. These aforesaid factors will remain as irritants in the Indo-US relations.

India and the US have expressed their differences over trade related issues and sued each other in WTO on a spate of issues. Each of them has attracted the attention of the other towards the protectionist measures each pursued. India’s environmental concerns and the need for assistance have been sidelined by the US when Trump decided to walk away from the Paris Climate Agreement.

Global aspirations and role of the US and its willingness to invest its resources in different parts of the globe have rarely been supported by India which is normally expected from strategic partners. India’s limited power and role and its willingness to preserve its hard-won independence and sovereignty and political compulsion of preventing internationalization of Kashmir issue led India to express strong disagreement with the US as regards viewpoints and role in Kosovo, Libya, Ukraine and Syria to name a few.

Indo-US strategic relations will also depend on how both fare on the proposed two foundational agreements on major defense partnership – namely COMCASA and BECA. Therefore, there are areas for both sides to work on. Keeping their respective role and aspirations in perspective, the Indo-US strategic relations may not be as promising as some leaders and scholars from both sides epitomize such as natural allies or defining partners, but the history suggests that the relations will not decline rather will witness a steady rise.

[i] David Headley’s interrogation revealed Pakistani intelligence agency ISI’s alleged connections with al-Qaeda and LeT.

[ii] The Indo-Pacific is a biogeographic region of Earth’s seas, comprising the tropical waters of the Indian Ocean, the western and central Pacific Ocean, and the seas connecting the two in the general area of Indonesia. The term’s profile was raised when it found mention in the joint statement issued by the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and United States President Donald Trump after the former’s state visit to the White House on 26 June 2017.

Author Avatar | Oped Column SyndicationDr. Manoj Kumar Mishra, Lecturer in Political Science, S.V.M. Autonomous College, Odisha, India. Previously worked as the Programme Coordinator, School of International Studies, Ravenshaw University, Odisha, India.

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