The Case for a U.S.-India Partnership


October 20, 2018  

A stronger India offers the prospect of a more stable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific, the world’s most economically dynamic region which stretches from the eastern shores of Africa to the west coast of the Americas.

by Chris Coons Puneet Talwar

The United States must infuse its relationship with India with a renewed sense of energy and purpose. India’s rise is one of the most significant geopolitical developments of the twenty-first century. With astute policies, the United States could be one of the greatest beneficiaries of India assuming its rightful place as a leading global power. However, putting India policy on auto-pilot based on the faulty assumption that a strategic partnership will blossom on its own could lead us to miss an historic opportunity.

India is poised to have the world’s largest population by the middle of the next decade. With economic growth at over 7 percent, India is the fastest growing major economy, outpacing China. It now ranks as the sixth largest economy and is on track to be the third largest by 2030 and the second largest by 2050. Moreover, India’s military is the world’s third largest and its capabilities are steadily improving.

A stronger India offers the prospect of a more stable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific, the world’s most economically dynamic region which stretches from the eastern shores of Africa to the west coast of the Americas. India’s democratic model of development presents a stark contrast to China’s authoritarianism for emerging nations in Africa and beyond. And its steady rise into the ranks of great powers offers the prospect of a potent amplifying voice that shares our fundamental values.

As the world’s oldest and largest democracies, respectively, the United States and India begin their constitutions with the same three words: “We the people.” Our countries are blessed with diversity. We are at our best when all of our citizens—men and women, religious and ethnic minorities, and the historically disadvantaged—have the means to succeed; we suffer when there is inequality and division. India, like the United States, recognizes its imperfections, and yet it has stubbornly, even improbably, maintained its commitment to the often-cumbersome machinery of a democracy which separates power among different branches of government, guarantees the rights of states in a federal structure and enshrines fundamental individual rights in its constitution.

Yet, despite our shared values, the U.S.-India relationship got off to a late start, hamstrung by tensions that kept ties at arms-length for much of the Cold War. The relationship only began to warm after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and following a temporary setback with India’s nuclear tests in 1998, successive U.S. and Indian administrations took strategic decisions to put U.S.-India ties on a stronger footing.

As Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently put it, our partnership “has overcome the hesitations of history.” Bilateral trade has more than doubled from $58 billion in 2007 to $125 billion in 2017; Prime Minister Modi has visited the United States five times since coming to power in 2014; over forty governmental dialogues and working groups have proliferated to cover a range of subjects from cybersecurity and counter-terrorism cooperation to commercial and defense ties.

President Donald Trump’s administration has made a promising start with its early pronouncements. An inaugural “two-plus-two” meeting between the U.S. secretaries of defense and state with their Indian counterparts took place in early September. The National Security Strategy’s explicit welcoming of “India’s emergence as a leading global power and stronger strategic and defense partner” is on the mark. These words must now be translated into action.

Indeed, we have a profound interest in facilitating India’s rise, but it is not difficult to imagine how India policy could be relegated to the back burner given the immediate priorities facing the United States—from North Korea and Iran, to active military operations in Afghanistan and Syria, to the threat of international terrorism. Not surprisingly, these complex challenges tend to consume the time and energy of decision-makers in Washington, leaving little bandwidth for equally significant long-term strategic priorities.

But it would be a mistake not to pay sufficient attention to India, which can help offset two troubling geostrategic trend lines in particular. Russia is employing multiple forms of hard and soft power to violate the sovereignty of its neighbors, assert itself in the Middle East, and undermine NATO, the European Union and Western democracies. China is challenging international law and the rules-based order that has prevailed in Asia since the end of the Second World War, threatening freedom of navigation, rapidly modernizing its military, establishing a military presence in the Indian Ocean and launching the Belt and Road Initiative—an ambitious mercantile project which stretches across Asia and into Africa, the Middle East and Europe. A rising India, integrated with global governance structures, can counter-balance these trends and introduce greater stability into the international system, but this will require significantly upgrading the U.S.-India strategic partnership.

For all the positive pronouncements and real progress, the relationship still has an unfocused quality and it remains vulnerable to shocks. To help build resilience and to fully realize the potential of the relationship, the United States should follow a five-part strategy: embrace India as a global strategic partner, boost economic ties, deepen defense and security cooperation, promote greater connectivity between our citizens and actively oversee the relationship from the White House and Congress.

THE U.S.-INDIA relationship does not fit into the traditional paradigm of an alliance. As a founder of the Non-Aligned Movement, India’s post-independence doctrine of ‘strategic autonomy’ is a firmly held principle. That does not diminish the intrinsic value of a strategic partnership with a rising India for the United States. As Vice President Joe Biden told an audience in Mumbai in 2013, “There is no contradiction between strategic autonomy and strategic partnership.”

As two countries sharing the same values and holding similar outlooks, more often than not, we will increasingly find our views in alignment on the major international challenges of the day. Our relationship needs to be less about the tactical level details of a host of bilateral issues, and more about strategic cooperation on a range of global challenges from development to climate change and international security.

India’s transition from an aid recipient to an international aid donor presents an important opportunity to forge a comprehensive economic development partnership that is Indian-led. India has much to offer other developing countries given its own success in dramatically reducing the number of people living in poverty. The Indian government has been able to take innovations from remote corners of the country in sectors such as agriculture and maternal and infant health care and scale them up to improve the lives of millions.

India is already sharing its advances in agriculture, health and energy with countries in Africa, where it enjoys strong historic ties. Moreover, many of these countries can learn from India’s ability to turn its demographic profile into an advantage that drives economic growth. Roughly half of India’s population is under the age of twenty-five. Countries such as Uganda, Chad, Niger and Mali face even steeper demographic challenges with over 65 percent of the population under twenty-five. India also has become a significant donor to Afghanistan, where U.S. troops lead an international coalition.

Working together, the United States and India can promote a sustainable model of economic development in Africa and Asia that stands in sharp contrast to China’s mercantilist approach that too often pushes countries deep into debt. The BUILD Act, which Senator Chris Coons introduced with Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, creates the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation to catalyze private sector investments in achieving economic development objectives. It offers a ready-made platform for cooperation with India in Africa and across the Indo-Pacific, where Japan and Australia can also be partners. Economic development coordination among the members of the Quad (the United States, India, Japan and Australia) could directly compete with China’s Belt and Road Initiative in a way that advances good governance and the rule of law, as well as international standards for environmental and labor rights.

Climate change is another significant global challenge that demands cooperation between the U.S. and India, the second and third largest greenhouse gas emitters, respectively. The Trump administration unwisely pulled the United States out of the Paris agreement, but the reality of climate change is not going away. It is in our self-interest to partner with India in achieving its target of 175 gigawatts (GW) for renewable energy production by 2022, including 100 GW from solar energy. One positive step the United States could take would be to join the New Delhi-based International Solar Alliance, which aims to spur solar innovation, research and development, and technologies that would benefit American companies, universities and consumers.

More broadly, we should welcome greater global stewardship by India. To that end, the Trump administration should throw its diplomatic weight behind India’s entry into the key international political, economic and security governance bodies. As Asia’s third largest economy, India clearly belongs in apec, but now it must go further. The time has come for India to have a permanent seat on a reformed United Nations Security Council, which the Trump and Obama administrations have endorsed. Similarly, it is in the world’s interest for India to be in the Nuclear Suppliers Group, which is designed to prevent nuclear proliferation. Of course, the United States alone cannot decide on India’s membership in these bodies and will need to overcome resistance from countries such as China. Finally, if there is to be an honest discussion about expanding the G-7 to include genuine democracies with the world’s largest economies, by any measure India belongs in this group before countries whose commitment to democracy has been demonstrably abandoned.

Critics will argue that India is not ready for the responsibilities of membership in these bodies, that its economy is not yet advanced, that it can be difficult on trade issues and that it cannot be relied upon to automatically support the United States. These arguments not only ignore India’s inexorable rise, they also fail to recognize the likely impact on Indian policies that would accompany its assumption of part of the burden of global leadership. Leaving India on the outside looking in—rising as a global power, but unable to set the direction of the key instruments of global governance—erodes the viability of major international institutions. While India won’t always endorse American positions, we are likely to be surprised by how often we find ourselves in agreement on the most important global challenges.

FOR INDIA to emerge as a leading global power, it will need strong and sustained economic performance. India’s economic liberalization began in 1991 and has been propelled most recently by key decisions taken by Prime Minster Modi’s government. According to one estimate by Homi Kharas of the Brookings Institution, India will add more people—approximately 380 million—to its middle class between 2015 and 2022 than the entire population of the United States. Economic growth is critical to absorb the one million Indians who are joining the labor market each month, a staggering figure.

India is capable of achieving higher growth rates with deeper reforms that include easing restrictions on foreign investment and ownership, removing trade barriers and improving the protection of intellectual property rights. The United States stands to benefit from an economically prosperous India in two ways. First and foremost, a strong Indian economy aligns with the American strategic interest in India’s rise. Second, Indian economic dynamism benefits the American economy by offering scope for greater collaboration, investment and innovation. A vivid example of the value of trade can be seen in Boeing’s expectation that Indian airlines will need to purchase 2,000 aircraft over the next twenty years; it has already received orders for more than 300.

Unfortunately, recent decisions by the Trump administration are casting a shadow over trade ties. These include tariffs on steel and aluminum products and the Treasury Department’s addition of India to a list of countries to be monitored for currency manipulation. India has taken its own unwelcome actions, including increasing customs duties on a number of imports, and maintains a range of barriers that hinder trade and investment.

Ironically, when it comes to increased tariffs, both India and the United States appear to be partly motivated by at least one common factor—massive trade deficits with China. Thus, the Trump administration should be able to arrive at an understanding with India. It should begin by exempting India from steel and aluminum tariffs, just as it should for all close American partners. It should then prioritize a bilateral agreement that would govern trade and investment.

Both countries should seek creative ways to turn areas of friction into net positives. Poultry, financial services and insurance are just some examples of areas where U.S.-India economic integration holds great promise as disagreements are resolved. Reinvigorating the U.S.-India ceo Forum could generate creative ideas to overcome hurdles and identify opportunities that are responsive to both nations’ priorities. The Trump administration can also take an important step by prioritizing trade missions to India led by high-ranking officials. For example, the $100 billion Delhi Mumbai Industrial Corridor project, where Japan has partnered with India, offers a number of opportunities given the plans for large-scale infrastructure investments in smart cities, airports, power plants and rapid transit.

Trade presents one of the most difficult challenges in the bilateral relationship because of its political dimension. Yet, trade is not a zero-sum game as it benefits both countries. The overriding mutual interest in a broader strategic partnership must drive the trade relationship; trade disputes must not be allowed to derail that objective. However, the Trump administration’s reckless moves toward protectionism, coupled with the legacy of India’s restrictions on trade, could make for a perfect storm.

India’s policies have their origin in the legacy of colonialism, which distorted and weakened an economy that was once among the largest in the world. Today, a self-confident India with a talented workforce is more than able to hold its own and compete globally; it has much more to gain by phasing out antiquated measures from a bygone era. Similarly, the United States will suffer a serious self-inflicted economic wound that will harm consumers and American competitiveness if the Trump administration continues down the protectionist path.

IF TRADE implicates the most nettlesome issues in the U.S.-India relationship, defense and security cooperation represent the most promising aspects of it. In 2016, the Obama administration took the significant step of recognizing India as a Major Defense Partner. The Trump administration’s National Security Strategy builds on this by pledging to “expand our defense and security cooperation with India” as a key element of its strategy in the Indo-Pacific.

The United States and India conduct over fifty annual military exercises and have agreed to hold their first joint tri-service exercise later this year. The two countries have increased co-production and co-development of defense equipment thanks to pioneering work by former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter. American companies are even offering to produce advanced fighter aircraft in India itself, and U.S. defense sales to India have surged from less than $1 billion in 2008 to more than $15 billion today. India’s increasing use of highly-capable American systems enables inter-operability between the U.S. and Indian militaries, which provides the option for potential joint operations.

Yet, for all the progress, not all the news is good. India’s plans to acquire the S-400 air defense system from Russia could trigger sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, potentially setting back relations. Even if the Trump administration waives sanctions, India should still refrain from purchasing the S-400 to ensure that Russia is held accountable for its subversion of democracy around the world. At the same time, India’s defense needs must be met, so the United States should commit to being India’s partner of choice—which would accelerate New Delhi’s movement away from reliance on Russian defense equipment.

Unfortunately, difficulties persist in the approval of high-end U.S. defense exports to India. Decisionmaking on these matters is too often handled on a case-by-case basis, which undercuts American reliability as a defense partner. To provide coherence and predictability, the United States should agree to provide India with defense capabilities in three domains provided that adequate agreements and safeguards are in place to protect sensitive U.S. technology.

First, India should be able to make a significant contribution to preserving maritime security and the freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific. Second, if India is to be a global leader, it will require the means to project power effectively. Third, India should have the capacity to deter Chinese adventurism on land, at sea and in the air.

It is impossible to ignore China’s rapid military modernization, its building of military outposts in the South China Sea in flagrant violation of international norms, its increasing projection of power into the Indian Ocean and its incursions along the disputed Sino-Indian border. For example, last year China sought to construct a road in a disputed area of the Doklam Plateau that would have threatened the Siliguri Corridor—the narrow stretch of land that connects India’s northeastern states to the rest of the country. Growing Chinese assertiveness promises more such incidents involving India, other U.S. partners and even the United States itself. In this context, stronger Indian military capabilities would lead to greater stability in the Indo-Pacific.

As India’s military capacity grows, improving its ties with South Asian neighbors will become more important. The United States should offer to help India and Pakistan improve their relationship, as it will free up India to play a larger global role.

AS TWO democracies, the relationship between the United States and India cannot and should not be dominated by the interactions between governments. It is the bonds among our people that can endure and withstand the vicissitudes that may accompany changes in government or the whims of individual leaders.


Here, much work remains to be done by both countries. For instance, the discrepancy between the number of Indians studying in the United States relative to the number of Americans studying in India—186,000 versus a paltry 4,200—stands out. Indeed, the most recent data indicates that the number of Americans studying in India is actually declining. Alyssa Ayres with the Council on Foreign Relations notes that more Americans study abroad in Costa Rica, a country of 4.85 million people, than India, a country of 1.32 billion.

To address this problem, the Center for American Progress has offered a constructive proposal to establish a U.S.-India Strong Foundation, a public-private partnership which would aim to boost the number of Americans studying in India. One idea such a foundation could consider would be to partner with U.S. business schools as well as American and Indian firms to offer recent American business school graduates the ability to spend six months to a year working in India.

Similarly, Alyssa Ayres points out the sad state of Indian language studies in the United States, with the number of college students enrolled in all Indian languages combined standing at less than a quarter of those studying Ancient Greek. The U.S. Department of Education can help reduce this shortfall by increasing resources for study and fellowships.

Other steps can be taken to enhance people-to-people exchanges. For example, a Young Indian Leaders Initiative could be modeled on the successful Young African Leaders Initiative, which brings nearly a thousand young people to the United States for several weeks each year and exposes them to American public policy institutions, building enduring ties between Africa and the United States.

The United States and India also can cooperate to tackle important social issues. For example, India’s Minister of Women and Child Development has supported a new smartphone panic button app that would give women who fear assault the ability to alert police and nearby cell-users. American companies can lend their expertise to help overcome technological hurdles.

Moreover, the Indian diaspora in the United States should be mobilized more effectively in support of the bilateral relationship. Numbering well over three million, Indian-Americans are, on average, young, well-educated and have high household incomes. This community of highly-accomplished professionals and entrepreneurs is now active in all walks of American civic life. One of the most encouraging trends is the growing number of Indian-Americans in both political parties holding public office and making significant contributions in federal, state and local government. The Indian diaspora enriches the American cultural fabric and it provides perhaps the strongest bond between our two countries.

Therefore, the Trump administration’s actions with respect to immigration are deeply troubling and ultimately self-defeating. The decision to review the H1-B visa program, which brings highly-skilled immigrants—many of them from India—to the United States in fields that suffer from personnel shortfalls, risks harming our economic and technological competitiveness. On any business day in New Delhi, one can find a long line at the U.S. embassy filled with people who aspire to visit, study, work, invest or live in America. It is hard not to be struck by their caliber, drive and spirit. These individuals should be welcomed to our country, not turned away or forced to jump over endless hurdles. If we close our door to them, someone else will benefit from our mistake.

THE U.S.-INDIA relationship is more likely to fall victim to sins of omission than sins of commission. Because so many government agencies have programs and policies that could impact the relationship, the administration needs to assign a top-level official to serve as the focal point for coordination to avoid missteps, one-off initiatives and the creation of bureaucratic silos. While the State Department is the obvious agency to lead the relationship, sustained high-level engagement is needed to successfully integrate the efforts of the State, Defense and Commerce Departments as well as other government agencies. The higher the level of engagement, the more that India will perceive American commitment as serious.

The national security advisor would seem to be the right person for the role, but in any administration she or he is too preoccupied with the urgent challenges of the day to become immersed in cultivating a deep and enduring partnership with India. That leaves the vice presidency as the natural office to take on an assignment of this magnitude. In the Obama administration, Vice President Biden played the role of convening stakeholders and riding herd for initiatives as diverse as the stimulus plan and the Cancer Moonshot initiative to apprenticeships and key foreign policy priorities.

Congress also must play a more active role. Large caucuses promoting ties with India in the Senate and House of Representatives can serve as platforms for catalyzing greater congressional engagement. Members of Congress should have a regular presence at high-level annual fora in India, just as they do at annual meetings such as the Munich Security Conference in Germany and the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. If India is to be a global partner, then greater congressional involvement will be essential to forging a common view of global challenges.

Rhetoric about the value of U.S.-India ties abounds, but is not matched by actions to realize the full potential of the relationship. That can only happen with high-level attention and oversight by Congress and the White House.

In Washington, this will require us to do something inconsistent with our habits, and that is to sustain our focus on a country that is generally perceived as a benign actor. But if we make the investment now, we will realize an exceptional return in the form of a like-minded, capable and independent country that has growing strategic weight and will naturally be inclined to act in ways that are consistent with our own interests and values.


Chris Coons is a U.S. Senator representing the state of Delaware. Puneet Talwar was assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, special assistant to President Barack Obama and senior director at the National Security Council, and an adviser to Vice President Joe Biden.

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