Facets and dynamics of Indo-US Strategic Relations


Dr. Manoj Kumar Mishra 12 November 2019

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 American leaders and people, relative stability of Indian political and economic system necessary for bilateral trade and investment and alignment of interests of both in containing a militarily assertive and geostrategically adventurist China. Growing bilateral ties in the economic area found resonance in military relations and cooperation in field the civil nuclear energy as well. Notwithstanding steady evolution of their relationship, differences in the respective state’s power, ambitions and role and concerns such as India’s long-years of colonial exploitation, late-industrialization and neo-colonialism ordained 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 such as natural allies or defining partners. While American continued military assistance to Pakistan contributed to Indian concerns till it was suspended by the Trump Administration for its alleged and potential misuse against New Delhi,  growing militarization of the Indo-Pacific region precipitated by US-China power politics and perceived ambivalence in New Delhi’s stance continue to contribute to India’s long-term security concerns.

India’s relations with the US were placed on a firm footing with robust economic engagement and a de-facto nuclear power status for India with the signing of the civil nuclear energy deal followed by military-strategic ties 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” (C. Rice, “Promoting the National Interest”, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 79, January-February 2000). 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 found the other relevant for its 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 ordained 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 such as natural allies or defining partners. There are still many issues that would prevent India’s strategic relations to reach the level of warmth enjoyed by American traditional allies such as Japan and NATO member-states. It is worth remembering that the US recognized India as a “major defence partner” in a joint statement issued during Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the US and subsequently signed the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) and Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement COMCASA – two foundational agreements for strategic defence partnership. Yet, the Trump administration chose to tighten screws on India in the areas such as migration and trade.   

Non-aligned India’s Interests were not Ignored even though the American ally Pakistan Expressed Concerns during the Cold War

India’s relations with the US are perceived by and large frozen except a few instances of American sanctions during the Cold War given India’s policy of non-alignment, its first Prime Minister Nehru’s leanings towards socialist ideology and later on India’s proclivity towards forging close ties with the Soviet Union. It was the size and population of India which 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 and the latter 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 American aid. However, when requested for military aid to avert border war with China in 1962, India was obliged by the US and 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. In 1965, when Pakistan and India fought a war, the then Johnson Administration, moved by the belief that most of the American 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 but valuable American 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 although many scholars expressed their concerns regarding an agrarian country’s dependence on America for food stuff which primarily represented corporate interests. Support of the US government, the role of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and American scientists cannot be underestimated in bringing Green Revolution in India which could make 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 them through constructive diplomacy.

In the very beginning of the 1970s, Pakistan facilitated lines of communication between the US and China and became 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 waged on the question to determine East Pakistan’s future. Despite then American Administration’s continued support for the Pakistan General’s attempt to subdue East Pakistan’s independence struggle, an 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 independent Bangladesh. The American Administration eventually withdrew its military support during the last stage of the war.     

American Dependence on Pakistan for conducting ‘War on Terror’ has not prevented its Relations with India from Growing

India opened up its economy in 1991 and shed its professed obsession with socialistic ideology and moved closer in the direction of the west ideologically and in terms of public policy. Many sectors of the Indian economy hitherto closed for the Americans opened for economic engagements. American software industries were flush with Indian professionals in the US and many worked for them offshore. 

As a semblance of American 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 ties with Pakistan. India’s response to the changing American gesture 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 not only in the provision of supply routes for the US and NATO convoys, the US relied heavily on intelligence inputs from Pakistan to curb militancy in Afghanistan.

Notwithstanding the American increased dependence on Pakistan, relations between the US and India, during the Bush Administration, cemented with the signing of the Indo-US Civil Nuclear Deal in 2005 which was intended to facilitate the supply of American 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 American 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 in the current scenario. 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 were 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 American 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 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. This deal opened up further possibilities of Indo-American 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 centre for cross-border terrorism across the Line of Control between India and Pakistan was 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 which are organically linked with each other found little resonance in the American foreign policy concerns. Pakistan became the recipient of enormous American aid not only to fight terrorism, territorial integrity and socio-economic development also deserved American attention and aid with the primary concern that Pakistan did not collapse and its nuclear arsenal did not fall into the hands of militants.      

While Mumbai terrorist attacks in 2008 had led the American leadership to condemn such acts and express solidarity with India to fight terrorism, Pakistani act of sheltering Osama bin Laden who was eventually killed in Abbottabad in 2011 and David Headley’s interrogation which revealed Pakistani intelligence agency ISI’s alleged connections with al-Qaeda and LeT, the US relationship with Pakistan touched a new low. Although Obama Administration’s plan to withdraw American forces from Afghanistan by fixing timeline for it prevented the US from taking harsh measures against Pakistan and American dependence on Pakistan increased in order to find a political solution to the Afghan conundrum,  two US Congress legislators took efforts to introduce a bill designating Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism and showed 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. During this Administration, the US and India signed the bilateral Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) giving their militaries access to each other’s facilities for supplies and repairs in a major attempt to take defence relations between them a notch ahead. 

The Trump Administration, 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 release of the alleged mastermind of Mumbai terrorist attack Hafiz Saeed from house arrest by Pakistan. This 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 Indo-Pacific regions.

Indo-US strategic relations deepened gradually during almost all the succeeding American Administrations and different factors contributed to the strengthening of the relations. While the US support for Pakistan waxed and waned quickly, American relations with India grew independent of US 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. According to data released by US Department Commerce, US Census Bureau and US Bureau of Economic Analysis, total bilateral trade including goods and services between India and the US rose from $20 billion in the year 2000 to over $126.1 billion in 2017. The year 2018 not only witnessed further intensification of bilateral defence ties with the signing of the pact – Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) during the 2+2 dialogue on September 6, President Trump signed into Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (ARIA) authorizing a spending of $1.5 billion toward developing a long-term strategic vision and a comprehensive and multifaceted policy for the Indo-Pacific region on the concluding day of the year recognizing the vitality of Indo-US strategic partnership.

For instance, Section 204 of the act calls for strengthening and broadening of economic, and security ties between India and the US in order to promote peace and security in the Indo-Pacific region. The law although is not India-centric as it dwells on US ties with other powers such as Japan, Australia and Southeast Asian countries as well, it nonetheless reinforces Indo-US strategic partnership by reaffirming and endorsing existing bilateral instruments, such as the “New Framework for the United States-India Defense Relationship” of 2005 to the designating of India as a Major Defense Partner by a 2017 law, and “calls for the strengthening and broadening of diplomatic, economic, and security ties between the United States and India”. (“With new law, US reaffirms India’s key role in Indo-Pacific strategy”, Hindustan Times, January 2, 2019, Available at: https://www.hindustantimes.com/world-news/in-new-us-law-india-s-vital-role-in-indo-pacific-strategy-reaffirmed/story-a2wAoRpDCtJNBFBpBuhYqJ.html)

Divergences in American and Indian Role and Interests

India has expressed its willingness to continue defence ties with Russia not only for repairing and updating of its existing Russian made defence equipments but for new defence deals (S-400 missiles) in order to diversify its military supplies which is not a welcome development in the eyes of Washington. India’s invitation to Russia to become a part of its Indo-Pacific vision will not be seen favorably by the US. India’s willingness to forge close ties with Iran for energy supplies and gain accessibility to Afghanistan bypassing Pakistan is at odds with Trump Administration’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and attempt at bringing in new sanctions against it. India and the US have expressed their differences over trade related 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, 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. Therefore, there are areas for both sides to work on. Keeping their respective role and aspirations in perspective, Indo-US strategic relations may not be as promising as some leaders and scholars from each side epitomize such as natural allies or defining partners. 

India perceived its interests being served from international trade arrangements that favored and met the requirements of developing countries as long-years of colonial exploitation, late-industrialization and neo-colonialism (subtle forms of exploitation by developed countries through international financial arrangements favoring their interests) placed it on a platform shared by other third world countries. On March 4, 2019, President Trump announced that the US intends to terminate India’s designations as a beneficiary developing country under the GSP program once the two-month notice period ended on May 3. Later, President Trump issued a proclamation ending the trade benefits effective June 5. Over the years, India’s interests differed from those of many developed countries including the US on the issues of patent rights over producing generic medicines to cater to the needs of poor people as well as massive agricultural subsidies that farmers of developed countries received.

Similarly, while the leadership in New Delhi has theoretically affirmed that India would only respect sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council, Indian responses to the sanctions imposed by the US strike a discordant note with its assertion and indicate its rising economic and military dependence on the US. For instance, in May 2018, when the US first announced its sanctions, the then-external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj said India would never abide by unilateral sanctions from the US, and only followed “UN sanctions.” However, Prime Minister Modi  went on to assure President Trump that New Delhi had, in fact, reduced its intake of Iranian oil, in accordance with Washington’s request to “zero out” Iranian oil imports after May 2 of this year. Further, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, on a visit to New Delhi, lauded India’s efforts by making an announcement that “assertive” India had stopped buying oil from Iran.

While India’s ability to forge close ties with Iran for energy supplies and gain accessibility to Afghanistan bypassing Pakistan based on national interests independent of the Trump administration’s sanctions against it fell squarely within its preference for a policy of multi-alignment, it appeared tricky for India to manage the troubles stemming from Washington’s iron-fisted approach.

India’s approach to working with other countries to make the Paris Climate Agreement achieve results after the Trump Administration decided to move out of the agreement is indicative of India’s policy of multi-alignment. India has shown willingness to cooperate with other developing countries like Brazil, South Africa and China in providing leadership on climate issues within the framework of BASIC and address the environmental grievances of less developing and underdeveloped countries. These countries along with Russia formed BRICS and expressed their intentions of working closer on issues of development and financing.

India has also been a part of IBSA Dialogue forum consisting of India, Brazil and South Africa to discuss and cooperate on the issues of agriculture, trade, culture and defence. All these indicate India’s willingness to diversify its relations on the basis of commonality of interests and purpose within the rubric of South-South cooperation. Although India-US relations are steadily moving ahead, there are divergences in perspectives which are related to their respective power, level of development and concerns. Divergences in perspectives on international issues have resulted in India’s eagerness to defend sovereignty, desire strategic autonomy and pursue a policy multi-alignment.

Further, many experts also expressed concern over the fact how Pakistan became a recipient of massive war aid from US to combat terrorism over the years,  which it allegedly used for other purposes contributing to Indian concerns. For instance, Azeem Ibrahim, a former Research Fellow, International Security Program, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, pointed to the facts how Pakistan bought much conventional military equipment such as F-16s, aircraft-mounted armaments, anti-ship and anti-missile defence systems, and an air defence radar system costing $200 million, despite the fact that the terrorists in FATA had no air attack capability. They argued Indo-US strategic partnership stood on Indian centrality to the American Indo-Pacific strategy and was never designed to allay New Delhi’s Afghan concerns whereas Pakistan remained key to Washington’s Afghan and Central Asian strategies (A. Ibrahim, “US aid to Pakistan-US taxpayers have funded Pakistani Corruption”, Belfer Centre Discussion Paper#2009-06, International Security Programme, Harvard Kennedy School, July 2009).

India’s Balance of Power Strategy may lead to more militarization in the Indo-Pacific

While New Delhi apprehended serious Chinese encroachments into India’s strategic periphery through Beijing’s BRI and maritime strategies and considered strategic partnership with other members of the Quad (America, Japan and Australia) crucial to containing Beijing’s ambitions, asserting the Indian desire for strategic autonomy, Prime Minister Modi’s speech at Shangri-La dialogue on June 1, 2018 clearly signaled New Delhi’s reluctance to share the objectives of the other members of the Quad and strengthen the quadrilateral format of US-Japan-India-Australia primarily as a means to contain Chinese influence. It took a broader view of its Indo-Pacific policy by inviting Russia, the ASEAN member-states and China to help maintain free and open Ocean for trade and navigation. In the evolving scenario, while US is not assured of India’s unambiguous support for its Indo-Pacific strategy, Chinese suspicions of India’s pro-US gesture have not been dispelled (M. K. Mishra, “India’s foreign policy at Crossroads”, Asia Times, November 6, 2019). However, the members of the Quad are not only meeting frequently in recent months to discuss and pass resolutions reinvigorating their role in maintaining free, open and rules-based Indo-Pacific, possibilities of their enhanced military profile and security strategies have grown as well. The US decision to withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty which aimed at eliminating conventional and nuclear missiles ranging from 500 to 5,500 km from the American and Soviet (now Russian) arsenals seems to contribute to Chinese speculations about the American military designs in the Indo-Pacific.

In this larger context, while China seems poised to take steps to enhance its deterrence capacities in the region, the US and other major powers have now greater leeway in breaching them. Until the great powers agree on a fresh treaty to contain their conventional and nuclear ambitions, possibilities of military confrontations will rise further. While India’s continued threat perceptions from volatile Chinese strategies have nudged it to American strategic ambit, New Delhi’s failure to balance its strategic position vis-à-vis China would place it in precarious circumstances amid the growing militarization of the Indo-Pacific.