Major Hurdles in India-US Relations

India emerged in the 21st century as increasingly vital to core US foreign policy interests but India-US relations have had a turbulent past.

The bilateral relationship has a history of being influenced by US policies towards India’s neighbors; India’s policy of non-alignment; and its relations with the erstwhile Soviet Union. Relations between India and the United States started to improve after the end of the Cold War. However these shifts came to a halt in May 1998 when India (followed by Pakistan) conducted nuclear tests and the US imposed wide-ranging sanctions.

Since 2004, Washington and New Delhi have pursued a “strategic partnership” based on shared values and generally convergent geopolitical interests. Numerous economic, security and global initiatives including plans for civilian nuclear cooperation are underway. This latter initiative, first launched in 2005, reversed three decades of American non-proliferation policy.

Also in 2005, the US and India signed a ten-year defense framework agreement, with the goal of expanding bilateral security cooperation. The two countries now engage in numerous and unprecedented combined military exercises, with major US arms sales to India. While there were many reasons for the world’s oldest democracy and the world’s largest democracy to mend fences, perhaps the most important reason was the one that few officials could point to in public: the rise of China.

Tensions between New Delhi and Beijing date back to their 1962 border war

To keep up with Beijing’s growing military power, India needs to modernize its armed forces, which means moving away from its reliance on Russian hardware and looking toward Europe and the United States. Meanwhile, Washington is searching for ways to preserve its position in the Asia-Pacific as China’s strength continues to increase.

The geopolitical shifts that shaped the expanded US-India relationship changed dramatically. When President Obama planned his November 2010 visit to India, an array of prickly bilateral issues confronted him. These issue ranged from differences over the proper regional roles to be played by China and Pakistan; the status of conflict in Afghanistan; international efforts to address Iran’s controversial nuclear program; restrictions on high-technology exports to India; outsourcing; and sticking points on the conclusion of arrangements for both civil nuclear and military cooperation.

In past years concerns were raised in India that the Obama Administration was also delaying the full implementation of the India-US Nuclear Deal despite mutual partnership. The Obama administration has strongly advocated for the strengthening of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and has pressured India to sign the agreement.

India will not  appreciate being a front-line state in a broader Sino-American competition

There is a powerful line of reasoning in Indian strategic circles that argues that New Delhi should placate Beijing, including distancing itself from Washington. Many experts in India became increasingly concerned that the US was not focusing on the bilateral relationship with the same previous vigor. Many concerns arose in New Delhi that the Obama Administration was overly focused on US relations with China in ways that would reduce India’s influence and visibility.

READ  India’s Endless Competition with China

In addition, New Delhi was concerned that America was intent on deepening relations with India’s main rival, Pakistan, in ways that could be harmful to Indian security. Strengthening US-Pakistan relations could be perceived as leading to a more interventionist approach in Kashmir, and a new US emphasis on nuclear nonproliferation and arms control would lead to pressure on India to join such multilateral initiatives as the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and the Fissile Materials Cutoff Treaty.

New Delhi has long sought the removal of Indian companies and organizations from US export control lists, seeing these as discriminatory and outdated. India also continued to seek explicit US support for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council but Washington shows hesitation.

From Washington’s perspective, the most recent source of tension has been India’s reluctance to impose oil sanctions against Iran

The US was also disappointed by India’s past year decisions to buy French (and not American) aircraft to fill an $11 billion order for advanced fighters, as well as by the Indian parliament’s passage of legislation in August 2010 that virtually shuts US companies out of India’s civil nuclear industry. India clearly has no interest in developing a defense relationship with the US along the lines of what the US has developed with Japan, South Korea, and Australia. The two countries’ long history of suspicion means that changes in India toward greater defense cooperation with the US will come more slowly than may have initially hoped.

While the US and India have developed multifaceted ties over the last decade, the overall relationship has recently been challenged. Many Indians remain suspicious of the Obama Administration’s plans for the Asia–Pacific. Nevertheless, the growing strategic challenge presented by a rising China, and India’s and America’s shared democratic values, will increase bilateral cooperation.

India and the US should accept that the partnership will not always meet their expectations, and must demonstrate a willingness to collaborate on different issues. Many Indians remain skeptical of US reliability and question whether Washington would sacrifice its delicate relationship with Beijing for New Delhi’s sake.

But it remains important for both sides to regain the momentum in ties that has been lost in the past. Each side must understand and appreciate the other’s core security concerns and be willing to adjust long-held policies and positions to meet the needs of a new relationship that will be critical to ensuring that a stable balance of power prevails in Asia

Asif Ahmed is Assistant Professor at the University of Kurukshetra, teaching defense and strategic studies. He holds an MA in Defense & Strategic Studies (Punjabi University) with other post-graduate degrees in Journalism, Mass Communications and in Distance Education. Ahmed has published two books on Defense Studies and authored more than 100 articles in English, Punjabi, and Hindi languages in various newspapers, magazines journals, and has also edited chapters in books at the national and international levels. Read other articles by Asif.