The Buzz

Moving Past "Potential": Can America and India Become Real Partners?

The US-India strategic partnership is either the most under-performing bilateral relationship in the world or its most overrated.

As a new chapter in this relationship is written with the ascent of a center-right government in New Delhi (whose earlier incarnation in the late-1990s had in fact proclaimed the US and India to be 'natural allies'), the aura of hyperbole that permeates ties needs to be shed. Equally, with John Kerry and Chuck Hagel having journeyed through New Delhi over the past fortnight with proposals to deepen defense cooperation, and with Prime Minister Narendra Modi due at the White House in late-September, the conceptual gap in value systems and national interests that has provoked this under-performance needs to be internalized. Another decade-and-a-half of inflated expectations and modest delivery in terms of strategic congruence would be a tragic waste. It would also detract from both countries' pursuit of a fundamental interest that aligns their purposes in the Indo-Pacific: the maintenance of a stable geopolitical equilibrium.  

With the passing of the bipolar international order and India's own shift toward market economics, it was assumed that the traditional commonality of democratic values, complemented by an increasingly robust set of inter-societal ties, would accentuate a dramatic convergence of national interests between the two countries. Washington and New Delhi were to be bound by a common interest in preventing Asia from being dominated by China, eliminating threats posed by international terrorism as well as by state sponsors of terrorism, arresting the spread of weapons of mass destruction, promoting the spread of liberal democracy, deepening expansion of the international economic and trading order, and securing the global commons, especially the sea lines of communication.

Aside from a growing convergence on proliferation-related interests, little of this bold agenda has come to pass or is set to materialize in the years ahead. China-India ties have witnessed more top-level political and defense ministerial exchanges over the past couple of years than between the US and India; the road to AfPak stabilization and troop drawdown runs unchanged through Rawalpindi; Washington, DC and New Delhi occupy opposite poles at practically every multilateral trade, economic, and environment negotiation; India's non-prescriptive practice of democracy enlargement and non bloc-based approach to securing the commons contrasts with America's more advocacy-based and a la carte prone model. If anything, the gap between the two countries' worldviews and policies on international and regional matters has widened.

In the afterglow of the US-India civil nuclear agreement, a narrower but seemingly more congruent set of geo-strategic and defense objectives was also envisioned. First, New Delhi would assist Washington in curbing Iran's nuclear ambitions. Second, New Delhi would align with the major maritime democracies of the Indo-Pacific and countervail Chinese power. The veiled possibility of interdicting Chinese sea-bound commerce in the narrow Andaman Sea during an East Asian contingency was a closely-held card. Third, India would cooperate in HA/DR missions and post-conflict reconstruction efforts, including those not mandated or commanded under a UN flag, on both sides of the Indian Ocean. And, fourth, India would provide access at strategic locations across its territory to US military forces - perhaps even 'over-the-horizon' rotational bases, down the line, to deter or manage contingencies in West and East Asia.

Again, aside from gradual cooperation on Iran oil sanctions, little of this ambition has come to pass. Far from growing into its designated role as the US deputy sheriff in the Indian Ocean region (and perhaps someday as a co-partner across the Indo-Pacific region), New Delhi has double downed on its autonomist leanings. It has resisted participating in major multi-service combined exercises that prepare for high-end operational missions, stayed away from stationing personnel at US combatant command headquarters, turned down a series of foundational pacts that would have enhanced logistics and battle-group networking, opted for Russian rather than US high-precision, military-grade navigation signals, opted to strip out tactical interoperability aids (high-end electronics and avionics suites) while purchasing US-origin platforms (P8I and C-130J aircraft), and even allegedly passed up the opportunity to buy a to-be decommissioned supercarrier - the USS Kitty Hawk - for free! (so long as New Delhi agreed to purchase five dozen or so Super Hornet fighters to be operated off the carrier). Defense ties with Japan and Australia too have been limited to the odd naval exercise, with little scope for logistics sharing or information exchange envisaged.

Some $15 billion of US defense hardware sales - not doctrine-sharing exchanges, harmonized force postures or command and control systems integration - has been the sole deliverable for all the exertions. The failure has not been one of effort (or will); rather it has been one of conception.

The disappointments have not tempered the belief of the faithful. Undaunted, it is argued that with the departure of the previous government and its long-serving, proto-socialist defense minister, US and India defense - and particularly mil-mil ties - stand poised to once again break out of policy stagnation.

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