U.S.-India Relationship on the Rocks?

What India's latest slight to America really means.

Gone are the Cold War days in which India saw the United States with a mix of suspicion and hostility through the prism of its alliance with Pakistan. During the last decade, the United States and India have established an unprecedented partnership, including a historic nuclear cooperation deal in 2008. This positive trend culminated in President Obama’s visit last year to Mumbai and New Delhi, during which he announced American support for India’s ambition to a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council.

It was good while it lasted. But the United States needs to move on and recognize that India’s commitment to strategic autonomy is a fundamental constraint to further improvement in bilateral relations. New Delhi wants to take it slowly because it is wary of becoming another Japan, a client state. It is this grand concern with self-reliance—and not technical or other factors—that led to India’s surprising decision last month to exclude two American contenders, Lockheed and Boeing, from an $11 billion contract for one hundred and twenty-six fourth-generation fighter jets—India’s biggest defense purchase ever.

New Delhi’s preference for two European jets (France’s Rafale and the Eurofighter Typhoon), while excluding Swedish and Russian contenders along with the American F-16 and F/A-18, came as a rude shock to those who had banked on surging U.S.-India defense and security relations. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, India purchased $223 million worth in military equipments from the United States in the last five years—twice as much as in the preceding twenty years. Both countries also held over sixty joint exercises and military exchanges since 2000 and set up a new counterterrorism dialogue that included unprecedented levels of intelligence sharing after the 2008 terrorist attacks on Mumbai.

Defense analysts jumped in immediately to offer possible explanations for the American defeat. Some underlined the fighters’ different performance during high-altitude tests in the Himalayas, along with other technical factors, including speed and radar systems, which may have given the European fighters an advantage. Others privilege political reasons—including pockets of anti-Americanism in the Indian air force—as well as a government plagued by corruption scandals, which may have limited its capacity to make a decision on more than purely objective criteria. Another explanation highlights the controversies involving the quality of previous purchases from the United States, especially that of the USS Trenton, a 1971 amphibious transport dock on which an explosion killed five Indian navy personnel in 2008.

While each of these factors may have played a role, they ignore the most fundamental reason: India’s concern for strategic autonomy in the event of another war with Pakistan and its attempt to maintain a balance in its lineup of military suppliers.

Washington may well have promised New Delhi the world, but in the end India will always fear that its actual combat capacity in such critical moments could be severely affected by relying exclusively on American technology, supplies and support. This sensitivity and mistrust is aggravated by the fact that the United States is also the major supplier to the Pakistani air force, having in recent years transferred thrity-two F-16 variants and several air-to-air missiles and P3C Orion surveillance aircrafts to Islamabad.

New Delhi also justifiably sees Washington as overly stringent on end-use monitoring; Washington would never have allowed these planes to be fitted with nuclear warheads and play a role in India’s nuclear deterrent. In contrast, reports indicate that the Eurofighter offered access to significantly more advanced technology as well as the possibility of assembly in India. This indicates to what extent India remains committed to self-reliance, not only in terms of production, but also operability—the nightmare of 1965, when the United Stated cut off Indian access to crucial military supplies at the height of another Indo-Pakistani crisis, is still fresh in the minds of many Indian strategists.

The decision should therefore be seen as one privileging diversification, diffusing the risk of excessive reliance and dependence on a single partner. American experts implicitly acknowledged this Indian concern by speculating in recent months that India might split the order among two or three different suppliers, perhaps an American, a European and a Russian one. But they ignored the specific cyclical way India diversifies, rotating among different suppliers. In recent years, Russia, the United States, Israel and even Brazil were able to secure important contracts from the Indian air force, but (excepting Britain) European countries have remained largely absent from its acquisitions basket. From this perspective, the Eurofighter Typhoon is particularly attractive as it is developed by a consortium including not only habitués Britain and Germany but also newcomers Spain and Italy.

One failed deal does not mean a winter for Indo-U.S. relations. Both countries have come a long way since the end of the Cold War, and given China’s rise, the United States is surely posited to become one of India’s main strategic partners. Thus, instead of lamenting, soul-searching or—on the opposite extreme—demonizing New Delhi for decisions that are unfavorable to American interests, Washington needs to give the relationship time to mature and recognize that India’s profound concern with securing its strategic autonomy and self-reliance will continue to play a constraining role.