The Promise of U.S.-India Ties

September 23, 2013 Topic: Great Powers Region: India

The Promise of U.S.-India Ties

What path will relations between Washington and New Delhi take in the years to come?


With Indian Prime Minister Singh due to meet President Obama in Washington on September 27, hopes are modest for what the two leaders can agree or achieve together.

Against a backdrop of damaged global governance, with both leaders suffering serious credibility deficits at home or abroad, it hardly seems an auspicious time to reinvigorate relations between America and India.


By all means the leaders should proceed with care, to avoid accusations of further widening the gulf between rhetoric and reality in U.S.-India ties.

But now is no time to lose faith in the relationship or let it drift–not least because it turns out that a good proportion of people in the world’s largest democracy wants quite the opposite.

According to a representative opinion poll released earlier this year, most Indians remain positive about U.S.-India relations and want them to grow stronger.

To be sure, the narrative of the U.S.-India strategic partnership is beginning to sound strained. Both economies, especially India’s, are going through hard times. The relative power and appeal of both countries is less than what it was meant to be by now, when President George W Bush and Prime Minister Singh began transforming the relationship about a decade ago.

The game-changing civil nuclear deal, commenced in 2005 and concluded after courageous parliamentary brinksmanship by Singh in 2008, remains afflicted by India’s extraordinary nuclear liability laws. These strongly discourage U.S. nuclear industry from following through on the flagship diplomatic initiative of the transformed relationship.

Despite substantial advances, and talk of natural gas adding a serious energy supply link, the two-way trade and investment relationship remains a fraction of what it could be. Parts of American and multinational business are put off by India’s investment restrictions, bureaucracy and corruption, while Indians are understandably concerned about the impact of possible changes to U.S. immigration rules on prospects for their human capital to deliver in both nations’ interests.

On the geopolitical stage, globally and in Indo-Pacific Asia, there is a palpable sense of neither country being keen to ask very much of the other, because, as the time-honoured shop notice says, refusal often offends.

From UN votes on Iran, Syria and Libya, to climate change and free trade, the global diplomatic dividend hoped for from closer U.S.-India ties has been uneven in some places, disappointing in others.

And when it comes to the big regional security issues of fighting jihadists in Afghanistan or rebalancing to hedge against the uncertainties of Chinese power, Washington is learning to expect neither gratitude nor straightforward alignment from its cautious and pragmatic Indian partner.

Regarding China in particular, Washington should not misunderstand the New Delhi policy establishment’s imperatives. As an unofficial yet influential Indian policy report called Nonalignment 2.0 put it last year:

“It is in our interest that China remains preoccupied with its first-tier, more immediate maritime theatre. The retention of strong U.S. maritime deployments in the Asia-Pacific theatre, a more proactive and assertive Japanese naval force projection, and a build-up of the naval capabilities of such key littoral states as Indonesia, Australia and Vietnam: all may help delay, if not deter, the projection of Chinese naval power in the Indian Ocean. We need to use this window of opportunity to build up our own naval capabilities. Our regional diplomacy should support this approach by fostering closer relations with these ‘countervailing’ powers.”

This ‘no, you first’ kind of polite realpolitik may be a far cry from the traditional nonalignment that Western strategists so despaired of, but it does not seem the making of a durable alliance based on shared values and shared risk.

And yet for all that ...

Supporters and advocates of the U.S.-India relationship are right even now to accentuate the positive, given both how far the relationship has come and the vast potential that remains. There is now candid and deepening dialogue and collaboration across dozens of practical issues, from defense to development, education, to energy, science to space.

The military relationship is about the busiest and fastest-growing between any two countries that are not treaty allies. The just-concluded visit to India by Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter has underlined that the defense sales and technology dimension of bilateral ties is helping sharpen New Delhi’s conventional deterrent capabilities as well as its capacity to provide public goods such as disaster relief. This will be the case even if the overall modernization of India’s armed forces remains troubled and askew.

Even with the U.S.-India relationship forever remaining far short of a mutual-defense pact, its continued strengthening will quietly complicate others’ calculations of coercive or unsettling security actions across the wider region.

In regional diplomacy, too, such as the alphabet soup of Asian security forums and summits, the United States and India are finding common cause with each other and a wide range of countries in creating a rules-based context in which to incorporate China’s expanding interests and strategic reach.

Yet the most compelling reason to keep playing the long game of building a comprehensive U.S.-India partnership may be that it is what much of the Indian population wants.

A representative opinion survey released earlier this year by Australian think tanks the Lowy Institute and the Australia-India Institute indicated that 83% of Indian respondents consider U.S.-India relations to be strong, and 75% want those ties to strengthen further over the next 10 years. Moreover, 72% see the United States as a good security partner in the Indian Ocean and the same proportion sees partnerships with ‘strong countries’ as very important for India to achieve its goals in the world – perhaps not a ringing endorsement for India’s traditions of strategic autonomy and nonalignment.

Admittedly, a substantial minority, 31% see the United States as a threat to India, although only 9% see it as a major threat – whereas 83% see China as a threat, and 60% as a major threat.

The poll suggests that Indians feel more warmly towards the United States than to any other country. And whatever problems or dysfunction U.S. politics or society has faced in recent years, a large majority of Indians – 78% - think it would be better if India worked more like the United States. This makes America the most admired foreign country in Indian eyes, with Australia, Japan and Singapore an equal second with 60% of Indians wanting to emulate their institutions.

According to this research, Indians feel noticeably less warmth or admiration for their fellow so-called BRICS countries, Brazil, Russia, China and South Africa. The poll also shows that most ordinary Indians value democracy and basic democratic rights.

All polls have their limitations and a margin of error; this one’s was 3.6%, given that the sample was 1233 face-to-face interviews in cities, towns and villages across 11 Indian states.

Even so, the basic message for President Obama, Prime Minister Singh and whoever forms government in India after next year's elections should be this: whatever the frustrations of recent years, most Indians place value and hope in the bonds between the two countries. Singh's visit to Washington should not be the end of an era, but the first step to a new phase.

Indeed, it is hard to escape the conclusion that ordinary Indians–including a large proportion of youth and the emerging middle classes–are considerably more positive about their future with America than the political and bureaucratic establishment that has now so often hesitated to follow through on Singh’s historic nuclear gamble.

Rory Medcalf is Director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute, Associate Director of the Australia India Institute and a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Image: The White House/Flickr