EARLIER U.S. administrations, recognizing the increasing importance of the Indo-Pacific region, coupled with the challenge of rising Chinese power, took important steps to promote U.S.-India strategic partnership. For example, the George W. Bush administration’s Defense Framework Agreement facilitated cooperation in a range of areas, including multilateral operations, bilateral defense trade, and technology transfer. Its U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Agreement also afforded India access to civilian nuclear materials and technologies despite India’s refusal to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
The Obama administration subsequently made India an important figure in its “pivot” or “rebalance” strategy, which began shifting U.S. strategic resources to Asia to more fully engage the region while hedging against increasingly competitive Chinese behavior. To this end, the administration took a number of steps, included the Defense Technology and Trade Initiative, to create opportunities for U.S.-India co-development and production of defense-related technologies.
Building on these earlier bipartisan efforts, the Trump administration took three important steps that significantly strengthened the strategic logic underlying U.S.-India cooperation and enabled the United States to operationalize the two countries’ partnership well beyond previous levels. First, the administration reoriented U.S. strategy away from its longstanding focus on terrorists and other non-state actors to concentrate on what it called “great-power competition.” In doing so, it made clear that although non-state dangers remain serious, powerful nation-states, which are increasingly able to approach or match United States strategic capabilities, now pose the greatest threats to U.S. interests. The administration also explained that because cooperative U.S. policies failed to mitigate these threats in the past, the United States has to be prepared to compete with rival states in the future.
Second, the Trump administration recognized that transition to great-power competition requires it to focus particularly on the dangers of a rising China. Earlier administrations had appreciated the possibility of such dangers, but still believed that cooperative efforts could shape Chinese preferences and behavior and, as a senior Obama administration official put it, “induce fidelity to international norms.” The Trump administration noted that, despite these earlier cooperative policies, China has become less accommodating and more confrontational, and now poses the most serious threats to U.S. interests. The administration, therefore, made clear that, if the United States is to take great power rivalry seriously, the ability to resist China will necessarily be of paramount importance.
Third, the Trump administration, despite its reputation for unilateralism, recognized that competition with China had important cooperative implications for its diplomacy in the Indo-Pacific region. As the recently declassified U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific shows, the administration believed that “strong U.S. alliances [were] key” to its ability to achieve its regional objectives. It, therefore, would seek to “strengthen the capabilities and will” of core treaty allies like Japan, Korea, and Australia, and also develop new regional partnerships with “like-minded” states that were willing to share the task of maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific region. It made the development of these new partnerships a centerpiece of its approach to the Indo-Pacific.
The Trump administration believed that India would be of particular importance to this project. One of the Strategic Framework’s central assumptions was that “a strong India” “would act as a counterbalance to China” in the Indo-Pacific. The United States would, therefore, “accelerate India’s rise and capacity to serve as a net provider of security” and “solidify an enduring strategic partnership with India.”
The Trump administration’s approach led to important milestones that further operationalized the U.S.-India relationship. For example, after years of acrimony and false starts, the two countries finished signing the so-called foundational agreements, which will significantly facilitate U.S.-India military cooperation by enabling geospatial information sharing and logistical support. The U.S. Defense and State Departments, together with the Indian Ministries of Defence and External Affairs, institutionalized an annual 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue to discuss and promote cooperation on pressing foreign policy, defense, and strategic issues. Both countries, together with Japan and Australia, revitalized the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, laying the foundation for a four-way regional partnership to address issues ranging from supply-chain resilience to health security and military exercises. The United States renamed its “Pacific Command,” calling it “Indo-Pacific Command,” to emphasize the importance of India and its region to U.S. strategy. Moreover, the United States eased high-technology export controls by granting India Strategic Trade Authorization-1. U.S.-India defense trade, which was non-existent as recently as 2005, reached approximately $20 billion in 2020.
These were not the accomplishments of an administration that was absent from, or indifferent to, the U.S.-India relationship. Rather, they resulted from the Trump administration’s energetic efforts to prioritize and promote U.S.-India cooperation. There is no need to “come back” to U.S.-India relations under President Joe Biden; America never left the relationship.
Of course, Biden will want to put his own stamp on India policy. To this end, he may bring changes to the U.S.-India relationship, focusing more on issues like climate change, human rights, and nuclear nonproliferation. These differences aside, however, the strategic realities that the new administration faces in the Indo-Pacific region will not change in the near future; the United States will continue to need Indian help to anchor a coalition of Indo-Pacific states to offset rising Chinese power. Working closely with India to help build its strategic capacity will remain a central U.S. priority. Can the new administration capitalize on past achievements and continue to advance the U.S.-India partnership in the years to come?
Despite a considerable degree of forward momentum, success in advancing the U.S.-India relationship is not assured; potential roadblocks stand in the way. Even decades after the Cold War’s end, India and the United States do not fully trust each other, and may reflexively shrink from full-fledged cooperation. Setting unrealistic military and diplomatic requirements for success may create the impression that these improvements will never deliver on their promise, and are not worth pursuing vigorously. Working levels of the foreign policy bureaucracy can adopt their own priorities, ignoring the cooperative goals of national leadership. And an outmoded tendency to formulate India policy on the basis of balancing “India-Pakistan” equities can prevent the United States from aggressively pursuing cooperative opportunities.
What steps can the United States take to avoid dangers such as these, and ensure that the United States and India are able to build on past successes and cooperate even more closely in the future? Below, I offer five principles for continued success in the U.S.-India relationship. They are not specific policies, but rather are operating principles based on the history of U.S.-India relations, the current strategic environment, and coming challenges that the two countries are likely to face.
FIRST, PRIORITIZE trust between India and the United States. Trust is the most important component of the U.S.-India relationship. No matter how worthy their goals or astute their policies, the United States and India cannot effectively cooperate if they distrust each other. And no matter how acrimonious their policy differences, a bedrock of trust can enable the two countries to devise successful compromises.
Lack of trust between the two countries—in particular Indian suspicion of the United States—was a serious problem during the Cold War, and continued to impede cooperation even as interests converged in the years that immediately followed. During this time, India viewed the United States effectively as a neo-colonialist power and feared unwelcome meddling in its affairs. Because of major improvements in recent decades, the issue of trust between the two countries has become less prominent, and is often overlooked entirely. But it remains a significant obstacle to continued progress.
Some of the old Indian worries about U.S. or other foreign meddling linger. They resurface periodically, especially when outsiders criticize Indian domestic policies on human rights or other normative grounds. This will always be a potential source of tension, and Washington will have to strike a balance between advocating its values and recognizing that Indian democracy operates in the context of its own history, domestic political imperatives, and external threats, and will never look exactly like democracy in the United States or Western Europe.
In truth, however, a perceived danger of interference in India’s affairs is no longer the major source of Indian distrust of the United States. Instead, India worries about the opposite—that it cannot trust America to remain sufficiently engaged in joint efforts to check rising Chinese power. If India is to partner closely with the United States and risk antagonizing an already-aggressive China, it must be confident that the United States will not subsequently abandon it to face China on its own. Although Indian confidence on this issue has been increasing, it remains a concern.
The United States can instill confidence in India in several ways. In its public and private rhetoric, it can consistently voice its determination to keep the Indo-Pacific free and open, and its opposition to Chinese behavior that undermines this goal. It can also reiterate its belief in the importance of the U.S.-India strategic partnership, and its continued commitment to helping India become a strong, independent node of regional power.
Additionally, the United States can energetically support India during crises. U.S. backing during the 2020 Sino-Indian border clashes, both in public and behind the scenes, and well-publicized U.S.-India naval exercises that the two countries conducted during the crisis, helped to reassure India of U.S. reliability. A quicker U.S. decision to provide India with vaccine-related materials during its disastrous second coronavirus wave would have been similarly helpful. Although the United States ultimately agreed to supply the materials, the delay of several days caused an outcry in India, reinforcing for many Indians the view that the United States cannot be fully trusted.