As we approach the new date of the twice-postponed “2+2” dialogue between American and Indian cabinet officials, it is worth reflecting upon the current state of affairs of the U.S.-India strategic partnership. The 2005 civil nuclear agreement between the two countries was widely viewed as a pivotal moment for the beginning of close alignment. But recent events have been a mixed bag of positives and negatives, making it difficult to assess the future trajectory of the bilateral relationship.
Initially after taking office, Donald Trump expressed affinity for India, and the Pentagon renamed the Pacific Command to the “Indo-Pacific Command,” giving greater centrality to India as a strategic partner and counter-balancer to China. New Delhi responded by increasing purchases of U.S. defense equipment and reviving the dormant “Quad” group with Japan, Australia, and the United States.
On the other hand, there have lately been noticeable disagreements between the two countries, especially over trade and defense issues. The Trump administration announced tariffs on Indian steel and aluminum in March, to which India responded in June with the announcement of counter-tariffs on a wide assortment of American goods. Though these retaliatory tariffs have been delayed till September, they run the risk of further complicating U.S.-India cooperation.
Compounding the growing distance between Washington and New Delhi, the Trump administration seems to have deprioritized its relationship with India, due in part to greater preoccupation with conflicts in the Middle East and East Asia. The Trump administration’s increased engagement with Pakistan on the issue of Afghanistan may also come at the expense of Indo-U.S. ties, as Suhasini Haidar notes.
A July editorial in The Hindu reflecting on the strategic partnership even declared that “both capitals [are] now freely conceding that their interests are diverging” and that “[t]he clock is ticking on the relationship.” More recently, however, the United States took a step towards closer cooperation with India by granting it STA-1 status, thereby easing of sale of high-technology products to India.
Given this complex situation, how far has the U.S.-India strategic partnership come in the past thirteen or so years and where is it headed? There are two major schools of thought in the strategic community on the U.S.-India relationship: one which argues that it will move increasingly towards a strategic alliance, as predicted by architects of the U.S.-India civil nuclear agreement, and another camp which argues that India will align when convenient but maintain a great deal of strategic autonomy. When evaluating these opposing predictions, measurement has been a challenge.
Non-Partnership at the United Nations
One method of measurement that can serve as a proxy for strategic congruence between the United States and India is their voting alignment in the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), the premier international institution. India’s voting records at the UNGA, when taken together with its close engagement with U.S. adversaries like Iran and Russia, suggest that it will likely maintain its strategic autonomy instead of bandwagoning with the countries that follow the United States’ lead on international affairs.
The lack of alignment between American and Indian interests can be observed systematically through the countries’ actions and voting behavior at the United Nations. India’s distance from U.S. foreign policies is reflected in its longstanding voting patterns in the UNGA, which have not changed significantly since the 2005 civil nuclear deal with India was crafted by the George W. Bush administration. Although that deal was widely viewed as a major concession to India and a pivotal moment in U.S.-India ties, it did not produce a corresponding change in Indian support for the United States at the UN.
India and the United States have historically been at odds in the UN, especially during the Cold War when India served as a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement. The end of the Cold War and demise of the Non-Alignment Movement have not appreciably closed divisions between New Delhi and Washington, even after the civil nuclear deal. Of the nearly 1000 resolutions that were passed between 2005 and 2017, the two countries concurred on 13 percent of resolutions (as measured by them voting the same way, or both being absent from the vote). Looking further back, Indo-U.S. voting alignment increased only slightly from 13 percent in 1990 to 17 percent in 2017. The extent of India’s alignment with the United States is below that of Russia, and around the same as that of China.
Figure 1: Voting alignment of select countries with the United States in the UNGA from 1990 to 2017.
The trends presented above do not reflect strategic congruence, and they hold even if we account for the special nature of the Arab-Israeli conflict as a major topic that the UN regularly votes on, on which the United States is largely at odds with India and most of the international community. If all resolutions on Israel and Palestine are removed, the U.S. overlap with India does not drastically change, with a total of 17 percent alignment from 2005–17. Thus, New Delhi also typically votes differently from the United States on important issues relating to arms, nuclear security, human rights, and development.
Figure 2: Voting alignment of select countries with the United States in the UNGA from 1990 to 2017, excluding all resolutions on Israel and Palestine.
This pattern of divergence is clearly visible when it is compared to traditional U.S. allies such as the United Kingdom, France, or Israel, whose voting records at the UNGA each converged with the United States at much higher rates during the same time period. Compared to India’s 17 percent from 2005–17, alignment was at 66 percent for the UK, 60 percent for France, and 77 percent for Israel. In contrast, this figure was 15 percent for China and 25 percent for Russia. From this dimension, it is therefore difficult to describe U.S.-India ties as a close strategic partnership when the way that India votes at the United Nations is not much different from the United States’ two most prominent rivals.
Why do these patterns matter? Voting in the United Nations has great symbolic significance because it is the highest and most consequential global forum. The resolutions debated there deal with crucial international issues like disarmament, nuclear security, human rights, territorial disputes, and wars. Alignment of voting reflects whether countries’ perceived interests converge or diverge, so allies and strategic partners would naturally back each other up in this public setting. In this case, Indian and U.S. voting records in the UNGA reflect enduring differences, along with some converging interests.
Continued Indian Engagement with American Foes
India has several reasons to pursue strategic autonomy, including its long-held non-aligned posture and experience with colonialism in the past. Additionally, many Indians realize that as the soon-to-be largest country by population, and seventh-largest by land area, their country has the long-term potential to be the decider of its own fate in a multipolar world. If it can harness its potential and assert its own strategic interests, India will not accept becoming a junior partner to the United States.
This is evident with regards to New Delhi’s complicated relationship with Beijing. Narendra Modi has recently sought to adopt a more conciliatory position with Xi Jinping. The Wuhan summit in April between the two leaders was described as Modi’s attempt to reset relations with China, which had soured following the Doklam standoff. While the objective of the meeting was certainly not to seek strategic alignment with China, it did demonstrate that India does not seek to be restricted by Washington’s differing preferences and policies toward China. New Delhi may find it more advantageous to tread a fine line between China and the United States instead of becoming Washington’s counterweight to Beijing.
The incentives India faces to engage with China are already hindering attempts to strengthen the Quad, which was primarily formed to constrain the latter. As noted by RAND’s Derek Grossman, India has been “less enthusiastic about the Quad following the Wuhan summit.” Indeed, Modi’s keynote speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue in June refrained from criticizing Chinese policies but highlighted the importance of Sino-Indian trust and cooperation. India has, in general, been careful not to explicitly designate China an adversary, unlike the United States. That can explain why India decided not to join the other three Quad members in funding newly announced infrastructure projects in the Indo-Pacific.
India’s policies toward Iran also complicate ties with the United States. Washington is pressuring New Delhi to cut off its well-established relations with Tehran. Besides exiting the JCPOA, the Trump administration announced that it will impose sanctions in November on countries importing any oil from Iran and that no exceptions will be granted. India is the second largest importer of Iranian oil, and a major investor in Iran through its Chabahar port project, so it has refused to give into U.S. demands. Indeed, India’s Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj has preserved neutrality, stating that “[w]e don’t make our foreign policy under pressure from other countries.” As a further signal, the Indian government also gave its approval to Bank Pasagard in mid-July to be the first Iranian bank to open doors in Mumbai, India’s financial capital. Maintaining this kind of freedom and autonomy to engage with both parties of a conflict is quite different from a strategic partnership with either.