The Emerging U.S.-India Strategic Relationship
India's independence hero and first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, did not envision his young nation pursuing alliances with other countries. It is Nehru who first coined the term "non-alignment," and he was one of the founders of the movement of that name established during the early years of the Cold War. Yet in recent years, New Delhi's foreign relations have undergone considerable change—particularly in the context of its deepening relationship with the United States. On January 27, the Asia Program, with co-sponsorship from International Security Studies, hosted an event on the strategic dimensions of the U.S.-India relationship.
C. Raja Mohan, the Kissinger Scholar at the Library of Congress, discussed the evolution of the bilateral relationship since the Cold War. Decades ago, he said, the idea of a strategic relationship between India and the United States "could not have been visualized." The two countries' relations were abysmal for much of the Cold War era, and dominated by ugly stereotypes about the "insolent Indian" and "ugly American." The situation began to change in the early 1990s, when India instituted economic reforms, marking a shift in its economic orientation and creating the basis for a new type of relationship with the United States. Additionally, the Indian-American community—which now numbers well over a million—has become a "bridge" linking the two countries.
Many observers believe the U.S.-India civil nuclear agreement, which calls for the transfer of civilian nuclear technology to India, represents a prime example of the increasingly strategic nature of the bilateral relationship. This accord was the subject of Woodrow Wilson Center Fellow Dinshaw Mistry's presentation. On the one hand, the deal presents challenges for proliferation. A new infusion of foreign-supplied uranium for India's civilian reactors could free up existing uranium resources for use in military reactors. Such concerns, Mistry asserted, could be reduced if India were to agree to a moratorium on the production of fissile materials. On the other hand, the deal makes available environmentally friendly nuclear energy for India's rapidly growing economy. According to one projection cited by Mistry, for every 20 gigawatts of new nuclear capacity, carbon dioxide emissions can be reduced by 150 million tons.
Bethany Danyluk, an associate at Booz Allen Hamilton, identified some of the perceptions of, and expectations for, the U.S.-India defense relationship, based on recent exchanges she has had with defense officials in both countries. Indians perceive Americans as impatient and "too legalistic," more concerned about signing agreements than about focusing on the interpersonal side of the relationship. Meanwhile, Americans believe Indians are "acutely sensitive" about the notion of sovereignty, lack reciprocity, and "might be overestimating their capabilities" (given that they lack the military resources to support a prominent regional security role). As for expectations, each country wants more from the other: India wants more U.S. involvement in building India's indigenous capacities, and the United States wants India to do more to promote South Asian regional stability and security.
The panel was in agreement that the U.S.-India relationship has sufficient strength to weather any present or future challenges. Danyluk argued that despite the negative mutual perceptions, there is a strong convergence in both countries' strategic objectives. Similarly, Mohan acknowledged that several factors—particularly the trajectory of events in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and also the possibility of a stronger U.S.-China partnership—could potentially spell trouble for U.S.-India relations. However, the bilateral relationship is too strong—reinforced with too much "economic depth," and buttressed by too many cultural linkages—"to regress" to how it was in the 1950s.
By Michael Kugelman
Robert M. Hathaway, Director, Asia Program