American Dreams, Indian Realities
Image Credit: Department of Defense

American Dreams, Indian Realities


After years of “estrangement,” the United States and India have transformed their relationship at a breathtaking pace since 1998, and grown it into a wide-ranging strategic partnership. The speed and scope of these changes initially led to highly positive reviews of India and its potential contributions to American interests by U.S. commentators, gushing with praise for this “natural ally.” Yet more recently, as substantive accomplishments have failed to materialize, some in the U.S. have begun criticizing India for what they claim is New Delhi’s failure to “step up to the plate.”  

Such a situation, however, was highly predictable, given India’s strategic posture and foreign policy behavior, which favor norm-setting over burden-sharing.

While India is without doubt an attractive candidate for enhanced maritime cooperation and closer partnership in the Indian Ocean and beyond, it is necessary to better evaluate its rapport to the ocean that bears its name. It is crucial that the United States undertake this reassessment in order to increase its chances of establishing a productive, substantive relationship over time with a country whose cooperation Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has described as a “linchpin” of the redeployment and reconfiguration of U.S. power throughout the Asia-Pacific.

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India’s engagement with the Indian Ocean region

India’s location along the Indian Ocean littoral inevitably leads New Delhi to view the Indian Ocean region differently from Washington. India’s gradual emergence and increased reliance on international commerce compound these divergences: its deepening engagement in the Indian Ocean region inevitably gives the area greater prominence in India’s foreign policy considerations.

As it emerges as the resident power of the region, India does not want to be perceived as harboring hegemonic enterprises. It rejects any perception of the Indian Ocean region that would reduce it to a highway, as well as any attempt to equate it with an arena for great power competition. Instead, Indian officials argue for a unified Indian Ocean region, with India at its center.

Seizing on the opportunity offered by the “de-hyphenated policy” pursued by the Bush administration on the one hand, and India’s economic rise on the other, Indian officials are now looking to redefine the Indian Ocean as India’s core strategic environment. As New Delhi emerges on the global stage and seeks recognition from other powers in its own right, expanding its presence in the Indian Ocean region is not merely a response to increased commercial dependence on maritime routes, but part of an effort to change emerging India’s identity, to break free of the South Asian confines and redefine India within a larger, more dynamic setting.

As a result, India’s overriding concern has been and will continue to be to prevent any polarization of the Indian Ocean region. This includes resisting overtures from external actors that risk introducing security dilemmas into a region hitherto devoid of such dynamics. India now engages in bilateral maneuvers with all the major powers in the region, a shift that further cements its own standing as the resident power in the Indian Ocean while rejecting any hegemonic intent. India has begun organizing annual naval exercises with France (VARUNA, since 2002), the United States (MALABAR, first in 1992 and again regularly since 2002), Russia (INDRA, since 2003) and the United Kingdom (KONKAN, since 2004).

At the same time, India has made a clear decision to remove any multilateral exercises involving external powers out of the Indian Ocean region, in the wake of the fall-out of the “Quadrilateral” initiative, to avoid exposing it to the security dilemmas China’s inevitable reaction would foster. Although India has resumed multilateral naval exercises with the U.S. and Japan in recent years, such exercises now take place in the Sea of Japan, far from the Indian Ocean – indeed, they are referred to today as the multilateral element of MALABAR exercises, while the strictly bilateral part continues to play out in the Indian Ocean.

In short, India seeks to cooperate with all, align with none, and assert its ability to prevent certain strategies liable to polarize the Indian Ocean or introduce security dilemmas in a region viewed as increasingly vital to India’s growth. Neither highway nor arena for great-power competition, India seeks to preserve the Indian Ocean region, by establishing itself as the resident power, capable of maintaining regional balances by expanding its own presence.

Although India is uncomfortable with China’s growing footprint in the Indian Ocean, it has no intention of jeopardizing its delicate relationship with China, or precipitating their ties into irreversibly and overtly hostile territory. The two countries will thus continue to engage in subterranean maneuvering, jostling for position, while seeking to manage tensions at the surface and avoid having them transform into overall confrontation. For one thing, India’s culture of non-alignment and obsession with “strategic autonomy” preclude it from entering into any alliance or exclusive partnership aimed at another country. Furthermore, China possesses sufficient leverage in South Asia to prevent New Delhi from implementing any policy that goes too far in targeting China. Though India may attempt to fashion for itself a new international identity through its engagement in the Indian Ocean region, it cannot wish away the realities of its challenging continental geography.

Ways forward: enhancing India’s contribution to U.S. interests in the Indian Ocean region and beyond

The implications for an American “Indo-Pacific” thrust are clear. Rather than attempt to corral India into supporting a U.S.-promoted concept, American policymakers should focus on identifying economic incentives for India to strengthen its ties with an Indo-Pacific region, and develop a separate thrust in its foreign policy to that end. This implies that the U.S. clearly articulate what such a region would resemble, whether it would encompass the Indian Ocean region and the Asia-Pacific as a whole, simply refer to the region stretching from the Northeastern Indian Ocean to the Southwestern Pacific Ocean, or just represent an attempt to integrate India further into an Asian architecture conducive to U.S. interests.

At the same time, the U.S. has to adapt to the reality that India will refuse any initiative that risks jeopardizing the delicate balance it seeks to preserve in the Indian Ocean region, and forego any dreams of a broad naval partnership with India. Frustrations will continue over India’s unwillingness to act more decisively as an enforcer of maritime security, even as it benefits increasingly from a stable maritime environment and professes its (sincere) attachment to freedom of navigation and open sea lines of communication. Such paradoxes or tensions will remain a defining feature of India’s external stance for the next 10-15 years, if not beyond.

U.S. policymakers will have to recognize that ultimately, the rate of progress depends on Indian willingness to go along with U.S. initiatives. Until India develops a proactive, strategic vision to guide its foreign policy, it will continue to proceed in the ad-hoc fashion it has adopted to date. This should not deter Washington from further engaging India, as strengthening bilateral ties and perhaps more importantly making interactions between the two nations more routine, and to a certain extent banal even, will be essential if U.S. interests are to be served by India’s rise. This requires patience and a more realistic understanding of India’s worldview and priorities. Seeking to draw India into any U.S.-conceived order may backfire, not only because India must manage its relationship with China but because it is also determined to stake out an independent path to global power status.

The Indian Ocean region, where the U.S. and India have shared concerns but divergent interests in closer cooperation, offers a good example of the need to reassess U.S. expectations to favor the emergence of an ultimately more productive partnership. The United States cannot conclude too swiftly that broad interests automatically lead to common calculations, and must be mindful that India views events in the region through its own frame of reference.

At the same time, India will also have to recognize that it needs to recalibrate its own attitude towards the U.S., and not demand that America “prove” its commitment to India or judge its attitude on every issue as a test on the matter. Major initiatives that redefine the relationship, such as the civil nuclear deal, will no longer be part of the equation; the Indo-American strategic partnership will now be advanced, deepened and strengthened through incremental progress, something both countries must realize and accept. The rapid transformations of the past ten years must now give way to normal exchanges, converting the excitement of the past few years into a sentiment of routine – but not of complacency. Sustained efforts will be required, from the U.S. and from India, to understand each other, overcome frustrations and embrace limited opportunities to collaborate in order to breed more comfort and familiarity over time.

Colin Geraghty is Adjunct Junior Fellow at American Security Project (ASP) and the author, most recently, of ASP’s report, “India in the Indian Ocean Region – Re-calibrating U.S. Expectations.”

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