Few diplomatic overtures have generated loftier expectations in recent years than Washington’s rapprochement with New Delhi. Frequently at loggerheads during the Cold War, then kept apart by the U.S. commitment to counter-proliferation and India’s pursuit of a nuclear deterrent, the two sides have never had a warm relationship. That began to change during the George W. Bush administration, a transformation that was symbolized by a controversial agreement allowing the United States to sell civilian nuclear technology to India, despite its status as a nuclear-armed nation that is not recognized by the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The Obama administration has since picked up where its predecessor left off. The president, for example, has called India a “natural ally” of the United States, while his former secretary of defense, Leon Panetta, declared that India was “a linchpin” of America’s pivot to the Asia-Pacific.
While there were many reasons for the world’s oldest democracy and the world’s largest democracy to mend fences, perhaps the most important reason was the one that few officials could point to in public: the rise of China. In modern times, tensions between New Delhi and Beijing date back to their border war in 1962. In fact, the contested boundaries between these two powers are some of the only land border disputes that China has yet to resolve. To keep up with Beijing’s growing military power, India needs to modernize its armed forces, which means moving away from its reliance on Russian hardware and looking toward Europe and the United States. Meanwhile, Washington is searching for ways to preserve its position in the Asia-Pacific as China’s strength continues to increase. Having the region’s other rising power on its side is a good place to start.
If a partnership between the United States and India makes sense on paper, so far improved relations between the two nations have hardly been game changing. There are a host of explanations why the fruits of strategic collaboration have been relatively modest, from bureaucracies on both sides that have impeded potential arms sales, to broader considerations such as the fear of antagonizing China. One important factor, though, is the mismatch between what the United States wants India to do and what New Delhi is best suited to do.
Proponents of closer ties between Washington and New Delhi often view India as a budding maritime power. As then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates declared in 2010, “India can be a net provider of security in the Indian Ocean and beyond.” For example, with a bigger and better navy, India could help patrol vital sea-lanes, deter or counter smuggling operations, combat piracy, provide humanitarian assistance far from home, and respond quickly when natural disasters strike. All of this could help relieve some of the burdens shouldered by the U.S. Navy, which is juggling its day-to-day role as a global security provider and first responder with the longer-term challenge of a shifting military balance in the Western Pacific. Not surprisingly, areas like counter-piracy and humanitarian assistance are at the center of U.S.-India security cooperation today.
The only problem is that India isn’t a maritime power: it’s a land power. To be sure, New Delhi is building and buying new ships and submarines, and seems determined to bolster its naval capabilities, which is hardly surprising given its location astride some of the world’s most important sea-lanes. But the major military challenges it faces come from on shore, and the Indian Army continues to be the nation’s dominant military service in terms of size, influence, and budget share.
Assuming that the underlying goal of closer U.S.-India ties is to help maintain a stable balance of power across Asia, a larger Indian navy is likely to have a marginal long-term impact. Actually, it could even be counterproductive. The rivalry between China and India may have begun on land, but it is starting to move into the maritime domain, particularly as Beijing makes inroads with island and littoral nations in the Indian Ocean while New Delhi continues to bolster its maritime capabilities. Building a robust, blue water fleet that would enable India to project maritime power throughout its region and beyond could give China an added incentive to double-down on naval modernization, conduct more deployments outside of East Asia, and perhaps develop a permanent overseas military presence to secure its sea lines of communication against the latent threat of Indian interdiction. Given the cost and difficulties of fielding a large, modern, and effective naval force, as well as the pull of more pressing security challenges on land, there is no guarantee that India will succeed.