Features | Politics | South Asia

How to Fix US-India Ties

The honeymoon between the US and India seems to be over. But there’s plenty that both sides can do to get things back on track.

By Jeff Smith for

Perhaps not surprisingly, the US-India partnership is losing momentum under President Barack Obama’s stewardship.  

Fortifying the alliance was always bound to be a secondary priority for any administration faced with a recession, a flagging war effort in Afghanistan, political stalemate in Iraq, stalled Middle East peace efforts, defiant pariah regimes in Iran and North Korea, and strategic tensions with China. Still, allowing the partnership to falter appears to have come easier to a president who never quite displayed George W. Bush’s zeal for Indian-American ties.

Of course it isn’t just the US that’s at fault—problems also exist on the Indian side as New Delhi has itself fallen into a form of post-honeymoon malaise, as the phase of grand political gestures gives way to tough technical negotiations.  But rather than mitigate the downside of this difficult period, the Obama administration is pursuing an agenda that further complicates it. In doing so, it risks some of the tremendous gains made in US-India relations over the past decade.

In some ways, Obama is less guilty of undercutting the foundations of the US-India partnership than he is of failing to meet expectations. Indeed, to its credit, the administration has gone out of its way to stress the importance of the bilateral relationship, praising India as an ‘indispensable partner.’ In June, Undersecretary of State William Burns reaffirmed that the US government was ‘deeply committed to supporting India’s rise and to building the strongest possible partnership between us.’

The remarks came on the eve of the inaugural Strategic Dialogue between the United States and India, a bilateral, top-level dialogue initiated by President Obama to pull India toward diplomatic parity with China.  During the same speech, Burns moved the US closer than it’s ever been toward openly supporting a permanent seat at the Security Council for India. Obama also extended Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh the honour of his first State Dinner last November.  However, this last gesture was widely perceived as compensation for an uninspiring first year in US-Indian relations.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

So what went wrong? Obama first raised Indian eyebrows in 2006, back in his days as a junior senator from Illinois, when he introduced two amendments to the landmark US-India nuclear deal tailored to restrict India’s access to nuclear fuel supplies. The move was a bid to bolster his non-proliferation credentials in Washington, but earned him few friends in New Delhi.

Then, as a presidential candidate, Obama earned the ire of the Indian media when he reportedly considered appointing a special envoy to oversee/arbitrate the hyper-sensitive Kashmir dispute. That mandate was eventually withheld from Richard Holbrooke, Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, but first impressions are hard to reverse. Scepticism about Obama’s agenda was reinforced when, as president, his initial foreign policy priorities—namely non-proliferation and global warming—placed the US and India on opposite sides of the international negotiating table.  

And then there’s Pakistan. Short of fundamental changes in the US-Pakistan relationship, the United States’ generous financial and military support for that country will always be a contentious point in US-India relations.  In this regard, Obama hasn’t dramatically changed course for better or worse. However, his administration did push through a massive, $7.5 billion civilian aid package to complement billions of dollars in military aid that Indians fear will be diverted toward India-focused weapons programmes and terrorist groups. 

During the legislative process, the administration, particularly the Defence Department, lobbied intensively to get tough restrictions and accountability measures on the aid removed from the congressional bills. Elsewhere, the Obama administration mishandled the arrest of David Coleman Headley, a Pakistani-American arrested in October 2009 for involvement in the November 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack that killed 173 in ‘India’s 9/11’. Repeated Indian requests for access to Headley, a former informant for the Drug Enforcement Agency, were rebuffed for eight months, long enough to fuel frustration and conspiratorial speculation in New Delhi before India’s National Investigative Agency was granted access to Headley for a week in June. 

But it’s arguably Afghanistan that is the most surprising area of contention because Washington and New Delhi have for so long been on the same page. India is one of the largest aid donors to Afghanistan and a staunch supporter of the Hamid Karzai regime, not to mention extremely popular among Afghans.  Like the United States, it seeks a stable, democratic, independent Afghanistan free of terror. 

Yet while it has done so politely and diplomatically, New Delhi has been the most vocal opponent of Afghan and Coalition efforts to negotiate with the Taliban. The Obama administration has been inching toward supporting such a strategy and Pakistan has been positioning itself to serve as the primary interlocutor and beneficiary in any settlement.  But India, naturally, doesn’t want to see the Taliban or any Pakistani proxy return to power. 

New Delhi is already painfully familiar with Pakistan’s agenda in Afghanistan: at least one of two devastating attacks on India’s Embassy in Kabul, a July 2008 bombing killing 58, was traced to Pakistan’s Directorate of Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) by US intelligence agencies.  As the sole voice cautioning against Taliban reconciliation, India was sidelined when the fate of Afghanistan was being debated at the London Conference in January.  And New Delhi was visibly aggrieved when then-Afghan commander General Stanley McChrystal warned in 2009 that ‘increasing Indian influence in Afghanistan is likely to exacerbate regional tensions and encourage Pakistani countermeasures.’

Finally, India felt not a little slighted when both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Obama skipped over the country on their inaugural tours through Asia (neither missed China). At a time when tensions between the two Asian giants are rising, some Indians have been unsettled by what they see as the Obama administration’s ‘soft’ approach to China.  Clinton hinting early in the administration’s tenure that economic and strategic ties would take priority over human rights was one factor in that perception.  Talk of building a U.S.-China ‘G-2’ to tackle global challenges was another.  Most directly troubling, however, was a joint statement at the Obama-Hu Summit in November 2009 in which the two sides agreed to ‘strengthen communication, dialogue and cooperation on issues related to South Asia and work together to promote peace, stability, and development in that region.’  As the pre-eminent power in South Asia, Indians were offended their strategic partner, the United States, was coordinating regional policy with an Asian competitor and rival.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Ironically, though, China also serves as a reminder of the sound strategic logic behind the US-Indian partnership. Take, for instance, the Obama administration’s 2010 National Security Strategy. The document reveals that while China often gets top diplomatic priority, the United States’ core geopolitical interests lie elsewhere. According to the text, the US and India are ‘building a strategic partnership that is underpinned by our shared interests, our shared values… and close connections among our people.  India’s responsible advancement serves as a positive example for developing nations…(and) we seek a broad-based relationship.’ When China is mentioned, in contrast, it’s in the context of ‘monitor(ing) China’s military modernization programme,’ ensuring US interests ‘are not negatively affected,’ and policies designed to ‘reduce mistrust.’

The difference may be made even more stark in next year’s National Security Strategy, as fundamental US differences with China have been exposed this summer by China’s response to the sinking of a South Korean warship the Cheonan by North Korea; disputes over the right of US warships to navigate and conduct military drills in the Yellow Sea; and differences over resolving sovereignty claims in the South China Sea. 

For India, the impact of China’s rise is even more pronounced, as friction mounts over the disputed Sino-Indian border; China’s growing influence in South Asia and the Indian Ocean, including its ‘string of pearls’ strategy; and Chinese-origin hacking attacks on Indian embassies and government agencies, to mention but a few areas of concern.  Indeed, the US-Indian partnership can endure diplomatic hiccups because the underlying geopolitical motivation behind the partnership is sound: the US doesn’t feel threatened by India’s rise and India doesn’t feel threatened by America’s power in Asia.  Neither can say the same about China.

China, of course, is not the only glue that binds the two countries. Despite recent troubles, in both India and the United States support for the partnership is unusually robust on both the Left and Right.  Defense and intelligence cooperation has reached levels unthinkable just a decade ago.  Meanwhile, cultural, social, and economic bonds grow by the year, as the US brand penetrates deeper into Indian society and the Indian-American expatriate community grows in affluence and political influence.

But the two governments must do more to sustain the relationship through periods of turbulence. First, India must take a greater share of responsibility for maintaining a healthy alliance. Much of the energy driving the rapprochement in the 2000s was generated by the US side, the by-product of a Bush administration almost religiously committed to building an alliance. To court India, they revoked a laundry list of unilateral sanctions, ended decades of Indian isolation with a historic nuclear deal that objective experts agree was lopsided in India’s favour, put India and Pakistan on equal diplomatic footing for the first time, opened the floodgates of economic and defence cooperation, and eased rules on the transfer of advanced technology, to name but a few.  Yet too many influential Indian politicians and commentators continue to treat the nuclear deal, and any basic cooperation with the United States, as a form of gift or concession to the US.

More tangibly, India can pass a nuclear liability law necessary for US nuclear energy companies to do business there.  The long-anticipated bill was introduced earlier this year, but has been stalled in a parliamentary committee for months.  Without it, the United States—which made India’s forthcoming nuclear boom possible—will be the only major nuclear power left out of India’s lucrative market.  India also has tremendous work to do in opening up its markets.  Restrictions on foreign investment frustrate economic cooperation and deny the Indian economy critical access to capital and expertise.

Finally, India should move on three pending security cooperation agreements sought by Washington to deepen defence cooperation, the Logistics Support Agreement (LSA), the Communication Interoperability and Security Agreement (CISMOA), and the Basic Change and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-Spatial Cooperation (BECA).

But there’s some work to be done on the US side, too. First, Obama can remove India’s major defence and research institutions from an export control list. The outdated sanctions have restricted the companies from trade in US advanced technology since India’s 1998 nuclear test. In Afghanistan, the United States should take India’s concerns about Pakistani and Taliban influence into close consideration and respect its informed advice in the debate over strategy there. There are indications that the new military commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus, is moving in this direction. During his confirmation hearing June 29, Petraeus said ‘India has a legitimate interest in this region without question’—a welcome contrast to the assessment of his predecessor. 

In Pakistan, the administration must do a better job ensuring the vast military and financial assistance it showers on that country is not channelled against India (or US troops for that matter).  And it can also ensure that India-focused jihadist groups receive the same attention and scrutiny as Pakistani-based terrorist groups that target the US and Afghanistan.  

And as one final move, the US should avoid coordinating its South Asia policy with Beijing, and support New Delhi when tensions with China flare at the border or when the pair clash at international forums, as happened at the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the Asian Development Bank.  

These modest steps, combined with a bit of prudent statecraft from both sides, should be just the prescription to put a promising alliance back on track.

Jeff M. Smith is the Kraemer Strategy Fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council