U.S.-India relations since the end of the Cold War have slowly but steadily been progressing. For U.S. foreign policy experts, the reasons behind the growing ties are rather straightforward. First, both countries share democratic credentials. Second, India – the fastest growing free market democracy – also serves as an alternative model of growth vis-à-vis the Chinese economic miracle and hence, as an apt instrument for arresting Chinese soft power across the world.
In addition, the emergence of China as a serious contender to U.S. hegemony has made a relationship with India a strategic imperative for Washington, and in the long run, it’s clear the United States is hoping India will develop into a close partner, offering an on-shore balancer should relations with Beijing become hostile.
But while these trends guide bilateral ties today, India may at some point seek a change of course.
For a start, U.S. expectations that India should shoulder a greater share of global responsibilities may pose a problem as India doesn’t necessarily see itself as an example that can be replicated around the world. And, in the wake of the Arab Spring, India’s caution over humanitarian and democratic interventions has been the subject of much spirited debate on the sub-continent.
In addition, India isn’t interested in relegating itself to being a surrogate in the United States’ disagreements with China. Historically, India has lobbied for a multi-polar world, and in some senses, India has tried to balance U.S. hegemony as well as balancing China. New Delhi’s China policy, therefore, will be guided by India’s national interests, not simply a vague idea of containing a neighbor.
More than anything, though, it will be U.S. policy in Pakistan and Afghanistan that will determine the course of future relations with India. New Delhi considers South Asia as a zone of Indian pre-eminence and so believes it’s entitled to a voice in Afghanistan. Neglecting India in devising an exit strategy from Afghanistan could lead to a fracture in U.S.-India bilateral relations.
Still, although India may be an emerging power, it will likely remain a shy one, and pushing India towards undertaking greater global responsibilities may only alienate New Delhi, especially if India is expected to bear the responsibilities of a major world power without being treated like one.
One way of remedying this deficit would be to offer the country a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. But the United States also needs to take a more pragmatic approach to international foreign policy decision-making if it wants India as a partner. If U.S. and Indian decision makers can craft an approach based on joint policy initiatives and shared interests, relations will continue to prosper. In contrast, diving in and trying to rush India into taking sides will only alienate officials in New Delhi who are coming to terms with India’s growing status.