Avoiding U.S.-India Drift

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Avoiding U.S.-India Drift

India is a natural defense ally for the United States. It’s modernizing military offers plenty of opportunities.

After being fundamentally transformed by the landmark Civil Nuclear Agreement and other accords, are U.S.-India relations beginning to drift apart?  Numerous government-to-government initiatives remain stalled. U.S. companies have yet to benefit from the landmark 2008 civilian nuclear cooperation agreement. U.S. defense contractors Boeing and Lockheed Martin were “deselected” from consideration for India’s $11 billion medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) contract.  As an article in The Times of India – the country’s largest English-language newspaper – noted recently:

“Dirges have been sung over the India-US relationship for some time now. U.S. makes no secret of a growing disappointment with India, while India realizes that the warmth in ties subsided with George Bush's exit.”

Indeed, it appears President Barack Obama has placed less effort on the relationship than his predecessor. President George W. Bush viewed India as a natural partner bound by shared ideals and interests.  Despite wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Bush himself is credited with championing the relationship’s forward movement. Obama – despite jovial relations with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh – hasn’t shared this same enthusiasm. 

All too often, this has led to whispers throughout halls in Washington suggesting the two nations simply do not share common interests.  Doubters of the relationship are quick to note New Delhi’s and Washington’s opposing responses this year to events in Libya, Syria, and the greater Middle East.  However, a closer look at three important and more recent developments reveals that, despite various tactical and strategic regional differences, the interests of the United States and India are increasingly aligned.

First, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns recently announced the launch of a new trilateral dialogue between the United States, India, and Japan, to be held this year. This will provide a formal framework for senior officials from the three nations to discuss regional interests and possible ways to strengthen cooperation. For the United States, the dialogue is another positive step in a growing and maturing security relationship with India. Already, Washington and New Delhi hold a series of high-level military dialogues and personnel exchanges, and India’s navy now holds more military exercises with the United States than any other nation. 

Additionally, the dialogue will enhance strategic ties between India and Japan. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda will visit India later this year, and defense ministers of the two countries recently agreed to enhance military-to-military relations by conducting joint naval exercises for the first time next year.

Second, relations between India and Pakistan are beginning to thaw, albeit slowly. Though major issues – Afghanistan, Kashmir, and terrorism – remain unresolved, the two nuclear powers have taken small but important confidence building steps in recent months. Last month, Pakistan’s cabinet voted to normalize trade with New Delhi. This comes as the two nations continue to discuss the possibility of allowing Pakistan to import energy from India.

Third, India is taking a greater role in Afghanistan.Since 2001, India has played an important role in Afghanistan’s transformation, largely through expansive diplomatic and development efforts. But as the Obama administration moves forward with plans to drawdown U.S. forces beginning as early as 2012, New Delhi has committed to taking a more active role building up the capabilities of the Afghan National Security Forces. In October, Singh and Afghan President Hamid Karzai signed a strategic defense pact to enhance security cooperation between the two nations. Specifically, the agreement will allow India to train Afghan combat units and pilots. 

These three points further demonstrate the growing convergence of U.S.-India regional interests and ideals. Regionally, both nations seek to eliminate terrorist safe havens in Afghanistan, the peaceful and democratic rise of China, free access to the global commons, and regional maritime security. And while traditional allies – Australia, Japan and South Korea – will remain the cornerstone of America’s Pacific strategy, the United States will increasingly need India to be a critical regional partner. Obama echoed this sentiment last November, when he proclaimed that relations between the United States and India will be one of “the defining partnerships of the 21st century.”

However, the task of expanding this important relationship won’t be easy.  Some leaders in New Delhi remain skeptical of increasing ties with Washington. After all, in recent decades the United States has closely engaged with Indian regional rivals in China and Pakistan.  Additionally, India’s non-aligned tradition continues to carry weight within much of New Delhi’s diplomatic establishment. But if the United States is “making a strategic bet on India's future,” as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently wrote in Foreign Policy magazine, the administration must take the lead in prioritizing and moving this important relationship forward. 

Though India and the United States are unlikely to sign a binding security agreement in the foreseeable future, there’s room for the relationship to grow. Over the past decade, security cooperation has grown to new heights. With the three nation dialogue between the United States, India, and Japan, set to begin later this year, New Delhi has shown its openness to partner with Washington and democratic allies on important regional matters. The White House should lay the groundwork to expand this multination initiative to include another regional partner and close friend, Australia.  Just this week, Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd expressed interest in expanding cooperation with India and the United States.

Additionally, senior White House officials should make clear to their Indian partners that the United States defense industry is open for business. India is in the midst of a massive military modernization effort, and is expected to spend $80 billion over the coming years. Strategically, these purchases will bolster India’s strategic military capabilities, and increase opportunities for bilateral training and exchanges between Indian and U.S. forces. Economically, further defense sales will provide a much needed boost to American exports.  The U.S. defense industry has greatly benefited from this expansion as India’s defense orders have topped $8 billion over the past decade. For example, India’s Ministry of Defense has purchased six Lockheed Martin C-130J Super Hercules cargo planes, and has quickly become the largest international customer of Boeing’s C-17 Globemaster III airlifters. 

Though friction within the relationship will continue to persist, this period marks an important time in the U.S.-India partnership. Indeed, as President Obama looks to “pivot” west towards the Asia-Pacific, he should seek to enhance cooperation with India, a natural ally of the United States.  

Patrick Christy is a policy analyst at the Foreign Policy Initiative in Washington, D.C.