The Boom and Bust of U.S.-India Relations

The relationship between the United States and the modern Indian state, born in 1947, is a turbulent one. Since the end of the Second World War, varying circumstances have found the two nations oscillating between cooperation and mutual distrust. Beginning with its independence, India has dealt with an ever-shifting whirlwind of ties with neighboring countries. From the Cold War, through the ever simmering conflict with Pakistan, to the modern expansion of Chinese power, India’s ability to balance itself somewhere near the fence has proven a boon to the ascendent nation. Now, with Narendra Modi’s rapid evolution from a man on the banned entry list to one of the Obama Administration’s most warmly welcomed friends, we see India again balancing itself towards the United States against a backdrop of Chinese growth. What does this new rebalance mean for current and future U.S.-Indian relations? Ultimately, we cannot answer this question without investigating the historical context of the two nation’s relationship over the years.

Modern U.S.-Indian relations began in 1947 with the colony’s independence from the British Empire. The hot summer days of the nation’s independence were a stark contrast to a chilly relationship with the Americans from the beginning. This chill was due primarily to America’s relationship with Pakistan, India’s regional arch-rival. With the 1950 visit of Pakistani Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan to the United States on an official visit of several days (though the prime minister would end up staying in the country for close to a whole month), the Americans signalled they were welcoming the Pakistani alignment to the Western bloc. This in turn, pushed the nascent Indian state towards the USSR. Although India was part of the non-Alignment movement during the Cold War, Khrushchev visited the country in 1955, declaring support for India’s supremacy in the Kashmir region and controversial colonial enclaves on the western Indian coast. His visit would be the cornerstone of increased Soviet aid to the Nehru’s India, which worried American leaders.

In 1959, President Eisenhower became the first President to visit India, arguably out of a fear that a failure in the Indian democratic system would push developing nations to pursue a model based on the growing Russian or even Chinese Communist system. While it may have been blatant Cold War positioning, the early 60’s saw a warming in Indo-American relations. In 1962, President Kennedy supported the Indians in the Sino-Indian war, flying in supplies, ammunition, and even sending US Navy vessels towards the Bay of Bengal. While this was ultimately futile due to the weakness of India’s forces and then the unexpected declaration of peace from the Chinese, it had the important effect of cementing ties between India and the United States, though the newfound friendship would prove to be short lived.

The brief spat of camaraderie of the 60’s was ended abruptly with the beginning of the 1971 India Pakistan War. After the military and police began ethnically cleansing Bengali Hindus in Eastern Pakistan, India called for international intervention to stop the massacres. These requests fell on deaf ears and with millions of refugees flooding India’s eastern states and Pakistan launching preemptive air strikes, Indira Gandhi’s government took matters into its own hands. The American response to this conflict is a prime example of how Cold War mentality pushed its foreign policy to a position that was both morally reprehensible and diametrically opposed to the beliefs the nation purported to espouse. Not only did the Nixon administration pressure China to build up its forces on its border with eastern Pakistan in an effort to deter the Indians from intervening, it also sent navy vessels towards the Bay of Bengal, a threatening reenactment of Kennedy’s move 10 years prior. In the light of the newly signed Indo-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation, Nixon and Kissinger saw an Indian victory as tantamount to a Communist victory. This fear drove them to support a state undergoing an extensive campaign of ethnic cleansing, drawing withering condemnation from their own diplomatic staff in the famous Blood Telegram. The Nixon Administration’s backing of Pakistan coupled with a new Russo-Indian friendship caused a winter in Indo-American relations that would take years to thaw.

The relationship between the two countries would remain standoffish through the anti-socialist Carter Administration and wouldn’t truly make progress towards a detente of sorts until the end of the Clinton Administration, when in 2000 the President made the first visit to India since 1978 to establish the Indo-U.S. Science & Technology Forum to foster scientific cooperation between the two countries. This first olive branch led to the real warming  in relations under the George W. Bush Administration. Under Bush, the relationship between India and the United States truly began to take off, establishing a ten year security framework, providing reciprocal aid in times of disaster, and engaging in extensive economic cooperation. The growing fear of extremist groups and their ability to cause chaos (and likely a fear of Pakistani complicity) helped to push the Bush Administration into closer cooperation with the Indian government in the post-9/11 period, when Indian concerns about extremism were abruptly and violently validated.

This amity between the Americans and the Indians has continued under President Obama, but as his tenure comes to a close, the point of all this history begins to become clear. India is an important element of the Obama Administration’s pivot to Asia. To counter against growing Chinese authority and adventurism in the region while simultaneously presenting a narrative of multilateral opposition, the United States needs the strong military, economic might, and moral currency of the world’s largest democracy. While India is an important ally in South Asia, Americans must be careful not to mistake the current amicable atmosphere with the Indian state as a guarantee of perpetual cooperation and trust.

Given the importance of a strongly American-aligned India to help prevent a unipolar power structure in Asia, the Obama Administration should aggressively court and charm the Indian delegations that visit the United States and should be sure to send Americans to India regularly. Diplomatic visits are essential not only for establishing a sense of connectivity between nations, but also cementing and maintaining it. George Bush’s Administration made strides in winning over the Indians to the point he was considered “the most pro-Indian president ever” by Fareed Zakaria. These knots must be tied securely if the United States wants a reliable ally in the South Asia region. There are two elements to apply to the courting of the Indian state; expansion of cooperation and reduction of actions that sideline India on the American roster.

Firstly, the expansion of cooperation. We have already seen that Indo-American relations are strongest when the West provides material support and economic connectivity. For example, Bush’s Indo-American Science and Technology Forum and Narendra Modi’s new Make in India program have the potential to increase mutual trust and cooperation. American businesses shifting production to India under Modi’s new initiative could have the twofold benefit of strengthening economic ties between the US and India while simultaneously cutting down on the massive deficit in American net exports.

Secondly, the United States must tread carefully in order not to alienate India. The past has shown that India is willing to shift support away from the West when the situation demands, and this has not changed in the 21st Century. While India and China have had their geopolitical differences, the two nations are becoming increasingly economically intertwined. With over $70 billion in bilateral trade, the two nations are economically tethered. Considered much of American practice in the region is to balance against the growing threat of China, diplomats must be careful not to aggravate their Indian counterparts. Ambassador Nancy Powell’s declaration that a strategic Indo-US treaty will never be signed and the 2013 spat over violation of diplomatic immunity do nothing to foster goodwill between the two. With the importance of an Indian ally in the region on the line, Americans should be reeling in their Indian counterparts, not casting them away.

In short, Americans must not view newly warmed Indian relations as a guarantee of support in the region; India has traditionally been a hedging power and their allegiance to the states should not be taken as a granted. Increased economic cooperation and a reduction in antagonistic diplomatic behavior are essential on the American side of the equation if the United States wishes to maintain a stalwart cooperative partner in the South Asian region.


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