The relations between US and India have not always been easy but without doubt the two countries are increasingly looking at strengthening their partnership. Although they still maintain some differences, it is a common strategic interest that is bringing them together.
Key recent developments include the rapid growth of India’s economy and bilateral trade, the close links between the Indian and American technology industries, a geopolitical coalition to balance the rise of an increasingly aggressive China, the weakening of U.S.-Pakistan relations over various ongoing disputes. Today, India and the US share an extensive cultural, strategic, military, and economic relationship culminated with President Barack Obama being the first US president to be chief guest of the 66th Republic Day celebrations of India held on 26th January 2015.
Nevertheless, for many years the two countries were at the opposite of the geopolitical spectrum. US support of Pakistan and China reflected the necessity to counterbalance the Soviets and their relationship with India, with the latter looking at Moscow for support although its non-aligned status. Reason why Barak Obama while on one side hailed the India military partnership on the other he could not for a moment not feeling uneasy seeing Russian military hardware parading under his eyes.
The US never abandoned India as an option or stop to consider its importance. Since the end of WWII US promoted India’s independence as a tool to improve conditions in colonial countries and avoid creating a fertile terrain for Soviet influence and, until Kennedy presidency, the US tried to cultivate a relation especially to avoid communism spreading in Asia after China’s revolution. But this system collapsed due to the tensions between USSR and China and following the assassination of Kennedy that opened a new era in American policy. Nixon presidency changed US perception of India, and they started to consider China as the best option to counter the Soviets and Pakistan to tap India’s wings as a response for their relationship with Moscow.
This situation, with high and lows, changed at the end of the Cold War when, having the Soviet threat disappeared, US and India found themselves in a new geopolitical scenario.
India position: Pragmatism rather than hypothesis
India reasons for rapprochement with US are based on countering the two traditional threats: Pakistan and China. The first perceived as regional and the other global, with the second far more dangerous for India’s stability and independence.
Countering Pakistan is something that India considers, under a basic strategic direct goal, a necessity having the unresolved dispute in Kashmir. US, in the past a strong Islamabad ally, has recently moved away from Pakistan due to security concerns, Taliban’s role and increase of Islamist insurgence, distrust in the security forces especially following the Osama bin Laden legacy. India saw in this cold relation the opportunity to deprive Pakistan of the most powerful ally, the only one basically to counter effectively India on a diplomatic role. Pakistan, by losing the US support, left to India a strong advantage both under a strategic and diplomatic sphere, allowing New Delhi to have two members of the UN Security Council on its side against China.
Nevertheless, India convergence is also a pragmatic choice and designed to clearly mark a line on where the US should stand as they face a common and most powerful threat: China.
China has always been the greatest danger for India’s security, its borders and, due to Beijing military superiority, a real danger for its integrity. Whilst keeping the Soviet Union-Russia relations on the table India has always considered the necessity to counterbalance its diplomatic gap against Pakistan and China. Now this has changed for two fundamental reasons: the first is that the US share a common ground of strategic necessity in Asia and the other is that Russia, although still seen as strategically important, has also developed stronger Chinese ties on the international scenario and this open questions on whether India could still count on them in case of a new tension between New Delhi and Beijing.
The new US policy in the Pacific has therefore opened a new opportunity for New Delhi by still fostering ties with Russia but on the immediate they see in US actions a real strategy to keep China under control.
US: India not only for China containment
US diplomatic and strategic plan for Asia is shaping: abandoned Pakistan for concerns over reliance, trust and security, and facing the prospect of a powerful rise of China in the Pacific created the perfect conditions to open a direct dialogue with India. A strong relation with India respond to many US questions: how to counter Islamic insurgency in the area, how to avoid Kashmir being hijacked by Islamist, how to counter Pakistan deteriorating security, how to counter China with a powerful regional country and lastly how to isolate further Russia.
The US primarily abandoned Pakistan after debacles in security and India is seen as a better option to keep under control the neighbour and at the same time have a valuable support in the area as west of Pakistan is basically a no-go area for Washington. Pakistan does not offer anymore security in counter terrorism whilst India proved better in supporting the US since 2001. But the main reason, as for India, is the perception of China. The shifting of policy towards the Pacific to contain China has seen the US engaging in a difficult but important diplomatic offensive. Washington strengthened the ties with its traditional allies Taiwan, South Korea, Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand and Japan, but also they understood the need to find new strong players also on diplomatic and military level. Under this view the US abandoned their remnants of Cold War ostracism and understood that traditional enemies could now be the aces they were looking for: Vietnam and India relations can become that sort of radical, resolute and incorruptible block to counterbalance Chinese rising in the Pacific. India under this paradigm opens for the US even a broader assumption: India although strategically and geographically not Pacific-centric represents nonetheless a valid card in the view of China stepping into the world scenario as a superpower. India is seen by Washington as an important piece in the plan to isolate China and create a sort of “cordon sanitaire”, more military rather than economic, as it happened to Bolshevik Russia. The problem for the US is that their approach to international relations is always subordinated to other aspects that may be of primary importance for Washington but secondary for their partners, and most of the times they foster unbalanced relationships, thus paving the way for divergences.
The US necessity to counter China by increasing India’s support has also opened a new scenario: break India’s diplomatic and military relations with Russia. When US-Russia relations are at the lowest levels since the end of the Cold War, Washington consider the Indian reproach an opportunity to further weaken Russia on a global scale both economically and militarily. The US, as India, are looking at the growing relations between Russia and China as a real danger for geopolitical equilibrium in Asia, and are therefore considering ways to contain the repercussions. However, is on this point that the US and India may found themselves again apart.
India has always been proud of its independent military policy and strategic role and, although fostered relation with the Soviets in the past, never abandoned its neutralist policy. As France within the US allies, India does not want to be in a subordinate position, consider the rapprochement a necessary cooperation for a common goal but not as an umbrella to shade under and accept military diktats. This explain why India although seek US diplomatic and military support against China and Pakistan, on the other still value Moscow friendship. India’s pragmatic policy is to counter immediate and direct threats and avoid being pushed into the new worldwide tension between Russian and US which resembles of the Cold War times. In a word India still considers itself non-aligned.
India and US are part of a new diplomatic and geopolitical strategy under way in the 21st century. India is a rising regional power and likely to be a serious candidate for superpower, exactly like China. But whilst India design is based on traditional security concerns over Kashmir-Pakistan-islamist insurgency and the Chinese stability threat, the US have a broader strategic plan involving China on a global scale as well as Russia. India has also not changed the policy of non-alignment, seen as a proud independent way forward for an Indian role, while the US although looking for new partnership are generally cold regarding military cooperation on same level. The new partnership is therefore strong on convergent auspices and prospects, but may end breaking up if especially the US do not take into full account India’s immediate necessities and understanding their international strategy.