Strategic relations between India and the US evolved gradually and were shaped by multifaceted factors like India’s size and population, its soft power and perceived economic and political stability necessary for realization of American corporate interests and their geopolitical imperative of containing China.
US-Pak relations, on the other hand, has been grounded in the sole factor of geopolitics and more transactional in nature. As a result, Pakistan is flush with American aid when its geopolitical necessity becomes imminent and when it is perceived unable to serve American geopolitical imperatives, relations immediately take a nosedive. Moreover, when Pakistan tries to disturb balance in the South Asian geopolitical landscape by stepping out of its mandate, it is reined in by the US. Therefore, Indo-US relations are more stable than those of between the US and Pakistan. However, given the differences in the respective state’s power, ambitions and role, it can be surmised that Indo-US strategic relations are not poised to be as promising as some leaders and scholars from each side epitomize such as natural allies or defining partnership.
India’s relations with the US are perceived by and large frozen except a few instances of American sanctions during the Cold War given India’s policy of non-alignment, its first Prime Minister Nehru’s leanings towards socialist ideology and later on India’s proclivity towards forging close ties with the Soviet Union. However, this was also a period of occasional but valuable American support. India became recipient of continuous food supply under US PL-480 aid program and therefore, could avoid poor harvest, famine and divert scarce resources towards industrial development in the heydays of the Cold War although many scholars expressed their concerns regarding an agrarian country’s dependence on America for food stuff which primarily represented corporate interests. Support of the US government, the role of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and American scientists cannot be underestimated in bringing Green Revolution in India which could make India more self-reliant in agricultural output. India’s soft power had its impact on the US Presidents including Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy who were aware of the fact that the non-aligned countries like India, Egypt, and Indonesia could play a decisive role during the Cold War with their power of attraction and therefore sought to engage them through constructive diplomacy.
It was the size and population of India which persuaded the US to try and bring India into its camp prior to the dawn of the idea of Pakistan’s inclusion. India’s expressed policy of non-alignment led the US – desperate to contain Soviet influence, to seek alliance in Pakistan and the latter was in a lookout for an opportunity which could enable it to match India’s power and overpower it if possible. Pakistan became a member of SEATO in 1954 even though it is not a Southeast Asian country and was recipient of huge amount of American aid. However, when requested for military aid to avert border war with China in 1962, India was obliged by the US and Pakistan felt betrayed. It was largely due to the then Kennedy Administration’s belief that a country of India’s size and population provided the bulwark of stability in South Asia against Chinese ambitions. In 1965, when Pakistan and India fought a war, the then Johnson Administration, moved by the belief that most of the American military aid provided to contain communism has been diverted to military build-up and war against India, suspended military assistance to Pakistan.
In the very beginning of the 1970s, Pakistan facilitated lines of communication between the US and China and became quite favorite of the then Nixon Administration. In support of Pakistan, the US moved its Seventh Fleet to the Bay of Bengal during 1971 Indo-Pak War waged on the question to determine East Pakistan’s future. Despite then American Administration’s continued support for the Pakistan General’s attempt to subdue East Pakistan’s independence struggle, an American Gallup poll in 1971 voted the then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi as the most admired person in the world for her role in the creation of independent Bangladesh.
The Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in 1979 brought Pakistan’s security concerns and ambitions into close alliance with American geopolitical interests. Pakistan played a vital role not only in spawning insurgency against the Soviet occupation by propping up radical Islamic groups, it became the conduit for enormous American aid to channelize, equip and sustain insurgency militarily and financially.
However, once the Soviets were out of Afghanistan, Pakistan became subject to American sanctions for its covert nuclear ambitions. India opened up its economy in 1991 and shed its professed obsession with socialistic ideology and moved closer in the direction of the west ideologically and in terms of public policy. Many sectors of the Indian economy hitherto closed for the Americans opened for economic engagements. American software industries were flush with Indian professionals in the US and many worked for them offshore.
In 1998, the US slapped sanctions on both India and Pakistan for their nuclear tests. In mid-1999 the Clinton Administration forcefully intervened to pressure Pakistan to withdraw its forces sent across the Line of Control in Kashmir near the town of Kargil not only to preserve balance in South Asia, his action is a semblance of American recognition of India’s growing economic clout. In the same year, Pakistan was subject to more US sanctions following the removal of a democratically elected government by an army chief Pervez Musharraf through military coup. The Bush Administration, being aware of India’s economic and military clout, de-hyphenated the relationship between India and Pakistan as it made it clear that while it was keen on having good relationship with Pakistan, India would be treated on its own right and not in reference to US ties with Pakistan. India’s response to the changing American gesture was very positive. India was one of the countries to have responded immediately, positively and enthusiastically to Bush’s allegedly controversial National Missile Defense (NMD) program.
When the US declared the ‘War on Terror’, India expected a greater role in the reconstruction of the economy and polity of the post-9/11 Afghanistan and, therefore, declared its immediate support and within a short time the government had offered all logistic help to Washington. The US lifted nuclear sanctions in the wake of 9/11 and eased export controls on so-called dual-technologies, which could serve both civilian and military purposes. However, once Pakistan joined the War on Terror, its geostrategic location allowed it a bigger role in Afghanistan not only in the provision of supply routes for the US and NATO convoys, the US relied heavily on intelligence inputs from Pakistan to curb militancy in Afghanistan.
On the other side, relations between the US and India cemented with signing of the Indo-US Civil Nuclear Deal in 2005 which was intended to facilitate the supply of American nuclear energy technology, uranium and reactors to India for civilian purposes. The deal poised to provide India with all benefits that the signatories to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) receive although India had been refuting to sign the treaty even under the American pressure. This is a milestone in bilateral relations between India and the US from Indian perspective despite legitimate concerns regarding liability issues and commercial non-viability of the deal in the current scenario. The deal came with the recognition of India as a nuclear weapons power. During the time when the deal was in the process, Indian nuclear power plants were facing the problem of uranium shortage and some were on the verge of shutdown. Russia insisted that it would be able to authorize the supply of uranium only after India got approval of the Nuclear Suppliers Group.
In this context, the pertinence of this deal rose in significance. The deal is also significant from another perspective as it could never have been possible without the American recognition of India as a sensible nuclear weapon power with declared policies of ‘no first use’ and ‘minimum credible deterrence’. It can be seen in contrast to the US perception of Pakistan which allegedly passed on sensitive nuclear information to Iran and Libya and its continued instability raised the specter of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of militants. This deal opened up further possibilities of Indo-American engagement on strategic issues.
As the war in Afghanistan deepened, the Obama Administration’s dependence on Pakistan increased. The Administration’s Af-Pak strategy indicated, the US seemed more interested in taking on those terrorist groups who were against the western interests by concentrating on the Af-Pak area whereas the centre for cross-border terrorism across the Line of Control between India and Pakistan was located in some of the eastern provinces of Pakistan. However, the Indian concern that the ‘War on Terror’ should be an all-out fight against militant groups which are organically linked with each other found little resonance in the American foreign policy concerns. Pakistan became the recipient of enormous American aid not only to fight terrorism, territorial integrity and socio-economic development also deserved American attention and aid with the primary concern that Pakistan did not collapse and its nuclear arsenal did not fall into the hands of militants.
Meanwhile, Mumbai terrorist attacks in 2008 led the American leadership to condemn such acts and express solidarity with India to fight terrorism. After Osama bin Laden was found and killed in Pakistan in 2011 and David Headley’s interrogation which revealed Pakistani intelligence agency ISI’s alleged connections with al-Qaeda and LeT, the US relationship with Pakistan touched a new low. Obama Administration’s plan to withdraw from Afghanistan and fixing timeline for it prevented the US from taking harsh measures against Pakistan. On the other hand, American dependence on Pakistan increased in order to find a political solution to the Afghan conundrum.
However, towards the concluding phase of Obama Administration, two US Congress legislators’ moved to introduce a bill designating Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism showing signs of promising strategic partnership between India and the US following terrorist attack on Uri military camp in India. During this Administration, the US and India signed the bilateral Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) giving their militaries access to each other’s facilities for supplies and repairs in a major attempt to take defence relations between them a notch ahead. The Trump Administration, from the beginning, was categorical about the alleged role of Pakistan in sponsoring terrorism and therefore, came out with unambiguous expression of deep concerns and criticisms following the release of the alleged mastermind of Mumbai terrorist attack Hafiz Saeed from house arrest by Pakistan. This Administration not only withheld military assistance to Pakistan condemning its role in harboring ‘the agents of chaos’, it clearly expressed its desire to cast India in a more prominent role in its policy concerning the South Asian and Indo-Pacific regions.
Indo-US strategic relations deepened gradually during almost all the succeeding American Administrations barring a few and different factors contributed to the strengthening of the relations while for Pakistan it has been the sole factor of geopolitics. While the US support for Pakistan waxed and waned quickly, the US never ignored India even during the Cold War years despite Pakistan’s concerns as an ally. The breadth of US and India relations has widened considerably after the end of the Cold War with opening up of the Indian economy and deepening of defence ties.
However, India has expressed its willingness to continue defence ties with Russia not only for repairing and updating of its existing Russian made defence equipments but for new defence deals in order to diversify its military supplies which is not a welcome development in the eyes of Washington. India’s invitation to Russia to become a part of its Indo-Pacific vision will not be seen favorably by the US. India’s willingness to forge close ties with Iran for energy supplies and gain accessibility to Afghanistan bypassing Pakistan is at odds with Trump Administration’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal of 2015 with Iran and attempt at bringing in new sanctions against it. India and the US have expressed their differences over trade related issues. Each of them has attracted the attention of the other towards the protectionist measures it pursued. India’s environmental concerns and the need for assistance have been sidelined by the US when Trump decided to walk away from the Paris Climate Agreement.
Global aspirations and role of the US and its willingness to invest its resources in different parts of the globe have rarely been supported by India which is expected from strategic partners. India’s limited power and role and its willingness to preserve its hard-won independence and sovereignty and political compulsion of preventing internationalization of Kashmir issue led India to express strong disagreement with the US viewpoints and role in Kosovo, Libya, Syria and Ukraine to name a few.
Therefore, there are areas for both sides to work on. Keeping their respective role and aspirations in perspective, Indo-US strategic relations may not be as promising as some leaders and scholars from each side epitomize such as natural allies or defining partnership.