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US-India Strategic Partnership Overshadowed By Denouements And Clouded Perspectives – Analysis


By Dr Subhash Kapila

“The next decade will see India surging ahead economically, but economic power by itself does not translate into national security. Nor does it translate into the kind of power that can dominate the Indian Ocean. American interests are not served by making India feel overly secure. Therefore, US-Indian relations will deteriorate over the next ten years, even as the United States leaves Afghanistan and even as US-Indian trade continues” — George Friedman, CEO ‘STRATEFOR’ in his latest 2011 book.

Introductory Observations

George Friedman’s forecast on the likely course of US-Indian relations in the next ten years cannot be really faulted going by the emerging mutual denouements on the value of the US-India Strategic Partnership and the clouded perspectives that belie scope for optimism. Intentionally, or otherwise, George Friedman does not term US-India relations as US-India Strategic Partnership, and I agree with him because the “strategic component” of this Strategic Partnership never actualized in the last ten years or so.

While the United States would feel an imperative to remain plugged into India’s growing economic power, the deterioration in US-India relations in the next ten years, alluded to by George Friedman is likely to arise from clashing national security interests and divergent strategic perceptions of the United States and India as the United States makes a strategic pivot to Asia Pacific and the Asian geopolitical challenges become more complex. The cleavages are already emerging. The partnership in the process gets robbed of its ‘strategic connotation’ and is reduced to a normal relationship between two democratic States.

India - United States Relations
India - United States Relations

The US-India Strategic Partnership as expectantly conceived by both the United States and India in 2000 could have emerged as a ‘strategic game-changer” in Asia and with corresponding impact at the global level. But it was not to be, not because of Indian policies after its forging but because the United States failed to honour India’s strategic expectations that were implicit when India decided to forge a Strategic Partnership with the United States.

The United States when it decided to enter into a Strategic Partnership with India signalled that it had set aside its Cold War fixations on India and was ready now to break new strategic ground with India, and both in a partnership to meet the security challenges of the 21st Century. India signalled its readiness to do so in a “partnership” with the United States and “not in alliance” or in a “strategically collusive partnership” with the United States.

Three successive US Administrations rhetorically made tall promises that the United Sates is committed strategically to assist India emerge as a global power but ironically none of the three as events of the last decade illustrate were unwilling to even accede to India the right to re-order its neighbourhood as the predominant power in South Asia.

Two successive Prime Ministers of India over-invested India’s “strategic capital” in the US-India Strategic Partnership without strategic dividends. Both stood pressurised by the United States and yielded to follow appeasement policies towards Pakistan, since it served US strategic interests. This resulted in both Prime Ministers ending up in a “severe disconnect” with Indian public opinion

Strategic denouement between the United States and India was therefore inevitable and is now finding expression more at responsible levels in the United States whereas India which over- gambled and lost is silent about its losses. Painful for India from the pattern of US barbs emanating from the United Sates, with the exception of Iran, all betray an impression that the United States underpinnings on this Strategic Partnership were mercantilist in nature.

This Paper intends to examine the mutual denouements that have crept into the US-India Strategic Partnership in 2012 and which now tend to overshadow this partnership with clouded perspectives. It is intended to do this under the following heads:

  • United States-India Strategic Partnership: Denouements Arising From Differing Strategic Perceptions and Differing Strategic Expectations
  • United States Denouements with India
  • India a Bigger Loser in the US-India Strategic Partnership
  • US-India Strategic Partnership Overshadowed by Clouded Perspectives

United States-India Strategic Partnership: Denouements Arising From Differing Strategic Perceptions and Differing Strategic Expectations

With a decade of hindsight it can be stated that cleavages in the US-India Strategic Partnership are emerging because it seems that both theUnitedStates and India entered into this Strategic Partnership with different strategic perceptions of the relationship and different strategic expectations arising from the then prevailing geostrategic and geopolitical compulsions.

The United States strategically expected India to “Join the Posse” led by the US as it set about to reorder the Asian security environment to suit American security interests. India in the absence of Russia’s resurgence in 2000 and the Russia-China strategic relationship then, viewed the United States as a countervailing power against India’s military adversaries, namely, China and Pakistan.

India could not “Join the Posse” led by the United States unreservedly as India’s foreign policy formulations laid great store by ‘strategic autonomy’, a characteristic well known to the United States. The United States should have been well aware that when India was not economically strong and militarily powerful during the heyday of the Cold War, India still zealously valued its strategic autonomy. How can an India as an emerging economic and global player could now abdicate its strategic autonomy and be subservient to US strategic interests?

India’s political setup should also have been well aware that in terms of South Asia, the United States had always laid emphasis on a regional balance of power to be maintained. The United States in its strategic policy documents has consistently maintained that it is not in US strategic interests to let strong regional powers emerge. This finds echo in George Friedman’s observation quoted above that “American interests are not served by making India overly secure.”

The United States did not level upto India’s strategic expectations to provide strategic ballast against China and Pakistan. Throughout the past decade the United States assiduously remained transfixed on its “China Hedging Strategy” and remained “strategically and militarily wedded to Pakistan”. How could Indians support a US-India Strategic Partnership where India’s privileged strategic partner throughout the past decade was arming Pakistan with advanced military hardware to the detriment of India’s national security?

Notably, the United States failed to essentially recognize that if it valued its strategic partnership with India it could not be seen as contributing to upsetting the South Asian balance of power against India. The United States failed to recognize that if it persisted in tilting the balance of power against India in South Asia, how could India be expected to provide strategic ballast to the United States in the Asian power-play? While on the subject of mutual denouements it would be in order to examine the pains taken by either side to sustain the Strategic Partnership, even if it arose from different strategic perceptions.

Notably, India has taken greater pains to sustain the US-India Strategic Partnership as opposed to the United States. The United States found in the person of the Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh a political asset strongly committed to sustain the Strategic Partnership with the United States to the extent that the Indian PM staked his political survival on the issue of the Indo-US Nuclear Deal which was trumpeted as the crowning achievement of the US-India Strategic Partnership. In 2012, that crowning glory stands degenerated into US denouements and ugly criticisms of the associated Nuclear Legislation (NLL). In this context, the Indian Prime Minister stands strongly criticized at home for being in a “ state of severe disconnect” with Indian public opinion on Nuclear Deal.

Denouements in the US-India Strategic Partnership today are mutual. In the United States this denouement stands publicly aired where the demise of this Strategic Partnership seems to have been sounded as well as disparaging remarks being made that “the Indian Government is now actively impeding the construction of this strategic relationship, it says it wants with the US” and moving on to “India it seems, always walks straight in crooked lines”.

As a strategic analyst and commentator focusing on the US-India Strategic Partnership and its uneven course, I have not come across any comparable observations made at responsible Indian levels accusing the US Administrations of insincerity.

Inevitably, such denouements and clouded perspectives invariably generate debates in India on the comparative value of the US-India Strategic Partnership with India’s other strategic partners like Russia and France.

The United States has a right to air its frustrations and denouements with India on this Strategic Partnership but it is running into the danger of betraying that the American underpinnings of the US-India Strategic Partnership were not strategic but mercantilist going by the US criticisms particularly targeting on the MRCA (Multi-Role Combat Aircraft ) not going in favour of US bidders and the NLL where US nuclear industry firms are not ready to play in a level playing field with the French and Russians.

Shedding aside, the effusive rhetoric emanating from both India and the United States which attended the forging of the US-India Strategic Partnership in 2000 and its actualization in 2004-2005, with the benefit of a decade’s hindsight, it can be fairly asserted that both the United States and India had different interpretations on what was “Strategic” and what was a “Partnership”. Presumably, it is this which has resulted in the public airings of denouement at responsible US levels which are examined next.

United States Denouements with India

Symptomatic of the United States denouements with India are the recent writings of two reputed former US officials who were closely connected at the working level in pushing through the US-India Strategic Partnership from the US side. Both have been strong advocates of a strong Strategic Partnership between United States and India. While they may be no longer serving in the current US Administration, their views are respected within US governmental circles and carry the weight of their India experience. These two former US officials are Nicholas Burns and Ashley Tellis.

Nicholas Burns was US Undersecretary of State during 2005-2008 and as the third senior Official in the US State Department was the lead negotiator for the US-India Civil Nuclear Deal. He was also the lead US negotiator for Iran’s nuclear program. Presently he is a Professor at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Ashley Tellis was the Senior Adviser to the US Ambassador in New Delhi and then moved to US State Department as Senior Adviser to US Undersecretary of State. Presently he is with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

Ashley Tellis in a recent feature carried on his think-tank site has expressed the following on India:

  • “The expectantly awaited US-India Strategic Partnership is no more. That at least s the view in the commentariat and among some on Capitol Hill and within the Obama Administration.”
  • “Even among those who do not hold the extreme position, there is uneasy sense that the bilateral partnership is not going forward, only sideways.”
  • “And India’s recent decision on the Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MRCA) competition and its troubled Nuclear Liability Legislation (NLL) remain the poster children that confirm the worst fears of even India’s friends that the relationship is not yielding the rewards initially imagined.
  • “India it seems, always walks straight in crooked lines”

Nicholas Burns who was the lead US interlocutor with India during the crucial period of the evolution of the Strategic Partnership and Nuclear Deal makes the following observations in an Opinion Editorial in the Boston Globe on3 February 2012:

  • “India can however be a frustrating partner. Its diplomats have duelled with the United States unproductively on global trade talks and on other issues at the United Nation”
  • “It (India) has stalled in implementing the nuclear deal with the United States and disappointed expectations it would open the economy further for foreign investment.”
  • “It has not supported tough US and European sanctions against Iran and criticised NATOs successful intervention in Libya last spring”
  • “Our problem may not be an India that is too strong but one that is weak and uncertain”
  • ‘It is now up to India to respond and to be more specific about its interest in working with the US.”

In another feature on the Belfer Center website Nicholas Burns made the following observations on 13 February 2012:

  • “There is a larger point here about India’s role in the world. For all the talk about India rising to become a global power, its government doesn’t act like one”
  • “It is all too focused on its own region but not beyond it. And it seldom provides the kind of leadership on tough issues that is necessary for the smooth functioning of the international system”
  • “With its unhelpfulness on Iran and stonewalling on implementation of the landmark US-India Civil Nuclear Agreement, however the Indian Government is now actively impeding the construction of the strategic relationship, it says it wants with the US.”
  • “It is time that India speaks much clearly about the priority it places on its future with the United States.”

These critical references made by well-placed and respected Americans raise two issues as to why such reflections have been made.

The first issue is as to whether these observations form part of a calibrated campaign to pressurize the Indian PM and the policy establishment to yield to United States priorities on the contentious issues of Iran and NLL. On the other hand the second issue could be that this reflects a wider American policy establishment’s disillusionment with Indian policies and the commencement of a denouement process. Either way it does not augur well for the US-India Strategic Partnership.

The calls by Nicholas Burns twice made that India should speak more clearly and now respond and be more specific about the priority it places on its future with the United States would not go down well with Indians, even if the Indian Government chooses not to respond.

In view of emerging Asian and global geostrategic and geopolitical realities, such a call should be made by India that it is the United States that needs to strategically spell out whether the United States is ready to accept India as a “strategic partner” and not “trategic satellite”. The latter connotes that India willy-nilly acquiesce to every United States strategic move designed solely to serve US strategic interests.

India a Bigger Loser in the US-India Strategic Partnership

The US-India Strategic Partnership within a year of its inception became a victim of the 9/11 developments. The United States was forced to ‘reverse gears’ in South Asia where after dehyphenating its relations in South Asia between India and Pakistan, the United States was forced to designate Pakistan as a Major Non-NATO Ally.

The rest is history where the United States as the new ‘strategic partner’ was permissive of Pakistan’s relentless terrorist strikes in heartland India, inaction against Pakistan Army’s WMD proliferation, arming Pakistan Army with advanced weapon systems, and side-lining India’s legitimate security interests in Afghanistan.

The Washington Summit 2005 agreements that followed and in particular the Nuclear Deal which was to become the show-piece of the Strategic Partnership has yet to show the intended results. In fact as evidenced by the statements of Nicholas Burns and Ashley Tellis quoted above, the follow-up NLL has emerged as contentious and rancorous.

Briefly, the following major losses accrued to India in the obsessive fixation that first former PM Vajpayee and in the last eight years Indian PM Singh stood transfixed by the US-India Strategic Partnership, the Partnership which had lost its sheen in 2002 itself:

  • Strategically, both China and Pakistan for different reasons stood emboldened by the US ambiguities on this Strategic Partnership to adopt more adversarial stances against India making Indian security challenges that more intense and complex.
  • Strategically, India’s new found ‘strategic embrace’ of the United States reverberated on India’s long standing strategic partnership with Russia. It is to the credit of Russia that it could astutely assess that India would be unable to “Join the Posse” as envisaged by the US.
  • Strategically, in the past decade, two Indian Prime Ministers of two different political dispensations outsourced India’s foreign policy making to Washington and its formulations to be decided by US strategic interests. In the process India’s foreign policy was robbed of its strategic autonomy, flexibility and manoeuvring space.
  • Politically India was forced to adopt humiliating appeasement policies towards Pakistan and India pressurized into respecting Pakistan Army’s sensitivities dictated to the US.
  • Politically, India’s image took a beating in that despite its growing strengths it was being perceived externally and domestically as weak and ineffective. India stood strategically diminished.
  • Militarily, United States rearming Pakistan Army with advanced military hardware erased India’s military superiorities
  • Militarily, India’s hands were tied by the United States and prevented to take strong actions against Pakistan for the string of major Pakistani terrorist strikes against India.
  • The United States on issues of terrorism against India has been singularly amiss in not forewarning India on Mumbai 26/11 and not extraditing key accused to India for trial till today.

India’s litany of its losses generated by the obsessive fixations of PM Vajpayee and PM Singh to the US-India Strategic Partnership is too long to be recounted here and would be dismissed by US as traditional Indian whining. The reality however is that both Indian Prime Ministers ended up in a state of severe disconnect with Indian public opinion because of their vulnerability to US pressures at various points of time in the 2001-2011 period

The stark reality is that India gambled and over-invested more heavily in the US-India Strategic Partnership, with today in 2012, with no real strategic gains to show even after a decade of ‘papering-over’ of its disillusionment with the United States in not proving a true strategic partner.

United States-India Strategic Partnership Overshadowed by Clouded Perspectives

In terms of future perspectives of reinvigorating the US-India Strategic Partnership the initiative for this rests solely on United States shoulders. As the senior partner in this Strategic Partnership, the United States has not so far delivered on the ‘strategic component’ of this Strategic Partnership. The United States to sustain this Strategic Partnership needs to delete the ambiguities of its Pakistan and China strategic formulations which have been the biggest irritant in the eyes of Indian public opinion. Can the United States be expected to do so? Rather unlikely when viewed from available indicators.

Simply put, Pakistan has a strategic stranglehold over the United States and China has an economic stranglehold over the United States. The United States has been short-changed strategically both by Pakistan and China. Yet both of India’s military adversaries have priority over India in the US strategic calculus.

In the perception of many Indians the inability of the United States to breakout of the Pakistani and Chinese strangleholds reinforces the image of the United States as a global power on the decline and the inevitable follow-up question whether the United States can be a “strong partner” of India as it faces the strategic challenges of the 21st Century?

The fundamental US-India strategic denouements arise from differing perspectives. India perceives that the United States has failed to deliver on the crucial and fundamental issue of India’s national security which should have been the hallmark of India’s strategic partnership with the world’s mightiest power.

On the contrary, United States denouements arise from disappointments in terms of “mercantilist expectations” from India of not being awarded the MRCA contract, of not tailoring the NLL in a manner suiting US firms, and not acquiescing to US formulations on global trade issues.

The Iran issue on which the United States is terribly unhappy needs special mention. The Iran issue is symptomatic of what is acutely wrong with US perceptions on the US-India Strategic Partnership when it expects India to submit to US dictates on strategic issues where there can be separate perspectives. The United States was not amenable to India’s efforts for a decade to declare Pakistan as a terrorist state and state-sponsor of terrorism, and the United States refused to oblige India? By which yardsticks does the United States expect that India should submit to US directives on Iran where India’s vital strategic interests and economic interests are involved?

Perspectives on the US-India Strategic Partnership were getting cloudy even three years back. Former US Ambassador to India Robert Blackwell at the crucial stage of formulation of the Strategic Partnership, commenting on the prospects of Indo-American relationship in the next few years in an address to the Confederation of Indian Industry on May 5, 2009 had remarked ; “It will take very hard work and skilful diplomacy from both Governments to keep the US-India relationship on its current plateau and to avoid a steady decline in our bilateral ties” and more tellingly when he observed that “the United States has re-hyphenated the US-India relationship”.

Ambassador Blackwell’s remarks say it all. If the Strategic Partnership had reached a “plateau” then the tenor of US remarks of disillusionment with India in 2012 disturbingly reflect that the relationship is on a downslide from that plateau. Notably the US re-hyphenation of its relationship with India clouds the perspectives still further.

Recently on 12 April 2011, Admiral Robert Willard , C-in-C US Pacific Command in testimony before the US Senate Armed Services Committee stated “Nevertheless India’s historic leadership of the non-alignment movement and desire to maintain strategic autonomy somewhat constrain cooperation at a level US Pacific Command desires. The US-India relationship remains challenged by a degree of suspicion fuelled by Cold War-influenced perceptions, complicated Indian political and bureaucratic processes and the US-Pakistan relationship”.

The main picture that emerges from the above is that clouded perspectives exist in the United States in terms of future perspectives on the United States-India Strategic Partnership and which would tend to draw comparative responses from India too.

The normal taciturn Indian Prime Minister was recently forced to declare publicly that United States NGOs were behind the months long protest movements against the Russian nuclear power plant at Kudankulam in Tamilnadu due to go on stream shortly but held up because of well calibrated protests.

Concluding Observations

The US-India Strategic Partnership was not a new phenomenon for India in terms of strategic partnerships with major powers and hence India cannot be termed as a novice in the sustenance of strategic partnerships. India has had a decades- old successful strategic partnership with Russia which has endured for nearly half a century and continues as such with equal vigour. India also maintains a robust strategic partnership with France. Then why have denouements crept into the US-India Strategic Partnership?

The answer is simple for the cloudy perspectives that overshadow the US-India Strategic Partnership and the denouements that have emerged. The fundamental problem is that the United States long used to unquestioning “Strategically Collusive Partnerships” finds it frustrating that India has not responded with that equation. India may not have questioned US policies on critical geopolitical challenges like Iran but India has adopted postures consistent with its own national security interests.

United States-India Strategic Partnership to be made substantial strategically would require the United States to de-link its mercantilist imperatives from judging Indian intentions. The United States has a higher call in respecting India’s strategic sensitivities on issues like Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran.

All of the above would require a focused United States approach on India’s strategic value in the Asian power-play not as a “strategically collusive partner” but as a friendly regional power capable with its existential strategic weight to provide the strategic ballast to US efforts to ensure Asian security.

Concluding, on the subject of focused approach Former US Ambassador Robert Blackwill in a speech at Kolkata on November 27 2002 on the subject of “The Quality and Durability of US-India Relationship” quoted Roman writer Seneca and the German philosopher Nietchze in his introductory remarks as follows and these serve as a timely reminder as the United States makes a strategic pivot to Asia Pacific:

  • “If a man does not know to what port he is steering, no wind is favourable”.—Seneca
  • “Man’s most enduring stupidity is forgetting what he is trying to do”.—-Nietchze

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SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

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