Why Indo-American Relations Continue to Disappoint

Geostrategic concerns prevent India and the United States from taking their relationship to the next level.

President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton talk with Prime Minister Singh of India at the White House in Washington DC, November 24, 2009
President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton talk with Prime Minister Singh of India at the White House in Washington DC, November 24, 2009 (White House/Pete Souza)

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s India visit last week was naturally shrouded in the niceties of diplomacy among friends but it could not conceal that irritation is mounting on both sides. For all its potential, the Indo-American relationship continues to disappoint. The reason is that China and Pakistan loom large over it.

President Barack Obama’s predecessor left relations with India vastly improved. Largely thanks to an historic agreement on peaceful nuclear cooperation but also because of intensified security ties, India seemed finally to have abandoned its traditional foreign policy of nonalignment in favor of stronger relations with the United States.

The past two years have seen markedly little progress. When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh came to Washington for a state dinner in 2009, President Obama described his nation as “indispensable” and he again underlined India’s rise in November of last year when he told business leaders in Mumbai that Americans “don’t simply welcome your rise as a nation and people, we ardently support it. We want to invest in it.”

Regulatory impediments on both sides still hamper Indo-American commerce however. India is busy striking trade agreements with a range of other countries but despite American promises to lift technology sanctions — a leftover from the Cold War when India had a socialist government — and revise export laws, there is disappointment in New Delhi about Obama’s failure to lead on trade.

There is frustration in Washington as well. The Indians fought the president on climate change, failed to enact the sort of liability legislation that American companies need in order to develop India’s nuclear industry and last April, they decided to buy fighter planes from the Europeans instead of Boeing or Lockheed. American officials are wondering whether the potential of the strategic partnership with New Delhi wasn’t oversold.

The discord is reflective of the geopolitical complexities of the Indo-American relationship which neither side can reasonably be expected to upset.

New Delhi rightly complains that the Americans are preoccupied with Afghanistan and therefore, Pakistan. They won’t be able to leave Afghanistan in 2014 unless Islamabad steps up its offensive against the insurgents in its volatile frontier area and prevent the Taliban from finding sanctuary there. American relations with Pakistan are far from cordial but they are still too close for India’s liking. Washington has no choice though as the War on Terror is being waged on Pakistani soil.

What the Indians really fear is an American withdrawal from South Asia three years from now that leaves Pakistan in a position to reestablish its influence over Afghanistan and from there to threaten them indirectly. They are painfully familiar with their rival’s agenda in Afghanistan. Pakistan has been involved in numerous instances of domestic terrorism. Its intelligence service was responsible for at least one of two attacks against India’s embassy in Kabul in 2008.

India therefore cautioned against Taliban reconciliation at the London Conference in January 2010 but was sidelined by Western countries that want to get out of Afghanistan after a long decade of war. It has staunchly supported the civilian government of Hamid Karzai nevertheless with billions in aid and several infrastructure projects. Even if Karzai’s administration is corrupt and unstable and likely to collapse after an American withdrawal, India forces the Pakistanis to invest dearly in regaining their foothold in Afghanistan this way which means that they can’t wholly concentrate their efforts on their eastern border.

Balancing against Pakistani intentions is a costly and time consuming nuisance for New Delhi whereas it would like to focus its attention on balancing against China. If only the Americans could keep Islamabad at bay, the Indians like to think, they could afford to be much more assertive in East Asia. Instead, they have to keep hundreds of thousands of soldiers at arms in case Pakistan invades or, more likely, disintegrates and succumbs to civil war.

Meanwhile, China is scrambling for natural resources and buying political influence in Africa and Central Asia. India’s diplomatic counteroffensive has been lackluster so far as has the American response. Washington wants to maintain stable relations with China; New Delhi doesn’t believe it can. It still has unresolved border disputes with Beijing and regards the Middle Kingdom as a natural competitor around the Indian Ocean. America can’t afford to pick sides in this brawl. That also means it can’t expect India’s loyalty.