Indo-American Relations Unlikely to Improve Before Afghan War’s End

The Americans’ willingness to negotiate with their Taliban enemies alarms policymakers in New Delhi.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India participates in the East Asia Summit in Phnom Phen, Cambodia, November 20, 2012
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India participates in the East Asia Summit in Phnom Phen, Cambodia, November 20, 2012 (MEA)

India and the United States appear to share interests and values yet their relationship hasn’t much improved since Barack Obama became president in 2009. If anything, there is disappointment in both countries.

Obama’s Republican predecessor George W. Bush left relations with India vastly improved. Largely thanks to an historic agreement on nuclear technology cooperation, India seemed finally to have abandoned its traditional foreign policy of nonalignment in favor of stronger relations with the United States. The Americans, recognizing India’s potential as a balancer against a rising China, welcomed the move.

Seven years later, there have been precious few more breakthroughs. Regulatory impediments on both sides still hamper Indo-American commerce. While India is striking trade agreements with a range of other countries, American promises to lift technology sanctions — left over from the Cold War when India had a socialist government — haven’t been kept. The Americans seem more interested in the Trans Pacific Partnership which promises to liberalize trade across the Americas and Asia — excluding India.

The Americans have reason to be frustrated as well. Their companies still can’t do business in India’s nuclear energy sector due to strict liability laws. India also fought Obama on climate change and bought European fighter planes instead of Boeing’s or Lockheed’s. American officials can almost be forgiven for wondering whether the potential of the strategic partnership wasn’t oversold.

The two powers still have a shared interest in deterring Chinese aggression. India was reminded of this only recently when Chinese troops crossed the disputed Himalaya border between the two Asian countries and camped out for several weeks in territory that is claimed by India.

In Afghanistan, by contrast, America’s and India’s interests are increasingly divergent which might go some way toward understanding why there appears to be so little goodwill in the relationship. To India’s apprehension, the United States are seeking a political settlement to the conflict there, one that should include the very insurgents that threaten them both.

India cautioned against Taliban reconciliation as early as 2010, fearful that the movement’s resurgence would allow Pakistan to regain an influence in Afghanistan. Pakistan has since claimed credit for persuading the Islamists to consider talks, undoubtedly to the alarm of those in New Delhi.

Indians are only too familiar with their rival’s agenda in Afghanistan. Pakistan has been involved in numerous instances of domestic terrorism. Its intelligence service — which originally propped up the Taliban during the 1990s Afghan civil war, seeing it as the only viable movement among the country’s majority Pashtun population — was responsible for at least one of two attacks on India’s embassy in Kabul in 2008.

Where India backed the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan’s civil war, which was then made up mostly of ethnic Tajiks, it has supported the administration of Hamid Karzai since the Taliban was overthrown. His government may be corrupt and fall as soon as the Americans withdraw in 2014; at the very least, this support — which has included direct financial aid as well as infrastructure investments — thwarts Pakistani intentions.

Balancing against Pakistan in Afghanistan is a costly and time consuming endeavor, however, when India would like to focus on balancing against China. If only the Americans would keep Islamabad at bay, the Indians like to think, they can afford to be more assertive in East Asia. Instead, they have to spend dearly to prevent Pakistan from running Afghanistan again and maintain hundreds of thousands of soldiers at arms in case it invades or disintegrates and succumbs to civil war.

Meanwhile, China is buying access to natural resources, if not loyalty, across the Indian Ocean region and making strides into Central Asia as well. India’s diplomatic counteroffensive has been lackluster while America’s “pivot,” however clearly advertised, doesn’t seem to have significantly affected Chinese behavior.

Unlike the United States, India is locked in direct competition with China for minerals, oil and gas as well as security partners. It also has an unresolved border dispute with its bigger neighbor which happens to occasionally extend a helping hand to the Pakistanis whose economy seems to be slowly collapsing.

For these reasons, India cannot have the sort of great power relationship America seeks with China. America, on the other hand, can ill afford to pick sides. Which is why it can’t have India as an ally — at least not while it is endangering Indian security in Afghanistan.