The US-India Partnership: Time to Lead

The U.S.-India relationship has had an upward trajectory. In fact, during his visit to India in November 2010, President Barack Obama said that U.S.-India relations will be “one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century”. Alluding to President Obama’s “defining partnership”,  Hillary Clinton explained in her July 2011 speech “India and the United States: a vision for the 21st century” what activities the U.S. and India were engaged in and what the U.S. government’s hopes were for the future, urging India to take a more assertive role across the Asia-Pacific region. Clearly, the relationship has greatly transformed, but in order to achieve this partnership, both parties need to deepen the relationship rather than broadening the initiatives.

Under the Obama administration, U.S.-India relations have expanded unevenly. In the early nineties, the U.S.-India relationship was limited to military exercises. India’s nuclear tests in 1998 and the Kargil war in 1999 turned the Clinton administration’s attention to the region. Under the Bush administration, both countries came to an agreement: the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership (NSSP) in 2004 regarding collaboration and dialogue in civilian nuclear energy, civilian space programs, high-technology trade, and missile defense. Under the Obama administration, however, the relationship was broadened to include other areas. In her July 2011 speech in India, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton referred to climate solutions, clean energy, and education as part of the Strategic Dialogue. Yet, the U.S. government has had difficulties maintaining the same pace in the key strategic pillars: nuclear relations and military affairs.

One of the problems is that both countries are visionary in their ideas but often cannot translate them into action. Especially, India needs to convince domestic opposition by emphasizing India’s “strategic autonomy” from the U.S. For instance, in 2005 both countries agreed that India, a non-signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, would receive nuclear material for civilian purposes. But the deal was only signed in 2008 due to Indian parliamentary opposition. Also, no nuclear material has been transported to India. In 2010 the Indian parliament passed a civilian nuclear liability law, holding nuclear suppliers potentially liable which the U.S. considers to be inconsistent with international conventions.

To deepen the relationship, the U.S. and India could take “defining” steps regarding military relations. In her speech, Clinton placed an emphasis on the Indian Ocean, asserting that the U.S. and India were the most important players. Indeed, navy exercises between both countries have increased rapidly. The problem is that both countries have had difficulties finding a common defence posture. After 9/11 India offered its military bases, but the U.S. opted for Pakistan’s. In 2003 India decided not to send troops to Iraq. Also, the U.S. has been somewhat hesitant about India’s role in Afghanistan due to Pakistan’s concerns about India’s development aid and Indian-trained troops.

Nevertheless, cooperation in the Indian Ocean will lead the way in creating a “defining partnership”. Having previously been suspicious of the U.S., the Indian Navy is now open to cooperation. Both countries have an interest in securing transports and attacking piracy. Unlike the U.S., India, Japan, South Korea, and China, are highly dependent on their oil from the Middle East. This could be secured by joint efforts. The navies have already engaged in their own anti-piracy operations, especially in the Gulf of Aden. In order to conduct the joint operations and exercises, a next step could be to give the U.S. access to India’s bases on the Andaman and Nicobar islands. This could be a one-off operation which may lead to maritime defence agreements.

Implicitly, this also means that they can both keep an eye on various countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, but also China’s influence in Southeast Asia. Initially, this should not be taken beyond military exercises and securing transports. Especially, India wants to maintain its “strategic autonomy”, adopting its policy of “military restraint”. India has been nervous about stepping into the limelight, especially when India appears to be dependent on another country. Nevertheless, cooperation in the Indian Ocean will allow the U.S. and India to become equal partners. Since India has one of the largest navies in the world, the U.S. will take India seriously. If India is perceived as an equal partner of the U.S., it will embrace its role as a new power on the world stage, keeping a check on other countries’ ambitions.

The relationship has come a long way, but in order to achieve a “defining partnership” extra steps need to be taken. The U.S. and India should deepen the relationship with regard to military relations: their greatest effort should be put into the Indian Ocean initiative, particularly in securing transports and anti-piracy.

Carina van de Wetering is a Doctoral Candidate at the University of Bristol.