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The geopolitical context of India-US ties

Updated: Sep 23, 2014, 19:02 PM IST

From Jawaharlal Nehru’s visit in 1949 to Narendra Modi’s upcoming trip in September 2014, a number of leaders of the world’s largest democracy have been hosted by the world’s oldest democracy. In fact, a momentous political alteration in international relations in recent years is the evolvement of engagement between India and the United States of America.

However, the relation shared by the two has been both intriguing as well as complex, marked by different sources of conflict. In the words of Dennis Kux, a retired US Foreign Service officer, India and the US are “estranged democracies”. Former US secretary of state Madeleine K Albright, in 2000, had cited a former Indian Ambassador to the US as saying that Indo-US ties exhibited "a pattern of misunderstanding, miscalculations, and missed opportunities”. Henry Kissinger's mention of “the never-never land of India-US relations” described the discomfort shared by the two countries in the past.

After a number of dialogues, the New Delhi-Washington agenda today involve a number of issues, ranging from India purchasing C-130s from the Unite Sates to the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention assisting its Indian counterpart to launch Epidemic Intelligence Service program. Not only this, the US is India’s largest trading partner and bilateral defence trade between the two is also on the rise.

Both New Delhi and Washington have viewed their national interests with respect to the world at large. Though political ties shared by the two countries in the post-Cold War era are less thorny, areas of difference do exist. The ups and downs in India-US ties have largely been due to Washington preferring its global strategic interests and priorities over the regional security interests and priorities of India.

India-US ties vis-à-vis Pakistan

After the Cold War ended, the US continued to keep Pakistan as its ally to meet its strategic objectives vis-à-vis Iran in particular, the Gulf region, and Central Asia. The appeasement policy of the US towards Pakistan has always been a concern for India. This is also worth noting that whenever Washington inches closer to New Delhi, Islamabad becomes querulous.

"You don't love us as much as you love India," was the high-pitched complaint Pakistan's National Security Advisor Sartaj Aziz made earlier this year during his country’s resumed "strategic" dialogue with the United States. India’s increasing influence in Afghanistan has always troubled Pakistan. Islamabad wants the US to curb India’s expansion into Afghanistan in order to maintain its strategic ties with the United States.

But India wants the US to realise the legitimacy of its regional security concerns. Terrorism emanating from Pakistan’s soil is a core concern for New Delhi. The US will have to acknowledge that providing Pakistan with arms and military aid goes against peace and security interests of India.

In this scenario, normalisation of military-to-military ties between Washington and Islamabad, after the killing of al Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden by US forces in Abbottabad in May 2011, is a serious concern for India.

According to publicly available documents, the Pentagon reported that total Foreign Military Sales (FMS) agreements with Pakistan were worth about USD 5.2 billion for the period between FY2002 and FY2012. The Congress has appropriated over USD 3 billion in Foreign Military Financing for Pakistan since 2001, more than USD 2 billion of which has been disbursed.


The United States, India and China are the most important stakeholders in the Indian Ocean Region. The trio not only faces similar security challenges but also share common interests in the region.

A number of analysts opine that the US is keen on forging stronger ties with India in a bid to check China's influence in Asia, albeit New Delhi has ruled out being a part of any US containment strategy toward Beijing. Some experts argue that India wants closer ties with the US to better its regional standing, and to reinforce its security position against China and Pakistan. And China, which is allergic to US-led activities and alliances, is suspicious of Washington-New Delhi intentions.

New Delhi shares a unique relationship with Beijing. India sees China as a major strategic threat, expresses concern about border dispute, but at the same time inches closer to it to increase trade. The wish for better economic growth has been pushing India and China, two of the largest, fastest-growing energy consumers in the world, to maintain better bilateral ties.

According to Sumit Ganguly, the professor of Political Science, Indiana University, India suffers from "status anxiety" in relation to its northern neighbour, and is "constantly peering over the Himalayas at China, trying to catch up”. The US also sees China as an emerging competitor.

As per a study by the world's leading statistical agencies, China is set to overtake the US as the world's number one economy.

India and China, the multi-ethnic democracies, are striving to become the major political and economic force in Asia. China’s rise is inevitable and India's rise, economically as well as strategically (recently an Indian warship exercised with the Vietnamese Navy in the South China Sea), will re-align the balance of power in Asia.

It is pertinent to note here that during his first term as prime minister, in 2006-2007, Japanese PM Shinzo Abe had initiated a Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD) among Asia’s maritime democracies - Australia, India, Japan, and the US. Sensing its consequences, Beijing had protested against the spectre of an “Asian NATO”. The thought that such an alliance could jeopardise his country's ties with China had pushed the then Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd to pull out of the QSD. If revived, the QSD could potentially pit China against the Asian democracies.


After the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, the United States and India had expanded their counter-terrorism and security cooperation. India and the US have joined hands to meet the evolving security challenges of the 21st century. Not only the duo want to tackle terrorism in their own territories, but also share common interests in ensuring a stable Afghanistan.

However, despite wide-ranging anti-terrorism cooperation, a trust deficit mars India-US relationship. There are a number of instances in the US’ history that reveal how the country uses terrorism when it suits its interests, and fight against it when its territory or citizens come under attack. This is why for the US there are “good terrorists” and “bad terrorists”. In the past, India has been disappointed by contradictory statements made by the US vis-a-vis Pakistan-based terrorist threat to India. According to Polly Nayak, the South Asia expert, Indian officials believe that the US has kept back information on al Qaeda terrorist operatives suspected of having ties to Kashmiri militants.

The Indian government has often accused Lashkar-e-Toiba of terrorist attacks, including the one that took place in Mumbai. According to experts, LeT receives backing from Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) to fight in Kashmir. The group, founded by ISI darling Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, operates freely inside Pakistan. US officials, who earlier dismissed LeT as a regional problem and concentrated its operation against al Qaeda (the group behind 26/11 attacks), are now persuaded that the terror outfit has not only limited its campaign of jihad against India but also extended it against the United States, Europe, and the US troops in Afghanistan.

Recently, al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri announced the creation of a South Asian branch of his outfit to "raise the flag of jihad" in the Indian subcontinent. According to experts al Qaeda launched the wing to counter the global attention being enjoyed by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.

“Zawahiri has longstanding links" to LeT and to its leader Hafeez Saeed, Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst and National Security Council official for South Asia, had recently noted in his column.

"In short, the Pakistani Army and its ISI spies are once again playing with fire - with India, the LeT and Kashmir - in order to secure domestic gains against their civilian leaders," Riedel had rightly added. He further urged the US to keep a check on Pakistan.

Notably, India has informed the US that LeT and another Pakistan-based terror group, Jaish-e-Mohammed, are sending recruits to Syria and Iraq through Saudi Arabia and Turkey to join the Islamic State in Iraq. LeT militants and ISIS share the puritan Salafi ideology.

Reports suggest that these Pakistan-based groups could not only help the ISIS target expatriate Indians but also give training its cadres to target the Indian Army. While Saudi Arabia has given an assurance to India that it will not let its territory to be used by Pakistani groups to reach Iraq or Syria, the US and UK intelligence have heard out the Indian request without any response, reports an Indian daily.

Middle East

Over the past two decades, India has skillfully managed to develop ties with diverse Middle Eastern countries, such as Iran, Israel, Palestine, and Saudi Arabia. India's relationship with the Middle East is quite different today than it was between 1947 and 1986. Earlier, India's policy was too driven by pro-Palestinian ideology, but today New Delhi is developing its new strategy - especially around Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Israel - to pursue its regional interests.

Two decades ago, India-Israel ties were not cosy, so much so that India had refused to maintain an embassy in Israel. However, the bilateral relationship between the two countries became better since the two countries opened diplomatic ties in 1992. Albeit India had recently supported a call for a United Nations Human Rights Council probe into Israel’s offensive in Gaza (the US was the only country which opposed it), it was just a symbolic vote. However, at home, the Indian government blocked parliamentary votes to express disapproval of Israeli actions.

According to Sadanand Dhume, a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute: “New Delhi appears ready to suggest publicly what many officials already acknowledge privately: A burgeoning strategic partnership with Israel matters more to India than reflexive solidarity with the Palestinian cause."

Until the end of the Cold War, India had extended steady support to Palestinians. In fact, in 1974, India became the first non-Arab state to recognise the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as the official representative of Palestinians. International impact of the collapse of the Soviet Union led to a change in India’s foreign policy vis-à-vis Israel. Today, India and Israel, an old ally of the US, engage on matters such as agriculture, commerce, military, and science. The US had consistently pushed Israel to develop strategic relationship between India and Israel. Notably, the single-biggest buyer of Israel's defence products now is India.

As far as Iran is concerned, the West has been obsessed with India-Iran ties, so much so that New Delhi was earlier asked to prove its loyalty to the US by backing it at the International Atomic Energy Agency with regards to Iran's nuclear program. According to experts, the US sees Indian-Iranian ties as having a potentially damaging impact on its interests in Southwest Asia and the Middle East. However, India cannot ignore its energy needs.

The South Asian country is the fourth largest consumer of energy in the world. Also, Indian companies, especially state-owned ones, have investments or interest in the Iranian energy sector. India is also all the time more looking abroad for natural gas. The Iranians have revived dialogue of deep-sea pipelines to India after the failure of the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline. Earlier this year, a report had claimed that the new plan offers to transport oil and natural gas through deep sea pipelines via Oman. With the help of this process, Iran, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan energy could feed the pipeline for the Indian market.

Meanwhile, reports suggest that the United States is expected to seek cooperation from Iran and Syria to counter ISIL, which is wreaking havoc in Iraq. India can prove to be an efficient negotiator in the case.


There have been geopolitical tensions where India and the US stand on opposite sides. India and America diverge on many issues. Over the past two years, differences ranging from the arrest of Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade to India’s nuclear liability law, and intellectual property regime to India’s decision not to ratify WTO's Trade Facilitation Agreement, the alleged snooping by the US National Security Agency to a proposed US immigration bill that targets Indian IT firms, have hit New Delhi-Washington ties. In regards to the crisis in Ukraine, India backed Russia, disappointing the US.

Both India and US are pluralistic societies, largest democracies, economic growth-oriented. The two have moved way forward from the time when US president Richard M Nixon had dispatched the Seventh Fleet into the Bay of Bengal to threaten India. The upcoming visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Washington could write a new chapter in the history of two of the world’s largest and most diverse democracies.