Tighter Ties to Bind the U.S. and India

Here’s a plan for the Obama administration to help bolster India’s democracy.

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President Barack Obama toasts India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, at a state dinner at Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi, India, Monday, Nov. 8, 2010.

Patrick Christy is a senior policy analyst at the Foreign Policy Initiative, where Colin Grubbs is a research intern

The United States has long envisioned greater security cooperation with India, yet historic grievances and mistrust have limited the growth of this natural partnership. Now, as both nations' strategic interests begin to more closely align, Washington should make a concerted effort to broaden diplomatic and security cooperation with New Delhi. 

To be sure, security cooperation between the United States and India has grown to new heights over the past decade. India now conducts more military-to-military exercises with the United States than with any other country, as the two governments now hold annual defense dialogues, personnel exchanges and non-binding commitments to increase sales of defense hardware. New Delhi's strategic importance to Washington was made clear in the Department of Defense's 2012 strategic guidance document, which noted:

The United States is also investing in a long term strategic partnership with India to support its ability to serve as a regional economic anchor and provider of security in the broader Indian Ocean region.

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Moreover, recent tensions in the Asia-Pacific demonstrate the growing convergence of U.S.-India regional interests. China's military incursion across the Line of Actual Control in the disputed Ladakh region is one such example. Various influential policy analysts viewed the incident as part of Beijing's larger strategy to test regional boundaries and to expand its sphere of influence. 

For policymakers in both Washington and New Delhi, Beijing's increasingly confrontational foreign policy is raising serious questions about the peaceful nature of China's rise. And while China is a critical economic partner for both the United States and India, both nations are also concerned about Beijing's efforts to designate Tibet a "core" interest, develop its "string of pearls" across the Indian Ocean, expand military operations near the Himalayan border and strengthen military ties with Pakistan.

While common interests continue to align, it's clear that institutional mistrust, past grievances and political barriers still hinder further progress between the two nations. For example, an influential group of Indian analysts and policymakers released a report last year calling for New Delhi to cultivate "maximum options in its relations with the outside world," but made clear that "[b]oth India and the U.S. may be better served by being friends rather than allies." While unofficial, the report rekindled concerns in Washington that New Delhi would continue to pursue a non-aligned foreign policy vis-a-vis the United States. The challenge for policymakers in Washington will be to balance the political reality on the ground in New Delhi with the natural desire to deepen bilateral cooperation. 

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Is Pakistan a Reliable Ally?]

Therefore, in light of political sensitivities in New Delhi, the Obama administration should pursue the following mutually beneficial, yet politically palatable, policies towards a more robust U.S.-India partnership:

Encourage India to play a greater role in Afghanistan and Iran: In Afghanistan, the United States and India both seek a stable democratic government, the elimination of terrorist safe havens and the defeat of the Taliban-led insurgency. President Obama should urge India to increase redevelopment assistance funding – estimated at nearly $2 billion to date by Foreign Secretary Mathai – to further aid critical infrastructure projects throughout Afghanistan. Furthermore, the administration should encourage greater economic ties between the two South Asian countries. Despite their 2003 Preferential Trade Agreement, India accounted for a mere 6.1 percent of total Afghan trade in 2011, compared to 21 percent for Pakistan.

Regarding Iran, the United States and India should cooperate to halt Tehran's pursuit of nuclear weapons-making capability while mitigating the impact on India's economy. New Delhi and Tehran share a long and cordial history, and India – despite reducing crude imports from Iran by roughly 21 percent in the past year – remains Tehran's second-largest consumer of crude oil. The White House should work with Congress to pass legislation such as the Nuclear Iran Prevention Act of 2013 to tighten sanctions on Iran's non-oil trade, while including an exception applicable to India for the sale of certain food and agricultural commodities should New Delhi take meaningful steps to reduce overall trade with Tehran.

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Facilitate greater cooperation between India and key U.S. allies in the Asia-Pacific region, particularly Japan: In June 2012, the Indian Navy and the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force held their first ever bilateral exercise. More recently, Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made clear his interest in broadening strategic ties with India.

The Obama administration should lay the groundwork for expanded security cooperation between these two democratic partners by cultivating opportunities for further multilateral military exercises. Japan and India – Asia's second and third largest economies, respectively – are heavily dependent on maritime trade, and increased cooperation between the two navies would enhance their capacity to protect critical global trade routes such as the South China Sea.

Bolster India's defense capabilities and expand military-to-military cooperation: India is in the midst of an $80 billion military modernization effort. Washington should continue to implement export reforms to facilitate technology transfers and further defense sales between the two nations. These purchases will further bolster India's military capabilities, increase opportunities for bilateral training and exchanges between Indian and U.S. forces and provide a boost to American exports.

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Additionally, the Obama administration and senior Pentagon officials should still seek to advance military-to-military cooperation between the United States and India: While Washington and New Delhi are unlikely to sign a binding security agreement in the foreseeable future, the administration should focus on implementing coordinated approaches to anti-piracy and humanitarian operations in South Asia. Cooperation in these areas of mutual interest will build institutional trust between the militaries, alleviate the U.S. Navy's workload and advance both countries' goal of stability in the Indo-Pacific. Humanitarian cooperation in particular could be politically palatable to elites in New Delhi.

Washington should act now to expand the scope of its diplomatic and security cooperation with New Delhi, facilitating India's engagement with regional U.S. allies and enhancing Indian defense capabilities. Attaining these significant yet politically viable goals will advance a more robust and enduring strategic partnership between the world's two largest democracies.

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