India and US: Overview of an Upswing Relationship

Mohammed Badrul Alam

Both India and the United States are stable democracies. From America’s standpoint, post-World War II, a new democratic regime in India was counted upon as a strategic ally for containing Soviet influence in Asia. Yet, India refused to be an ally of the US. Strongly allied with Britain through both World Wars, the United States had a policy of ambivalence towards colonial India. F.D.Roosevelt and Truman paid scant attention to the cause of Indian independence and did not press hard Churchill or Atlee, the British Premiers during World War II to give independence to India. In the wake of World War II, when America emerged as the world’s leading economic and military superpower, India, endowed with abundant raw goods, emerged as an attractive potential trade partner for the U.S.

In the 1960s, India, under the dynamic leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru, looked upon John F. Kennedy with hope and optimism. The changing scene in international relations permitted both India and the United States to play useful roles. Kennedy understood the pivotal role India could play in checkmating the influence of both the communist giants, the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union.

Although, both India and the United States abhorred colonialism in all forms, yet their divergent roles in international affairs guided the two nations to look at the issue differently. For the United States particularly in the aftermath of World War II, the emergence of Soviet Union and China as major world powers was of particular concern. As a result, although the United States officially declared its opposition to colonialism, yet in many cases it supported some of its European allies such as Britain, France, Portugal, in its drive against communism. On India’s part, anti-colonialism along with non-alignment have been its official policy since it achieved independence in 1947. India had consistently voted in favour of self-determination and de-colonisation.

If the 1970s saw the downhill in Indo-US relations due to divergent chemistry and policy orientations between Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and President Nixon, including US ‘tilt’ toward Pakistan in the Bangladesh crisis of 1970-71, the 1980s and 1990s have witnessed a major turn around with both sides committing themselves in taking the bilateral relationship to a higher level. In particular, President Clinton’s South Asia policy had a distinct India-friendly focus.

The summit meetings in 2010 in New Delhi between Barack Obama and Manmohan Singh and earlier in 2005 in Washington D.C. and in 2006 between Manmohan Singh and George W. Bush indicated the level of profound transformation in Indo-U.S. relations and the establishment of a global, strategic partnership between the two countries. The leaders of the two of the greatest democracies in the world pledged to promote stability, democracy, rule of law, human freedom, prosperity and peace throughout the world.

The catastrophic Indian Ocean tsunami that struck South and South-East Asia in December 2004 provided an opportunity for the Indian and U.S. navies and Coast Guard to work closely together in search, rescue and reconstruction efforts. The Next Steps in Strategic Partnership (NSSP) process, first launched in January 2004 provided U.S. licensing arrangements for Indian imports of sensitive items and technology, leading to a big boost in high-tech trade between the two countries. The conclusion of a successful Open Skies Agreement between India and the United States has added further momentum in bilateral relations. Enhanced connectivity between the two countries in terms of greater aerial flights has provided increased trade, tourism and business and greater cooperation between the two countries on a wide range of issues.

The new parameters of the defense relationship include cooperation in various defense technologies, continued joint and combined exercises and exchanges, expansion of defence trade, increased opportunities for technology transfer, collaboration, co-production and R&D. The armed forces of the two countries have held a number of joint military exercises aimed at enhancing interoperability of all the services. The two countries also concluded a Maritime Cooperation Framework to enhance security in the maritime domain, to prevent piracy and other transnational crimes at sea, carry out search and rescue operations, combat marine pollution, respond to natural disasters, address emergent threats and enhance cooperative capabilities including thorough logistics support. For US and India, this agreement was vital in securing seal lanes in and around Indian Ocean and the adjoining seas.

In terms of economic relations, India – U.S. bilateral trade grew from US $ 13.49 billion in 2001 to US over $ 40 billion in 2010. India’s major export products include gems and jewellery, textiles, organic chemicals and engineering goods. Main imports from the U.S. are machinery, precious stones and metals, organic chemicals, optical and medical instruments, aircraft and aviation machinery. The U.S. is one of the largest foreign direct investors in India. The U.S. is also the most important destination of Indian investment abroad. The Economic Dialogue has two broad items in biotechnology and information technology. The IT theme has been expanded to become the Information and Communications Technology Working Group (ICT Working Group).

With India emerging fast as a soft power, cultural ties between the two countries have grown to a more popular level of mainstream American society. Students from India continue to enrol themselves in large number in American universities and institutions of higher learning. Similarly, the Indian diaspora residing in the US have been extremely proactive and visible in presenting themselves as a model minority due to their high educational profile, economic affluence and political participation.

2010 was a significant turning point in the course of Indo-U.S. relations. The controversial civilian nuclear agreement between India and the United States that was signed during Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh’s visit to Washington in July 2005, received US Congress’ approval to go forward. Under the landmark treaty, India would subject its civilian nuclear program under IAEA safeguards, support nuclear non-proliferation programs, work to prevent the export of nuclear related materials, and abide by a self-imposed moratorium on nuclear weapons testing. In exchange, America essentially recognized India as a Nuclear Weapons State; thus agreeing to supply uninterrupted nuclear fuel and import natural uranium to help build an advanced and robust civilian nuclear energy program. In spite of India not being a signatory to the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty (NPT) - US has offered to address energy security needs of India. India and the United States are committed to the formation of a strong, viable partnership in multiple spheres based on shared common values including respect for individual liberty, justice, rule of law and democracy. With President Obama in his speech made at the Indian Parliament on 8 November 2010 pledging to support India’s case for the latter’s entry to UN Security Council as a permanent member and India’s commitment towards a host of issues including counter-terrorism efforts and in bringing about stability in neighbouring Afghanistan have forged even greater level of partnership between the two countries. This relationship is likely to witness further upswing in the coming years.

Author Note
The author is Professor at the Dept. of Political Science, Faculty of Social Sciences, Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi.