The Realignment of India-US Relations: Strategic Dimensions

By Shuja, Sharif | Contemporary Review, October 2005 | Go to article overview

The Realignment of India-US Relations: Strategic Dimensions


Shuja, Sharif, Contemporary Review


OVER the past few years, India and the United States have been getting on better than ever. Joint exercises have been conducted between the United States and Indian forces near Agra, and the United States has also indicated it will supply modern military equipment to India. The new US Ambassador to India, David C. Mulford, said in early April that the Bush Administration wants to advance Indo-US strategic cooperatin and has indicated that, as part of the 'Indo-US Strategic Partnership' deal, New Delhi would be made a party to the 'expanded dialogue on missile defence'. India, for its part, has decided to participate in joint naval exercises with the NATO forces in Alaska. India has something to hope for; it is aiming to be a major economic force and a key global power. Many Indians believe that its regional preeminence--in size, centrality, defence capability, substantial economic development, and political stability--is a positive factor that would help consolidate India-US relations.

The United States wishes to gain free access to the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf, which is possible only with Indian collaboration. The Indian Navy can be a handy instrument for policing the sea-lanes all the way from Saudi Arabia to Japan. America, therefore, feels that it is in its own interests to convert India into a powerful regional force, which suits India perfectly, as their interests are converging and supportive of each other. The latter is, therefore, making desperate attempts to seek a close military and economic relationship with the United States to recover from the setback it received as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union, her Cold War ally. This was evident from two episodes in 2001.

First, as soon as the Bush Administration declared it was developing a National Missile Defence, New Delhi rushed to be the first, anywhere in the world, to welcome its stand. Second, following the 9/11 attack, when the US prepared to attack Afghanistan, the Vajpayee government beat Pakistan to the draw in offering Indian military bases and facilities to the US. Though grateful, Washington declined since the offer would have been impractical, and Pakistan, being willing, was much more important an actor in neighbouring Afghanistan.

It is good to learn about the past. In the 1950s the United States recruited Pakistan as an ally in its Cold War with the Soviet Union. But it also became a major aid donor to India. Indians remember how US arms militarised South Asian politics, but they forget or, mostly do not know of, the massive US assistance in modernizing the Indian education system and triggering the green revolution in agriculture. In 1980, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan compelled the United States to revitalise its failing relations with Pakistan. But even while bolstering and using Pakistan to fight its war against the Russians, the United States did not ignore India. Washington declared itself ready to export some weapons systems to India and offered to ease Indian access to some kinds of high-tech equipment, especially computers.

So now, as US forces operate out of Pakistani bases, the Americans ensure that New Delhi is kept happy by allowing Indian Navy offshore patrol vessels to escort American ships through the Strait of Malacca. Also, while the US has approved sales of F-16 aircraft to Pakistan, it also offered F-18 planes and state-of-the-art military industrial manufacturing know-how to India. The interesting point for India is that it will be making these aircraft under licence and, unlike Pakistan, will not be dependent on Washington for spare parts. The United States, as a truly great power, wants to be seen as being friendly to all South Asian countries, not just India or Pakistan.

America's tilt towards India was first witnessed during the Administration of the first George Bush in December 1990, with the visit of a sizeable American defence delegation. It was led by the Assistant Secretary of Defence for International Security, Henry Rowen, who held talks with his Indian counterpart. …

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