India-US Relations: The Shock of the New

By Malone, David M.; Mukherjee, Rohan | International Journal, October 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

India-US Relations: The Shock of the New

Malone, David M., Mukherjee, Rohan, International Journal

[The] great problem of the near future will be American imperialism even more than British imperialism.1

India is today embarked on a journey inspired by many dreams. We welcome having America by our side. There is much we can accomplish together.2

These two statements, uttered almost 60 years apart, mark a contemporary transformation in relations between India and the United States of America. For most ofthe last six decades, the world's oldest democracy and the world's largest democracy failed to understand each other's character and compulsions. That a fundamental shift has occurred during the past decade is clear to all. Our article explores this shift in terms of its motivation and timing, and seeks to locate its causes. The analysis rests on a combination of international, regional, and domestic factors that operated jointly to usher in the post-Cold War era of India-US relations.


During its early years the Indian republic viewed the world through a newly forged prism of anti-imperialism. The Americans on the other hand viewed the world through the prism of anti- Communism. This thinking produced the maxim of John Foster Dulles: "Those who are not with us are against us."3 Faced with an increasingly bipolar world, India adopted an idealistic yet functionally pragmatic philosophy of nonalignment as the cornerstone of its foreign policy. Amidst the atmosphere of the 1950s, the US viewed India's nonalignment as a cover for interests that diverged from its own. As the Cold War gained momentum, America's frustrations with Indian nonalignment mounted. In the absence of cooperation from India, and with a communist government in China, Pakistan became an essential element in the United States' containment of the Soviet Union in Asia. What began as an ideological gulf between India and the US developed into a strategic chasm.

The Sino-Indian border war of 1962 compelled Nehru to seek assistance from the western powers. The American response was warm yet strategically motivated. It prevailed on Pakistan for an assurance that it would not invade Kashmir so that India could redeploy its northern troops towards the front with China. An American carrier - the Enterprìse - was dispatched towards the Bay of Bengal. In 1965, when Pakistan contravened a written assurance from President Eisenhower to Nehru that U S -supplied weapons would not be used by Pakistan against India, Washington adopted a position of strict neutrality, alienating India and driving Pakistan towards China for military sustenance. The expanding Sino- Pakistani relationship did not, however, prompt a change in India-US relations. In 1971, the east Pakistan crisis coincided with American attempts at building a rapprochement with China, which was facilitated largely by Pakistan. Faced with America's tacit support for Pakistan, India officially turned to the Soviet Union for assistance. As war broke out between India and Pakistan, the USS Enterprise was once again dispatched to the Bay of Bengal, but this time with the opposite intent.

The US received a major jolt in 1974 when India conducted its first nuclear weapon test at Pokhran. It came to light that India had diverted nuclear materials imported for civilian purposes, much of it from the US, in order to initiate a weapons program. Although India assured the world that its test was a "peaceful" one, the event was a blow not just to American influence in south Asia but also to the emerging global nonproliferation regime in general. In the 1980s, the US-India relationship was obscured by the indirect superpower conflict in nearby Afghanistan and India's own political and economic problems. Once again, India and the United States found themselves on opposing sides of a vital global conflict. In the mid1980s, concern about its regional autonomy and capacity to resist American global ambitions was one of the motivating factors behind India's involvement in the emerging domestic conflict in Sri Lanka (the other was India's large Tamil population, particularly in the state of Tamil Nadu). …

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