Indo-American Bilateral Ties: A Tale With A Twist in Perpetual Flux

Posted on September 25, 2010 in Politics

By Pradyut Hande:

“Diplomacy” — is that one watchword in the mythical Lexicon of International Affairs that every nation strives to incorporate and tactfully adopt in order to further its own myriad geopolitical interests on a rapidly morphing global platform. Walking the tightrope of diplomacy presents a veritable challenge for any nation. International matters of this nature remain in a perennial state of flux. Ergo, over time relations forged between nations undergo a metamorphosis of sorts, depending on multitudinous external and internal factors that continually shape foreign policy in order to chart a stable course towards inclusive and mutually beneficial growth. Delving deeper into the aforementioned, I shall examine the continually changing trends, facets and paradigm shifts in bilateral ties between the USA and India over a protracted period of time.

Post Indian Independence and the Cold War Era:

Post Independence in 1947, relations between India and the USA oscillated between cold and lukewarm. India, a nation of burgeoning aspirations and unbounded promise tried to pursue close relations with both the USA and the erstwhile USSR but tacitly refused to align itself with either bloc or enter into military alliances of any sort. Instead, under the talismanic leadership of Nehru, India played a leading role founding the Non-Alignment Movement (NAM) in 1961. However, India began establishing a blossoming economic and military relationship with the USSR soon thereafter — a development that left the think-tank in Washington queasy. One must point out that the USA did provide support to the beleaguered Indians during the Sino-Indian War of 1962. Thereafter, India continued to pursue a strategic alliance with the Soviet Union after making significant alterations to its foreign policy; receiving major military and financial aid. This certainly did not amuse the USA. As the Cold War wore on, “cold” shouldered by India; with its geopolitical interests at stake; the USA engaged Pakistan in a strategic tie-up by viewing it as a counter-weight to pro-USSR India. Bilateral ties between the USA and India were on a steady downward spiral. The cold clutches of suspicion and acrimony soon enveloped diplomatic relations. Matters only got worse when India openly supported the USSR during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

However, relations between India and the USA were to reach its nadir during the early 1970s. Despite well founded reports of atrocities and bringing to light the despicable genocidal activities perpetrated by the Pakistani Army in East Pakistan, the then US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger and U.S. President Richard Nixon did precious little to discourage the then Pakistani President Yahya Khan and the Pakistan Army. The USA at this sensitive juncture was particularly concerned about Soviet expansion into South Asia as a consequence of a treaty of friendship that had recently been signed between India and the Soviet Union. In order to counter the rapidly intensifying Indo-Soviet relationship, the USA under President Nixon adopted a more proactive and aggressive stance by seeking the support of the People’s Republic of China, the Asian behemoth, as a tacit ally. During the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971 that culminated in the liberation of East Pakistan as the independent state of Bangladesh, the USA supplied military arms to Pakistan in direct violation of the USA Congress-imposed sanctions on Pakistan and also encouraged China to increase its arms supplies to Pakistan. These majorly myopic strategic blunders under President Nixon fuelled by escalating fears of its declining influence in the Asian sub continental theatre further soured Indo-USA relations that were already precariously perched on a razor’s edge. With the USA and the Soviet Union locked in the battle for global dominance and regional one-upmanship, India continued to pursue its own socio-economic agenda.

Post the Cold War Era and Collapse of the USSR:

With the inevitable collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, India was forced to review its foreign policy in a new unipolar world and hence, strived to foster multi-dimensional bilateral ties with the USA. Both democratic states began viewing each other as a strategic ally whilst pursuing their disparate trajectories of socio-economic progression. Economic, trade, military and strategic relations were on the upswing following the liberalization of the Indian economy in 1991. However, the Pokhran nuclear tests of 1998 sanctioned by the then BJP Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee threw the evolving Indo-USA ties off track once again. Although India affirmed its position as a rapidly developing nuclear power, it incurred the wrath of the international community as the USA, Japan and member nations of the EU imposed economic sanctions on the country. The USA encouraged India to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) immediately thereafter and also to exercise greater restraint with regards to their missile development program. Bilateral ties between the world’s oldest democracy (USA) and the world’s largest democracy (India) continued to fluctuate until 2001.

Post the 9/11 Terror Attacks:

The year 2001 seemingly ushered in a new, dynamic era with regards to Indo-USA relations. The gruesome 9/11 terror strikes perpetrated by rogue Islamist elements on American soil prompted the USA into a fleeting period of introspection; reviewing its many allies as it prepared for its unprecedented War on Terror. Indian intelligence agencies played a sterling role in providing the USA with significant information on Al-Qaeda and other related groups’ activities in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The then incumbent George W. Bush administration soon lifted the economic sanctions imposed previously by the Bill Clinton government. High-level meetings and concrete cooperation between the two countries increased during 2002 and 2003. In January 2004, the USA and India launched the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership (NSSP), which was both a milestone in the transformation of the bilateral relationship and a blueprint for its further progress. With the two nations pursuing an even-handed symbiotic relationship to offset the growing dominance of the industrious Chinese, events soon took a course for the better.

In December 2006, the US Congress passed the landmark Henry J. Hyde United States-India Peaceful Atomic Cooperation Act that permits direct civilian nuclear commerce with India. The historic legislation has paved the way for India to buy American nuclear reactors and fuel for strictly civilian purposes. Furthermore, in July 2007, the USA and India scaled another notable acme in their strategic partnership by finalizing negotiations on the bilateral agreement for peaceful nuclear cooperation, more popularly known as the “123 agreement.” The momentous agreement also highlighted the paradigm shift in the attitude of the USA towards India’s nuclear proliferation. Instead of viewing India’s nuclear and missile programs with concern, by adopting a radically reoriented stance, the USA has chosen to leverage India’s growing power and influence in favor of their broader non-proliferation and counter proliferation objectives — another instance of discarding archaic ideas for a bold, contemporary approach. Additionally, the USA and India have continued to elevate their strategic partnership further to include cooperation in counter-terrorism, defense cooperation, education and joint democracy promotion.

Relations under the Barack Obama Administration — 2009 Onwards:

The carefully cemented Indo-American ties under the George W. Bush Republican administration, took off on a rather rocky note under the new Obama administration. The initial vibes from Washington were far from encouraging as the USA allegedly placed China “on a substantially higher plane on the diplomatic platform than India”. Amidst growing fears of a downgrading of bilateral ties, the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton eventually visited New Delhi in July 2009 to quell all doubts and reaffirm the USA’s commitment towards India as an “indispensable ally”. Although, ties have since then improved but there still exist certain issues that have thrown a spanner in the “collaborative wheels”. India has been critical of the Obama administration’s handling of the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan and Pakistan. His outlook towards the burning Kashmir dispute has also ruffled a few feathers back in New Delhi. The Obama administration has also been accused of delaying the holistic implementation of the Indo-USA Nuclear Deal by some quarters. Additionally, Obama’s decision to limit the issuance of H1B visas and more recently increase visa costs to reportedly fund their Mexico Border Security program has drawn considerable flak. His “protectionist” stance with regards to the contentious matter of outsourcing has caused a certain amount of concern amidst Indian IT-BPO circles as well. One must note that these are merely a few issues that have caused a certain degree of consternation back home. However, both nations remain committed towards fostering an enduring bilateral relationship in the future, drawing on the other to profitably reap the rewards of a lasting geostrategic alliance.

Thus, Indo-American ties have come a long way and have suitably transformed from one of Suspicious and non-productive Estrangement into one ofConstructive and Collaborative Engagement.

Image courtesy: