Indo-US Strategic Partnership | By Huma Baqai

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Indo-US Strategic Partnership

INDIA and the US perceive each other differently in different geographies, however the strategic convergence between the two has grown steadily in the last two decades.

It’s an Atlantic-style relationship but has strong Asian tones to it. China is interestingly shaping both US and Indian foreign policies. The phenomenal economic growth of China and its muscular assertion now and then has created security dilemmas for both.

The Indo-US strategic convergence is seen with some skepticism in Pakistan, largely because it may impact the strategic stability of the region and induce elements of asymmetry.

The US and India are in strategic and political partnership since the 2000s. Both have made sure that the world acknowledges this status.

They have tried to define and describe both regional as well as international peace and priorities as per their norms and terms. Their bilateral ties have also defined their relations with other states in the regional and global arenas.

“India and the US are not just strategic partners to contain China but in the American reckoning, India has become a ‘net security provider’ for the US in the entire Asia Pacific”- Zamir Akram. Post Pak-India independence and until the end of the Cold War, the Indo-US relations were overshadowed by Cold War politics.

The ‘Indo-Soviet friendship’ and the ‘US-Pak alliance’ were the defining features of South Asian and global politics. With Pakistan joining the US-led Western Bloc in 1954 and India’s policy of non-alignment; American and Indian relations became further estranged.

In 1959 President Eisenhower was the first serving U.S. President to visit India. However, it was during John F. Kennedy’s Presidency (1961–63) that the US first started to view India as a strategic partner and a counterweight to the rise of Communist China.

When war broke out between India and China in 1962 over a disputed frontier, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru wrote to President Kennedy requesting support from the United States.

Washington extended support to Delhi, recognized the McMahon line as the border and provided India with air assistance and arms. Following the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963, his successor Lyndon Johnson also sought to maintain good relations with India for countering Communist China.

Even during the 1965 Indo-Pak War, both strategic and military ties between Washington and Delhi remained close. In 1974 India completed its First Nuclear Test and this move contributed to a short period of estrangement between the United States and India, which was hugely compensated later.

The Indian government in May of 1998 announced the completion of a series of underground nuclear tests; these tests drew international condemnation and also negatively impacted India’s relationship with the US. President Bill Clinton recalled the U.S. Ambassador to India and imposed economic sanctions.

The 1990s saw a turn in Indo-US relations. The Cold War had ended with the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

This led to a rethink in India: from a foreign policy defined by suspicion of America it was now beginning to be defined by shared interests and mutual affection. The US-Pak relations nose dived post the fragmentation of the USSR.

The US from now on was accepting of the Indian nuclear program but had a strong bias towards Pakistan’s nuclear program and this further brought the US and India closer together. The Pressler Amendment banned most economic and military assistance to Pakistan.

President George W. Bush’s administration in 2001 lifted all U.S. sanctions on India after its 1998 nuclear test.

This is also the time when the United States actively sought to de-hyphenate India from Pakistan and to hyphenate Pakistan with Afghanistan in an effort to build better ties with New Delhi and realign its relationship with both the two protagonists of the region. The term Af-Pak appeared within U.S. foreign policy circles to designate Afghanistan and Pakistan as a single theatre of operations; the term was never acceptable to Pakistan.

Post 9/11, counter-terrorism also became a key area of cooperation between the two. However, the milestone in the relationship was reached with the signing of The Next Steps in Strategic Partnership (NSSP) in 2004, The Civil Nuclear Deal in 2005, The Defence Cooperation Framework Agreement in 2005, Defense Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) in 2012 and Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region in 2015.

The Obama Administration referred to US-Indo relations as one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century, the partnership that will be vital for the US strategic interests in Asia-Pacific and in the world. President Donald Trump in 2020 elevated the status of the relationship to that of a “comprehensive global strategic partnership”.

Biden has said that the Indo-U.S. relations are “destined to be stronger, closer and tighter,” to the benefit of the whole world. There is an element of continuity and bipartisan consensus on US relations with India.

The key feature of the US Indo-Pacific strategy is to build the economic, defence and military muscle of India so that it could effectively act as a counterbalance to China.

Under Modi’s government, the relationship became more robust. Both countries solidified their relationship at an unprecedented scale and pace despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

The United States has been advocating for India’s Nuclear Supplier Group membership for the last decade.

Since India and the United States had signed the civil nuclear deal in 2008, all three successive Presidents Bush, Obama and Trump had voiced their support for India’s NSG membership.

The US went out of its way to support India by challenging the factors that must be ‘taken into account’ and argued that these factors are not ‘legally binding’, hence the NSG can allow India to become a member of the Group.

Senior Pakistani Foreign Ministry officials have criticized the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) for differently treating Pakistani and Indian applications for membership and have also regretted that the multilateral export control regime is highly politicized.

The US strategic aims in Asia to counter China are fixated on making India a regional power. US wants India to act on behalf of the US to curtail China’s influence in South Asia and Asia as a whole.

United States’ obvious leanings towards India to counterbalance China in the region have direct ramifications for Pakistan, thus disturbing the strategic stability in South Asia’s’ convergence with India is also a huge compromise on what US stands for in terms of human rights be it Kashmir or minority rights.

US cannot play the blame game with China and completely ignore what is happening in the India-occupied Kashmir, with Muslims and other minorities in India. Economic relations between India and US have improved despite some initial irritants.

India and the U.S. have the potential to be each other’s largest trade and investment partners, with significant benefits for both economies and peoples. In May 2021 India’s total trade with the United States was $9.18 billion; India ranked No. 10 among U.S. trade partners in 2021.

Even as the pandemic has taken its toll on trade, the United States remains India’s biggest trading partner and largest export market. India was also given the Strategic Trade Authorisation-1 (STA-1) status in 2018.

The STA-1 status had previously been specifically reserved for signatories of the export control regimes and had not even been extended to close US ally Israel. This status makes India the only nuclear nation to possess it and signals New Delhi’s entry into the inner circle of America’s closest partners.

The US-Indian relationship remains essentially strong insofar, however fault lines exist. Overall, it seems that there would be no fundamental change in the Indo-US relations and under the Biden Administration.

Moreover, there are positive indications that the relationship between the two may deepen in the coming years as both need each other in the current shifting global security environment.

—The author is an Associate Professor of Social Sciences and Liberal Arts at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi.

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