On January 25, Barack Obama visited India to work through some issues with India’s tough nuclear liability law, reach a deal on carbon emissions, smooth through other barriers to trade and investment and watch India’s spectacular Republic Day parade. By all accounts the visit was a success — aside from some minor gaffes the media blew up — and it threw a spotlight on the Indo-American relationship. It was the first time an American president had been invited to the Republic Day ceremonies (a major honor), the first time an American president visited India twice, and the second meeting with Obama for India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi. (The first one was in September.)
The occasion seems like a good time to look at the nature of Indo-American relations and see why the two countries are drawing closer together.
Indo-American relations aren’t usually seen as a Major Topic in foreign affairs in the US. For most of its history, “Indian” in America referred to the Native Americans thanks to a long-lasting borrowing from Spanish. India was a faraway, exotic land that rarely came up in public discourse aside from a few curiosities like ice shipments in colonial times and Indian immigrants to America’s West Coast in the early 1900s (who befuddled America’s racial categorization schemes). US President Franklin Roosevelt supported Indian independence as part of his overall vision of decolonization and a truly global United Nations, but it didn’t amount to much and he preferred close ties with Britain during World War II anyway.
Thus the story of Indo-American relations really begins with India’s independence in 1947. They got off to a bad start. India’s Founding Father, Jawaharlal Nehru, was committed to the nonviolent ideology of his mentor, Mohandas Gandhi, and in any case hoped to keep India far away from international problems until it could surmount its first priority: escaping the crushing poverty, malnutrition and ill health it was born with. That meant rejecting the Cold War and alignment with the two power blocs the superpowers were organizing.
America, in the rapidly heating climate of the early Cold War, was peeved by this. Its attitude was “You’re either with us, or you’re against us.” Most of the signs gave the impression that India was against it. Nehru sympathized with Soviet-leaning leaders like Sukarno (Indonesia) and Gamal Nasser (Egypt). Indian economic planning in the ’50s was decidedly socialist and state-oriented. Americans thought Nehru was patronizing and condescending. Nehru was turned off by America’s gaudy commercialism. Indians in general lacked sympathy for a superpower and focused more on Third World solidarity.
India and the US weren’t really enemies — the relationship was more neutral, but with an unfriendly tint. Americans were keen on seeing India succeed, as it was a model parliamentary democracy in a time and place dominated by dictatorships and influenced by Communism. They were generous with food aid and prompted the “Green Revolution” of the ’60s, which dramatically increased India’s crop yields. India provided medical aid to an American-dominated UN war in Korea and brokered the armistice. US President John Kennedy supported India in its war with China in 1962.
Yet in general, India and the US didn’t get along very well. India developed a cozy relationship with the Soviet Union and got most of its arms from the USSR. India criticized America’s aggressive intervention in Vietnam. The biggest irritant, though, was America’s close relationship with Pakistan. India and Pakistan are archenemies, and have been since they were born. They have fought 4 wars with each other. In the ’50s the US allied with Pakistan and drafted it into SEATO, an Asian anti-Communist security alliance. This understandably irked India, which had to fend off American-supplied tanks, jets and bombers in 1965. The nadir of the relationship came in 1971, when India intervened in a genocidal war in East Pakistan (Bangladesh). Loyal to his friend, Pakistan’s dictator Yahya Khan, and hating the duplicitous Indira Gandhi, India’s prime minister, US President Richard Nixon took Pakistan’s side in the war and almost intervened in its behalf.
Power politics have been compounded by the nuclear issue. India tested nuclear weapons in 1974 and 1998, earning harsh criticism and sanctions from the US. In the economic field, India’s socialist, inward-oriented, protectionist stance cut it off from global trade, making it a marginal player in the world economy and limiting its trade with America.
In the long run, though, there was a feeling in America that closer ties with India would be a good idea. Mostly it was for the democracy reason stated above: India was a political success story in a turbulent region. It became apparent that India wasn’t a threatening or aggressive power. China was an ongoing concern; India was seen as a natural counterweight. Aside from Nixon and Henry Kissinger, his security adviser, Americans had no ill will towards India. When India opened up its economy in the ’90s and embarked on its dizzying growth climb, India became a whole lot more valuable to the US, and a symbiotic relationship developed between Silicon Valley and India’s tech centers.
The turning point finally came in the 2000s, when US President George Bush and Indian Prime Minister Atal Vajpeyi sought closer ties with each other. Bush agreed to get rid of the sanctions and accepted India as a legitimate nuclear power. In 2008, the two countries reached an agreement to exchange nuclear technology. These have been widely hailed as evidence of increased trust and warmth between the two countries. Indo-American economic ties also continued their steady climb as India removed old barriers against globally prevalent American brands like Coca-Cola and McDonald’s.
A shift in the international situation also helped. The end of the Cold War meant an end to American grumpiness over India’s nonalignment, although India remains attached to that philosophy (which is still relevant, given the continuing antagonism between the West and the former Communist countries). The 2001 terrorist attacks in America put terrorism and Islamic extremism front and center in its agenda, and India was seen as a valuable partner to share notes with (especially when terrorist attacks rocked India that decade as well). China’s economic growth was matched with increasing political power, which it happily flexed internationally, which pushed America closer towards India.
So far it seems that Barack Obama agrees with Bush’s prioritization of India and has advanced his policies. His administration hasn’t yet produced any big-ticket items to boast about in retrospect, although he did support India’s bid for a seat on the UN’s Security Council.*
Unfortunately there remain many obstacles to a true Indo-American friendship. Indian diplomats remain reluctant to get too involved with a superpower that intervenes in all sorts of crises worldwide. Indian labor and trade policies remain restrictive — last year India pulled out of negotiations at the World Trade Organization when they got too nasty. Americans are wary of the safety of Indian goods like pharmaceuticals. India sees America as high-handed and patronizing. This was borne out by a diplomatic dispute in 2013 over an Indian diplomat who was arrested and strip-searched for underpaying her servant, and by a longtime American visa ban on Narendra Modi for failing to intervene in horrible riots in the Indian state of Gujarat while he was chief minister there.
But the forces pulling America and India together may be stronger. India and the US trade about $100 billion a year now compared to $19 billion in 2000. For complicated reasons best discussed in a different blog post, relations between America and Pakistan are souring, and American officials who value relations with Pakistan over India are dwindling. Indians are the 3rd-largest of the broadly defined “Asian-American” groups, and many retain close ties with their homeland, interpreting it for Americans and encouraging cultural linkages (much as they have historically done with Britain). The English language and a shared culture adopted from British colonization means they understand each other superficially at least. Globalization and India’s more open economy has meant increased Americanization of Indian culture in recent decades, and Hollywood movies and American pop music compete with India’s vibrant pop culture. Indians, like many other Asians, send their kids to college in America and are eager to tap America’s seemingly evergreen economy.
Looming in the background, as always, is China. China is the strongest single force propelling America and India together. Both countries trade with China and are intimately linked with it, yet seem uncomfortable with it. I explored the nature of China’s relationship with America in a previous blog post; India sought friendship with China in the ’50s, only to be attacked in 1962. It has not forgotten the slight, and indeed the boundary dispute that instigated the war remains. China is aggressively asserting its power in the region, from stationing troops at the Indian border to advancing economic ties and infrastructure initiatives in Central Asia to cozying up to Pakistan to increasing its navy presence in the Indian Ocean. India sees South Asia** as its sphere of influence and is disquieted at Chinese maneuvers. Both countries fundamentally fear China as a nationalist, expansive, proud totalitarian power. India, with its commitment to international institutions, democratic constraints, pluralism, free speech, and nonviolence (at least comparatively), is a more reliable Great Power. It is also a dynamic, growing economy with much potential, especially with American assistance and involvement.
Hence the increasingly chummy ties. Modi, for his part, has signaled that he wants closer relations with America as well. He seems to bear no ill will toward America over the visa ban. He targeted America’s Indian community with a bombastic rally in New York in September. America’s innovative “knowledge economy” and technological prowess are attractive for someone obsessed with economic development like Modi is. Modi has also been more aggressive diplomatically in general than his predecessor and aims for an expanded role for India in the world.
The important part.
The area immediately around India – Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, etc.
As I assume the title of this post makes clear, I am not only in favor of an Indo-American alliance, I think it’s really a matter of time. India is clearly the Next Big Thing in international relations, and America (as well as other countries) would do well to get on its good side. At the present it is still poor, mostly uneducated, dirty, polluted, and messy, but it holds great future promise. It is generally held in high global esteem and has historically been a model for poor countries of a liberal democratic bent. It is natural that India be the hegemon (dominating force) of South Asia and it does not pose nearly as great a threat as China does. India is more important than Pakistan (by a LOT), so remaining aloof from it for reasons of loyalty are misguided.
That is not to say that problems don’t exist. India remains mostly protectionist. It is nervous about getting embroiled in foreign entanglements — which America should be able to sympathize with, since for most of its history it was too. But they can be overcome. Alliances are not hard and immobile things. (That’s a good way of getting sucked into unnecessary wars.) They are meant to shore up support, increase trust, and bolster defenses. America shouldn’t expect India to take its side on every dispute — especially when money remains a much greater concern for India. Nor should it expect India to set out to be a world-class power just because Modi’s visiting a bunch of countries. But an Indo-American alliance would bring India out onto the world stage more directly than if it continued to hedge its bets.
India is the single most important country in China’s neighborhood, and aligning it in the American camp would be the key to restraining Chinese ambitions. China knows this, and decries American attempts at “encirclement.” I am not advocating for war, of course, but any geopolitical strategy must take these possibilities into account. In a future when American power will count for less, a strong, democratic-minded India would be instrumental in countering China.