For America, India is a natural partner and not just a client state

by Minaam Shah

A new kind of relationship is evolving between the United States and Asia. In the past, on account of the Cold War politics, the United States was more concerned with the containment of Soviet Union in an unpredictable Asia. It was inevitable that, in a relationship based on common perceptions of threat rather than the concurrence of political ideas, discords should mount once those threat perceptions ceased to exist. With the passing of the age of Cold War, a new dynamic has impacted the relationship between the United States and Asia. In this phase of changing relationships, Americans are exploring the similarities that unite them with some Asian countries and the differences that divide them from the others. This has given rise to several positive alliances on the continent, which are showing a higher degree of stability and prudence—unlike their Cold War counterparts. This transformation can be best understood in the context of South Asia.


For roughly sixty years, the United States has acted as an offshore balancer to India, a country that has more in common with the United States than any other Asian nation. From the American perspective, the idea of nurturing Pakistan (an Indian adversary) was twofold. First, it would plausibly complete a geopolitical siege of USSR. Second, it would remind India of what it was losing due to its “nonalignment.” Eventually, the excessive militarisation of Pakistan—and more significantly, its politics—was to have adverse consequences for the region. For example, to overcome the conventional superiority of Indian military strength, Pakistan decided to pursue a nuclear program that was exclusively Indo-centric. Even though the United States responded with the “Pressler Amendment,” which was designed to discourage Pakistan from going nuclear, there was a certain degree of complicity in pressurising Pakistan due to its then importance in Soviet-Afghan War. When Pakistan finally acquired nuclear capability, nuclear deterrence would allow Pakistan to realise its goal of “parity” with its larger eastern neighbour, a desire which has now been deeply embedded in its body politik and continues to destabilise the region.

The 1990s were the age of transformation for America’s policy towards South Asia. Besides the overarching phenomena of the disintegration of Soviet Union, several factors like India’s liberalisation of its economy and its desire to improve relations with the United States, Pakistan’s development of nuclear weapons in contravention of U.S. laws that necessitated the withdrawal of aid, all weighed heavily in American policy making. Ultimately India emerged as a winner and Pakistan a loser in this new dispensation. The War on Terror again put the United States and Pakistan on the same page, but this time the Americans were in no mood to make any gesture to Pakistan that would irritate India. The general consensus in Washington was that the short-term relationship with Pakistan should not undermine the larger objective of achieving a strategic partnership with India.

From the American view, unlike Pakistan, India is a natural partner and not just a client state. Epithets like “global commons,” “natural allies” and “destined partners” have been attributed to this brewing relationship. In fact, former U.S. President Barack Obama described the U.S.-India relationship as “one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century.” Cutting through the nomenclature rhetoric, a strong U.S.-India relationship is indeed essential for both the countries. Think of all the commonalities. Shared democratic values, energy security, Islamic radicalism, the future of Afghanistan, and the geopolitical architecture of Indo-Pacific region—they all point to the growing convergences of strategic interests between the two countries.

Why Do United States And India Need Each Other?

In 2018, United States renamed its strategically important Pacific Command (PACOM) as the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command. The move highlights American keenness to count India as a key partner in its strategic vision for the region and the continent. In particular, the urgency to cultivate a strategic engagement with India has been driven by the aggressive rise of China on the continent. At a higher level, the United States sees China as a “revisionist” power which seeks to develop an alternative to the West-led liberal order. However in the immediate context, the fear has arisen since China has abnormally expanded its military and economic footprint in the region much to the apprehensions of its smaller neighbours. This was visible when China claimed sovereign rights over the strategically important and resource rich South China Sea. Rejecting the award of the Permanent Court of Arbitration, China claims ownership to 90 percent of South China Sea and has increased its military presence in the disputed waters. Similarly, Chinese investments under its Belt and Road Initiative project have caused internal economic upheavals in several recipient countries like Sri Lanka and Pakistan, which are suffering from “debt traps” and loss of sovereign rights over their own territory. Such an assertive China poses a threat to the American credentials in the region. Already, America’s standing in the Asia-Pacific region has suffered. Does the United States remain aloof from the Chinese encroachments? If so, then its image of a net-security provider would effectively erode globally. Considering the United States’ geographical handicap, it is India alone which can play the role of a counterweight to China. Unlike China, India is a democratic, liberal and perceived by the United States as an evolving mirror image of it. The United States seeks to project India as an alternative to China in Asia. India is to the United States what Great Britain was to it during the Cold War.

America’s “Indian Exceptionalism”

Perhaps the strongest testimony supporting India’s importance to the United States is its policy of “exceptionalism” to India. As an exception to its traditional policy of engagement with partners, the United States to a large degree, has relaxed norms and policy postures for India which it generally demands from American allies. During the Cold War, India did not align itself with either of the blocs and decided to pursue an independent foreign policy. Over the years, this has given rise to a culture of “strategic autonomy” in New Delhi where foreign-policy measures are taken independent of outside influences. For example, when U.S. Permanent Representative to United Nations Nikki Haley urged India to reconsider its ties with Iran following new sanctions on Iran, India’s response was to openly abide by UN imposed sanctions and not those imposed by individual countries.

However, the United States seems sensitive to this Indian desire to formulate its foreign policy without external influences. Washington understands that the way it perceives threats from countries like Iran and Russia might not align with India’s own perceptions. In fact, it seems to build a relationship with India outside the ambit of these otherwise conflicting variables thus reflecting the positive nature of the partnership. In fact, India became only the third Asian country after Japan and South Korea to get the Strategic Trade Authorisation-1 (STA-1) status by the United States. Traditionally, the United States has placed only those countries in the STA-1 list who are members of the four export control regimes: the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), Wassenaar Arrangement, Australia Group and the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) regime. However, India was bestowed with this status even though it is not a part of NSG. Similarly, the U.S. Congress recently passed a defence spending bill that seeks to amend an existing law to provide waivers to America’s strategic partners like India from punitive sanctions against those doing business with Russia’s defence industry. The CAATSA waiver is intended at preventing sanctions on countries like India for purchase of defence equipment from American adversaries. It has been alleged that the amendment was motivated specifically to insulate India from any punitive sanctions. This comes after India remained adamant to go ahead with its purchase of S-400 Triumph Air Defence System from Russia. Earlier in 2008, the United States lobbied to get a unique “waiver” from the NSG to exempt India from its rules governing civilian nuclear trade and has since pushed for India’s membership in the group itself. These actions point to various Confidence Building Measures (CBM’s) on part of the United States to allay any apprehensions of it usurping India’s “strategic autonomy.”
India’s Considerations

From the Indian perspective, a gradual alignment towards United States would work in its favour both economically and politically. One of the centrepieces of Indian foreign-policy post liberalisation has been its emphasis on economic diplomacy. It aims at accelerating domestic growth by boosting foreign investment. India has both an enormous demographic potential and diverse avenues for investment. However, owing to nature of its economy, which directly leapfrogged from agriculture to the services sector, India requires foreign capital and expertise to develop its yet untapped manufacturing sector. Recent campaigns like “Make in India” point to the efforts of the Indian government directed at wooing foreign investment. With its abundant capital and technological expertise, this outreach can best be reciprocated by the United States. The two economies have the potential to work as complimentary in a sense that India’s growing middle class also offers a powerful business constituency for American companies as markets elsewhere start to dry up.

In a Geo-Strategic scenario, India would want a sustained U.S. presence in the continent and actively perform its role of a net-security provider in Asia. Particularly, India would want the United States to act as an offshore balancer to an assertive China in the region. Even though there was a perpetual “thaw” in Sino-Indian relations, the Chinese incursions in Doklam Plateau earlier this year have raised alarm bells in New Delhi. In the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), too, Beijing has been trying to move into what New Delhi has traditionally seen as its own backyard. Through the “Maritime Silk Route” initiative, China has been trying to reach out to countries such as Sri Lanka and Maldives, right in India’s immediate neighbourhood. To escape this geopolitical siege and loss of leverage in the region, India requires American help for maintaining the balance of power in South Asia.

A Possible Place For Pakistan?

Till this point, the basic premise of this essay has been to reinforce the mutual utility of an Indo-U.S. partnership. However, in such a scenario, where does Pakistan figure in America’s foreign-policy imaginations? Even during the Cold War, the United States never prepared for a policy for Pakistan in isolation from India. Only when the stakes for backing Pakistan rose enormously, would the United States antagonise India. The high point for Pakistan in this triangular dynamic came during the years of Johnson and Nixon presidency when Pakistan was the intermediary in the arrangement of the opening to China and the publicly stated pro-Pakistan “tilt” by United States during the 1971 war with India. Now with the transformation of American foreign policy towards South Asia, the triangle seems to be working the other way, with India and the United States cooperating against Pakistan. The more the United States integrates with India, the less relevant Pakistan will be in American foreign policy. Under Indian pressure, the United States might rescind Pakistan’s major non-NATO ally status or, at worst, designate Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism. This will invariably push Pakistan closer to China, which would mean bad news for both the United States and India. For the United States, Chinese gain is America’s loss. Pakistan is still a reasonable actor in the region. From its role in Afghanistan to the balance of power it brings to Asia, Pakistan’s role as a possible “swing state” cannot be underestimated. Similarly, India requires a stable western frontier in order for the United States to have considerable leverage over Pakistan.


A prudent foreign policy is about building as many coalitions as possible. That means the United States should continue to shift towards India in its effort to make a full realignment of its alliances in South Asia, but with the broader goal of rallying behind as many Asian states as possible—including Pakistan. Indians should not see U.S. rapprochement to Pakistan through a narrow prism since any American leverage over Pakistan would be equally beneficial for India. To counter the Chinese, the United States needs Pakistan as much as it needs India. It is in India’s best interest to reciprocate the United States’ exceptionalism to it by providing the United States the required space to deal with Pakistan independently.

India’s power falls far short of what it would need to compete with China. To what extent is the United States ready to fill this power differential and build India’s trust in the United States? The answer to that question will eventually decide the fate of South Asia and beyond. The task ahead for the United States is to rally both traditional and new partners against the threats of regional expansionism by China. It needs to build a strong coalition of middle powers that can effectively resist China’s excursions in unison. India will be the common denominator in this scheme. Even though the transactions with “like” powers similar to India, Japan, and Australia would be easier, yet the U.S. administration equally needs to align with dissimilar powers like Pakistan, Iran, Bangladesh, and Cambodia to counter the Chinese expansion.