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To What Extent are the United States and India Destined to be Natural Allies?

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To paraphrase a common line, “there are no permanent allies and enemies, only permanent interests.” This phrase ought to be kept in mind when describing the relationship between the United States and India. In the present geopolitical atmosphere, for the foreseeable medium range future, the interests and aspirations of both countries make a closer partnership sensible and desirable to many in the United States and India. However, the relations of both countries will be influenced by a number of complex domestic and international factors that will only permit a closer partnership up to a point.

India and the United States have been moving towards a closer partnership over the past two decades for a variety of reasons. Both countries have a common interest in fighting against terrorism and promoting stability in Afghanistan. Both countries have a common interest in balancing against China and preventing the rise of a hegemonic power in Asia. Both countries share common democratic values. Both countries have benefited from the opening of India’s economy to more trade in 1991 which has led to closer economic as well as cultural ties between both countries. In many ways, the elites of both countries are more comfortable with each other on a cultural and political level than either is with elites of China. Furthermore, the initiatives of George W. Bush towards India were positively received in both India and the United States and led to the building of trust, especially because of American support towards India’s nuclear ambitions.

All of the above factors led to the thawing of a relationship that was once rather frosty during the Cold War. The relationship between the two countries has become much friendlier and many in both countries would like to form a formal alliance in order to ensure that democratic liberal values continue to play a major factor in Asia while checking China on both geopolitical and ideological levels. While this desire could lead to a closer partnership between the United States and India, it is unlikely a formal alliance will form unless a major military humiliation forces India to change its current policy. The reasons for the limitations in the partnership between India and the United States can primarily be attributed to India’s unwillingness to commit formally to any alliance against any neighbor. This is evidenced by New-Delhi’s constant instance that military exercises with the United States and other countries are not directed against China. India’s instance may be truly sincere and it may not desire to alienate China in an Asian system that is increasingly being dominated by China. Though unlikely, India wants to retain the option of bandwagoning with China if the United States were to decrease its involvement in Asia. India is also wary of being left to deal with Afghanistan if the US were to abandon it in 2014; this would understandably cause resentment in some circles in India. It is also possible that many in the United States believe that it should deal directly with China and establish a G-2 system through which to influence the world. Another factor that prevents closer ties is India’s strategic culture which traditionally emphasizes non-alignment and moral belief of India’s greatness. This belief combined with India’s size would make it difficult to ally formally with a great power if that leads to it being perceived as a junior partner which it itself aspires to great power status.

Finally, much is made of common democratic values shared by the United States and India. However, these common values do not necessitate a closer partnership as both countries will pursue policies in their interests as India is currently doing so with its lukewarm desire to join in on sanctions against Iran and India’s previous support for the junta in Burma. In this sense, India is not too different from China in that it is a large country that pursues its own interests as it sees fit rather than automatically aligning itself with American priorities. Continued American refusal to come down harder on Pakistan will also constrain future Indo-United States cooperation. Thus, it is likely that there will be a number of limiting factors towards the formalization of cooperation between the United States and India through an alliance though they will continue to cooperate on a number of issues where their interests intersect, and overall goodwill between them will likely increase for the time being.


Written by Akhipill

January 13, 2013 at 9:04 PM

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