Over the past ten year, the United States has crafted a closer diplomatic and military relationship with India. As part of the new US “pivot” of strategic focus to the Pacific region, India is an excellent choice for several reasons. There are many benefits for both parties in this relationship, but also some areas of concern.
For the US, India is a great choice for a partner for geographic, demographic, and financial reasons. It is estimated that by the year 2020, India will become the most populous nation on Earth, overtaking China. Friendly relations with the most populous nation, especially one that is in the process of building up a substantial middle class, puts dollar signs in the eyes of US businessmen. Gaining access to markets full of newly elevated middle-class Indians is good for the US economy trade deficits.
In addition to new markets, India’s population unwittingly plays another role in for the US. It stands as a symbol to China, which shares a border with India, that the massive Chinese population isn’t as significant a factor as they would like it to be. Chairman Mao used to speak of the power of his massive population being more powerful than nuclear bombs. To Mao, having the largest population was a source of security and pride for China. As the relationship between the US and India grows, the relative strength of China’s population will diminish.
The strategic picture for the US in the Pacific looks a bit like a cordon around China. The US is forging deep economic and military ties with India, will be stationing Marines in Australia, already has navy bases in Japan, and maintains a sizeable force in South Korea. As China’s navy continues to modernize and China continues to assert itself as “protector” of the Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea, the US and India will see a rise in requests for assistance in countering the Chinese presence.
Countering Chinese ambitions in the region is only one strategic benefit to the US. The US also stands to gain from having a large ally in South Asia as operations in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down. India may stand to gain more from a Afghanistan than the US due to their geographic proximity. Continued mil-to-mil cooperation between the US and India will allow for the US to have a presence in the region and a capable partner in the region in the battle against Islamic extremists. Soon the US will leave Afghanistan and deteriorating relations with Pakistan may render much of the US effort there moot. Indian cooperation with counter terrorism operations will become increasingly important as the US presence in the region transforms.
The US isn’t the only one to gain from this relationship. Due to its proven record of nuclear responsibility, the US has concluded a civil-nuclear deal with India and secured approval for the deal through the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). India is not a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) even though it possesses nuclear weapons and a civilian nuclear program. Having the approval of the NSG allows India to engage in nuclear commerce, which can be highly lucrative. This perk was part of a deal concluded between the US and India in which India promised to separate all of its civilian nuclear facilities from its nuclear weapons facilities and to bring all of its civilian nuclear facilities under full IAEA safeguards. This is a win for everyone, but India gets the privilege of being the only nation possessing nuclear weapons that is not a signatory to the NPT to be able to conduct nuclear commerce.
As with any strategic relationship, there are areas of concern. First and foremost is the possibility of being dragged into a conflict with Pakistan. India and Pakistan are both nuclear weapon states that share a contested border and have opposing ideologies. Mumbai has been the sight of many terrorist attacks thought to be perpetrated by members of Pakistani state-sponsored terrorist organizations. Should the terrorists get it right one day and deal a devastating blow, India may be forced to retaliate and the US’s strength as a strategic partner will be tested.
Second, increasing military relations with India, while attempting to balance the rise of China, may ultimately lead to destabilizing the region by forcing China to escalate its posture in response. Diplomatic and economic relations with China will be strained punishing the civilian populations of all countries involved with rising prices of goods and higher costs for doing business.
Finally, India may prove not to be the partner the US anticipates it to be. India may gain its nuclear concessions, half-heartedly assist the US in counter-terrorism efforts, and seek to gain stronger relations with China in an attempt to ease security concerns through economic interconnectedness of the two most populous nations in the world. India is in a position to benefit greatly with a close relationship with the US, but it historically prefers to be a non-aligned nation, acting in its best interest and not being committed to another nation’s agenda.
I believe that India wants to proceed with working with the US. The strategic partnership will be beneficial to both parties, but expect India to push back on many US requests as the Indian leadership attempts to maintain the veneer of non-alignment for its domestic population and the other members of the non-aligned movement. With it’s strategic location, dense population, and high technology sector, India will be a coveted ally for the US to maintain for quite a long time.