Time for a Rethink of US Policy Towards India

19 Nov, 1999    ·   288

Dr Subash Kapila appeals for a change in the US policy towards India considering the changed global security environment

          The imperative for redefining the United States-India relationship, currently lies with the US in order to redress a previous failure of its South Asia policies but also in view of the changing global security environment that introduces fresh threats to its strategic interests.

         United States policies in South Asia for the last 50 years can be said to have failed, if he balance sheet below is taken into account:

  1. Pakistan, which was ironically built up by USDA as a strategic ally has ended up as a 'failing state' and could end up as a 'rogue state' if its nuclear armory is in the hands of its newly emerging power elite comprising of anti-American generals and Islamic fundamentalists.

  2. US policies encouraged China to make an intrusive entry into South Asian affairs. US strategic permissiveness overlooked China's build-up of Pakistan into a nuclear weapon state with intermediate range ballistic missile capabilities, which in future could affect United States strategic interests.

  3. India, the geographical, political and militarily predominant state in South Asia with a stable democracy, which ought to have been perceived as a natural ally, was marginalised in the Cold War. With the result that the Indian people perceive the United States as a pro-Pakistan power.

The United States lost its 'strategic ally of long standing’ (a term often used by US official spokespersons) to Islamic fundamentalists with no hopes of reversal. The only other option in South Asia for the United States is to cultivate India because of the development in Pakistan

         The United States may be the unipolar super power today but the global security environment is in ferment and newer threats are emerging, as the survey below would indicate: 

  1. China is widely recognized as the most potent emerging military threat in the 21st Century. The US predominance in Asia Pacific will be strongly challenged by China. 

  2. China's quasi-strategic relationship with Pakistan could impinge on US strategic interests in the Gulf and Central Asia.

  3. Islamic fundamentalism is posing serious security threats all the way from the Mediterranean to the Pacific, which is of serious concern to the US. Fundamentalists are known target Islamic states that have close relations with the US in the Gulf and elsewhere.

  4. Russia is an existent threat and its resurgence as a global rival cannot be ruled out.


         United States erstwhile strategic allies and friends are turning into foes and coupled with a changing global security environment, newer strategic threats will stare America in the face in the coming years. A reinforced NATO even with out-of-area operational capabilities cannot assist the US beyond the Near East. The Americans would need to look for newer friends such as beginning a more purposeful relationship with India.

          The traditional mainstays of US’ forward military presence worldwide are slipping away and this affects its global strategy. Newer possibilities need to be explored by the United States.

            Its strategic allies thus far have predominantly been military dictatorships, monarchial and autocratic regimes. Such relationships have never lasted for long. The United States needs to cultivate politically mature and progressive democracies with strong power potential as allies and friends. 

          Re-definition of relationship with would require the US to unlearn some of its past attitudes towards South Asia which essentially boiled down to treating India and Pakistan as equals. India on the other hand, has a natural geo-strategic, geo-political and geo-economic predominance in South Asia and contiguous regions, unlike Pakistan. Americans must also remember that Kashmir is a problem of the partition of India and can best be solved bilaterally by the two parties concerned. Kashmir in no way affects any vital US strategic interests in South Asia or regionally and the United States should distance itself from this issue. Moreover, the US can ill-afford to permit China to add to Pakistan's nuclear weapons and missile arsenal. 

          With the above set aside by the United States and India too shedding its non-aligned mindset, newer beginnings need to be made. In the newer definition of its relationship with India, the United States needs to take the following into account. That India, for various reasons, may not prefer to enter into a "strategic alliance" relationship with the United States. However, India could be persuaded in a graduated manner to enter into what Prof. Stephen Cohen once described as a "cooptive relationship" that is a relationship which was more than co-operative, but less than an alliance. To make the above possible the United States has to take planned and deliberate steps to disabuse Indian mindsets of their perceptions that USA is heavily titled towards Pakistan and China at India's expense. Visible confidence building measures will help in this regard. 

           India, meanwhile, can ill-afford to stand alone strategically in a changing security scenario. It too needs cooptive relationships. But the US has to take initiative in this regard by reorienting some of its South Asia notions.