U.S.-India Relations: A Strategic Pause



Lawrence J. Korb
Lawrence J. Korb

Since former president Bill Clinton’s visit to India in March 2000, the world’s two largest democracies have been moving toward creating a strategic partnership. But with the defeat of the Hindu Nationalist Party the Bharatya Janat (BJP) by the left of center Congress Party in recent elections, many officials and analysts here and in Asia are now asking whether the movement will continue at the previous pace. The answer will largely depend on how the new government meets India’s three primary national security challenges in the months to come.

The first, and most important, of these is that by posed by Pakistan – India’s nuclear armed neighbor with whom it has fought three wars. Since 1999, the two countries have been attempting to harmonize their nuclear doctrines. On June 20, 2004, they achieved a partial breakthrough. The two nations agreed to establish a secure and dedicated hot line between their foreign ministries in order to prevent any misunderstandings and reduce risks, and to give each other prior notice of any missile tests. However they were not able to agree on a critical issue of first use of nuclear weapons. Pakistan refused to adopt India’s declaratory policy of no first use. Pakistan reserves the right to use nuclear weapons if, in their view, the very existence of the state is in jeopardy.

India’s second concern is that China, its eastern neighbor and traditional rival, will attempt to become an Asian hegemon. The Indians are fearful that China will try to use its growing military power to dominate the region. India developed its nuclear weapons more to balance China’s nuclear arsenal than because of a threat from Pakistan.

India’s third concern is that a radical Islamic terrorist group, such as al Qaeda, could make common cause with some of the radical groups on the Asian subcontinent. Since becoming an independent state, India has battled terrorist groups and has already lost two prime ministers to attacks by indigenous terrorist groups.

However, in dealing with these threats the Congress Party is likely to come into conflict with key aspects of U.S. policy.

Its new external affairs minister, Natwar Singh, has already told Secretary of State Colin Powell that his government feels that the Bush administration’s decision to give Pakistan Major non NATO ally status is totally inappropriate. If this decision is ratified by the U.S. Congress, Pakistan will be eligible to receive the same level of military assistance and sophisticated technology as our European allies. In the view of the Congress Party, this situation will reduce pressure on Pakistan to adopt a no first use nuclear policy and to stop providing support for terrorists in Kashmir. The new government is also concerned that the United States itself has not yet adopted a new no first use nuclear policy.

At the same time, the Indians also fear that if the United States deploys a national missile defense system, then China will feel compelled to increase its strategic nuclear arsenal. Such a step would upset the nuclear balance between China and India, both of which now have only a handful of strategic nuclear weapons.

Finally the Congress Party is worried that the U.S. invasion of Iraq — coupled with the bungled occupation — has undermined the role of the United Nations, created new standards for the use of force in international politics, and re-energized al Qaeda as a terrorist threat to the Asian subcontinent.

Unless the Bush administration and the Indian government are able to resolve these differences in the near future, the momentum in U.S. – India relations that began in March 2004 will be lost.

Lawrence J. Korb is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.