History of India US Relations
The relations between India and the United States go back even before India secured its independence. It is interesting to note that it was an essay by American Humanist and philosopher Henry David Thoreau on ‘Civil Disobedience’, which inspired Gandhian strategy in South Africa and later in India. A few decades later, it was the Gandhian ideal of non-violence, which became a major inspiration for the ‘Civil Rights Movement’, led by Martin Luther King Jr.
Even before Gandhi, Vivekananda visited America in 1893 and left a lasting impression about India’s spiritualism and philosophy. Later in 1913, the USA also became instrumental when the Ghadr party was formed in San Fransisco (USA).
India US Relations Till 1971
In the early period after independence, India was a ‘non-aligned’ nation, a leader of the Non-Alignment Movement. Hence the obvious tendency of the Indian government was ‘maintaining maximum distance from great powers’. Thus with few interactions at the United Nations, the USA was not a priority in Indian foreign policy.
The attitude of average Indians towards the nation was ambivalent, bordering on hypocritical. While in public the US was denounced as a capitalist, exploitative country, in private the same critics were prepared to partake all that capitalist America was capable of offering.
In these times, the USA’s stand on a number of issues didn’t endear itself to India. The Kashmir issue, UN intervention in it, and the treatment of Pakistan, admitting it in CENTO( Central Treaty Organisation) & and SEATO (South East Asian Treaty Organisation) created an impression in India that the US didn’t stand for her.
On the other hand, the US perceived India as too close to the Communist Soviet Union. Inspired by the USSR, India adopted a socialist economic model. The USSR also helped India in setting up heavy Industries, supplying defence needs and vetoed in favour of India in UN on the Kashmir issue many times. Further India’s pivotal role in conceiving, launching and expanding the Non-Alignment Movement created a degree of suspicion and aversion towards India in the United States.
USA did help India when in the mid-1960s, India was hit by twin droughts (1965 and 1966). The United States supplied sufficient grains at low prices to India, and millions of lives were saved.
India US Relations from 1971 to 1998
The India-Us relations touched their Nadir when in 1971, the Pakistani army unleashed a genocide in East Pakistan. It killed 15 lakh Bengali Pakistanis, raped thousands of women, forcing an exodus of nearly 1 crore refugees to West Bengal. However, US President Richard Nixon & and Secretary of State Dr Henry Kissinger opted to support Pakistan and even tried to intimidate India by moving the US 7th fleet to the Bay of Bengal. The relations soured further in 1974 when India carried out a nuclear test for the first time.
The trend reversed with the the end of Cold War and the opening up of the Indian economy during 1991-92. The Eastern bloc had ceased to exist, NAM had lost its relevance, the USSR was no more a threat, and the Indo-US relations seemed promising.
However, this positive phase received a drastic setback when India carried out 5 nuclear tests in May 1998. An enraged US imposed severe sanctions on India; with her allies Japan, Canada and Australia following the suit. The ban included key Indian Defence and science organizations and laboratories as well as well-known scientists.
From 1998 to 2008
In March 2020, Bill Clinton became the first US President to visit India, after a gap of 22 years. A mechanism of cooperation and coordination was set in motion that shaped relations in times to come. The relations started improving, with the Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee calling India and the United States “natural allies in the 21st century.”
Most of the sanctions imposed after nuclear tests were eventually lifted after several rounds of talk between the nations. The watershed movement came with the signing of the Civil Nuclear Deal in 2008 when the US decided to end India’s nuclear apartheid. India was given an exception in the US Laws which allowed it to accept India as a nuclear power without her having to sign the NPT.
Present Status of India US Relations
India US used to be known as ‘estranged democracies’ (Dennis Kux). While Vajpayee called the USA a natural ally, Prime Minister Modi held that India’s US relationship has overcome the “hesitations of history”. In the words of Indian foreign minister S Jaishankar, “India and the US earlier used to deal with each other, and now they work with each other.”
Currently, there is strong defence cooperation, civil nuclear cooperation, high technology and space, and clean energy cooperation. Both are working together for stability in the Indo-Pacific region and there is much more to do. There are more than 50 dialogue forums where there is regular interaction, there is strong people-to-people connections, and the relationship has become too broad.
Areas of Cooperation in India US Relations
India-US defence cooperation is multifaceted and includes regular institutionalized bilateral dialogue and agreements, military exercises, and defence procurements.
As suggested by Harsh V Pant, “India is key to the US’ ability to create a stable balance of power in the larger Indo-Pacific and at a time of resource constraints, it needs partners like India to shore up its sagging credibility in the region in face of Chinese onslaught.”
At the apex of dialogue mechanisms is the 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue pioneered in 2018. The discussions are co-chaired by the Minister of External Affairs and Minister of Defence and the Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense. This dialogue provides guidance on political, military and strategic issues. The fourth 2 + 2 Ministerial Dialogue took place in April 2022 in Washington DC.
The second most important dialogue mechanism is the Defence Policy Group (DPG), the apex official-level mechanism between the Ministry of Defence, India and the US Department of Defence. It comprehensively reviews and guides all aspects of bilateral defence cooperation with a focus on policy. The 17th DPG was held in Washington D.C. in May 2023.
Then, there are other mechanisms like the Joint Technology Group (JTG) established in 1995, a forum of engagement between defence technologists of India and the US. Defense Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI) is another such mechanism aimed at eliminating bureaucratic obstacles, accelerating timelines, promoting collaborative technology exchange, and enabling the co-production/co-development of defence systems.
The U.S. has four “foundational” agreements that it signs with its defence partners. The Pentagon describes the agreements as “routine instruments that the U.S. uses to promote military cooperation with partner nations”.
The first of the four agreements, the General Security Of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), was signed by India and the U.S. in 2002. The agreement enables the sharing of military intelligence between the two countries and requires each country to protect the others’ classified information.
The second agreement, the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), was signed by the two countries on 29 August 2016. The LEMOA permits the military of either country to use the others’ bases for re-supplying or carrying out repairs.
The third agreement, the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) was signed during the inaugural 2+2 dialogue in September 2018. It enables the two countries to share secure communication and exchange information on approved equipment during bilateral and multinational training exercises and operations.
The fourth agreement, the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA), signed in 2020, permits the exchange of unclassified and controlled unclassified geospatial products, topographical, nautical, and aeronautical data, products and services between India and the US National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA).
Recently, a broader bilateral Initiative on Critical and Emerging Technology (iCET) was announced in May 2022 (and officially launched in Jan 2023). Its pillars include strengthening the innovation ecosystem, defence innovation and technology cooperation, resilient semiconductor supply chains, space, STEM talent, and next-generation telecommunications
India has the largest number of military exercises with the USA, which are also growing in scale and complexity. The two countries conduct Yudh Abhyas (Army), Vajra Prahar (Special Forces), Malabar (Navy), Cope India (Air Force), and the tri-services exercise Tiger Triumph. There are also multilateral exercises like Red Flag, and RIMPAC, in which the two countries participate.
India was granted the status of ‘Major Defence Partner’ (MDP) by the US in December 2016 and the Trump administration in 2018 placed India in the Strategic Trade Authorisation-1 (STA-1) list that is expected to ease export controls for high technology product sales to the country.
India’s defence procurement from the USA is growing. India has procured more than USD 20 billion from the United States since 2008. Major US-origin platforms in use include C-130J, C17, Apache, Chinook, MH60R helicopters, and P8I.
However, despite the progress, there remain restrictions on the transfer of sensitive technology, as the US distinguishes between technology transfers to allies and those to non-allies. India’s defence procurement from Russia still outweighs the procurements from the United States.
The Rise of China
China forms an important factor in the India US relations hip. USA sees a strategic interest in India, in the context of the rise of China. New Delhi’s own China strategy involves building partnerships (external balancing) and envisions a key role for the U.S. Some Indian policymakers highlight another benefit of the U.S. relationship – “Beijing takes Delhi more seriously because Washington does.”
Both India and the U.S. share an interest in managing China’s rise. Neither would like a dominant China in Asia, and India/USA playing a minimal role. Although there is a recognition that China will play a crucial role in Asia, it is the nature of that role that concerns both countries. For this purpose, there is an East Asia dialogue in place that focuses on the strategic environment of Indo Pacific. The countries are also members of QUAD, a quadrilateral forum aimed at containing the Chinese actions in the Indo-Pacific.
From another angle, neither India nor the U.S. is interested in the other party getting too close or too distant from China. For New Delhi, a too-cosy Sino-U.S. relationship (G-2) will deeply disturb its security equation. A China-U.S. conflict, on the other hand, is also not desirable since it will destabilize the region, forcing India to choose between the two. For the United States, the deterioration in India-China relations will drag it into an unwilling battle, and too much bonhomie between India and China would diminish the US influence in the Indo-Pacific, making its allies insecure.
China certainly looms large on Indo-US relations. However, it is also important for Indo-US policymakers to keep in mind that “a partnership solely based on China is neither desirable nor sustainable.”
Rapidly expanding trade and commercial linkages between India and the U.S. form an important component of the multi-faceted partnership between the two countries. In FY 23, the US emerged as India’s biggest trading partner with total trade of US $128 billion in goods and US $58 billion in services.
Key Indian exports to the US include textiles and apparel, cut and polished diamonds, pharmaceuticals, petroleum products, machinery, electronics, steel, automobiles, gold jewellery etc. India’s essential imports from the US are petroleum crude, petroleum products, LNG, rough diamonds, coking coal, machinery, electronics, medical equipment, gold etc.
On the services front, the US is a significant destination for India’s software exports and a top buyer of Indian goods. About 60 per cent revenue of Indian IT firms comes from the US. The total trade in services is around $ 58 billion with the USA exporting $25 billion, and importing approx $33 billion worth of services from India in 2022.
America is one of the few countries with which India has a trade surplus. In 2022-23, India had a trade surplus of $28 billion with the U.S. in goods and another $8 billion in services.
There is also a significant U.S. foreign direct investment (FDI) in India (stock) with a total value of around $50 billion in 2022. While India’s FDI in the United States (stock) was $3.7 billion in 2022. India is seen as a large consumer market by the American companies. The large FDI flows and the expansion of US firms like Amazon, Google, Meta and Apple in India are indicative of this.
About 4.4 million Indian American/Indian origin people reside in the US, constituting the third largest Asian ethnic group in the nation. The Indian Diaspora in the U.S. plays an important role in shaping bilateral relations.
Indian Americans have surfaced as a significant vote bank in US electoral politics. They are also immensely educated and wealthy. With an increase in population and share in economic power, the focus of the Indian American lobby has inclined towards the concerns of India. For example, regarding immigration law, the diaspora performed a significant role in favouring the immigration laws for the Indians in the 1965 immigration policy of the U.S.
It was mainly the lobbying efforts by The National Federation of Indian American Association to crusade to relax the U.S. policy over sanctions on India. As a result, the sanctions imposed on India by the NSG (after Nuclear Proliferation in 1998) were removed on the U.S. recommendation.
Further, the Indian Americans can help in persuading the US government officials to be more favourable and sensitive through methods like pressurizing and campaigning. The incoming FDI from the USA is not sufficient and less than the potential expectation and requirement. Therefore, efficient lobbying is crucial to obtaining adequate FDI from America.
One can note that the community is also highly organised. A good proportion makes regular visits to India and many send remittances back to the country. Indian Americans have established several advocacy organisations and political action committees that have done seminal work in advocating issues of importance to India.
The rich civilization and cultural ethos of the Indian Americans have become a part of the American fabric with both countries recognizing the Indian Diaspora as mutually benefitting. The role of the Indian diaspora in disseminating India’s culture is also contributing to national branding.
Other Areas of Cooperation
Apart from the above-mentioned avenues, there are multiple areas where the interests of the United States and India converge. Cooperation in counter-terrorism is one of the pillars of the bilateral partnership featuring information exchange, capacity building, operational cooperation and regular dialogue through the India-U.S. Joint Working Group on Counter-Terrorism.
India and the US have a strong bilateral partnership in the clean energy sector. The USA joined the International Solar Alliance in 2021 and ratified the ISA Agreement in 2022. USA is also a Member of the Coalition for Disaster Relief Infrastructure (CDRI). India participates in the Major Economies Forum hosted annually by the US with a focus on climate actions.
India and the U.S. have a long history of cooperation in the civil space arena in Earth Observation, Satellite Navigation, Space Science and Exploration. Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) has robust civilian space cooperation with the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The two organizations have agreed to enhance cooperation in human space flight, among other things.
Contentious Issues in India US Relations
While India-U.S. relations have certainly overcome the ‘hesitations of history’, there remain certain areas where their interests collide, and it leads to friction in their relations. Some of these areas include:
While India seeks to lead the third-world countries in the global environmental debate of North vs South, the United States is the de facto leader of the global North. This often leads to debate around the issue of ‘historic responsibility’, ‘per-capita emissions / total emissions’, financing technology for green energy transition etc.
Russia & Iran
Russia remains a big hurdle in the USA developing a full faith in India’s approach to the partnership. Closer ties with Russia are important for India for its defence requirements as well as to balance China. On the other hand, Russia remains an arch-rival of the USA. Indian purchase of S-400 defence system from Russia was a big concern for the USA which tried its best to stop it.
Similar is the story with Iran. Iran is crucial for India to diversify its crude oil procurement, and also to maintain a strategic balance in the Indian Ocean. On the other hand, Iran-USA has huge mistrust. The USA is sceptical about Iran’s nuclear ambitions and Iran has historic animosity with the USA.
Apart from these, there are other issues like WTO Doha talks, visa-related issues, Intellectual property rights especially related to pharmaceuticals etc. The nature of these issues keeps changing with circumstances, but the overarching interests keep the countries closer.
Views of scholars.
“India US relations are complicated. The US never had to deal with any country like India before. India is neither ally nor adversary and the USA has been used to looking at countries from these two frameworks.”
“India should not get overjoyed with USA’s heart-warming phrases like ‘India is a consequential partner for USA’. As the world is chaotic, leave options open. USA should not shape India’s options.”
“In comparison to China, India fails to effectively combine power, principle and pragmatism. India should resist temptations to look at geopolitics in ideological terms. For long India wanted a multipolar world, now India should learn the art of living in the multipolar world.”
“The India-US defence compact, it should be clear, is not an effort to contain Beijing. China is too large and powerful to be boxed in. It is an attempt to build a multipolar Asia with sufficient deterrent capabilities and ensure respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states in the region.”
“The credit for moving India and the US closer than ever before goes to the assertive policies of Xi Jinping.”
“Democracy and nonalignment are part of the long-standing foreign-policy ideologies of the United States and India, and they are likely to remain an important part of each country’s domestic discourse. But neither ideology can be an end itself.”
“If India’s foreign policy elite worried about an American “alliance entrapment”, Washington was neuralgic about non-alignment.”
Harsh V Pant
“The strategic landscape in the Indo-Pacific has changed very dramatically and there is recognition both in Washington and New Delhi that they need to work ever so closely to stabilize the situation.”
“India is key to the US’ ability to create a stable balance of power in the larger Indo-Pacific and at a time of resource constraints, it needs partners like India to shore up its sagging credibility in the region in the face of Chinese onslaught.”
“We will go to the Moon, maybe even beyond”.
“Human element is a bedrock of India US relations”
“Countries do business with each other. Countries do politics with each other. They have military ties, they do exercises, and they have cultural exchanges. But when two countries have that deep human bonding, that’s a completely different ballgame. That is today the defining characteristic of our relationship.”
“India and the US earlier used to deal with each other, and now they work with each other.”
Professor of South Asia Studies
“The US overestimates both India’s desire to improve the relationship and the benefits doing so would bring.”
Previous Year Questions
- Explain the significance of Basic Exchange and Co-operation Agreement (BECA) for Indo-US strategic relations. [2022/10m/150w/5d]
- Discuss the significance of Indo-US strategic partnership and its implications for India’s security and national defence. [2020/15m/200w/6c]
- How is the current stand-off between the USA and Iran affecting India’s energy security? [2019/15m/200w/7c]
- Discuss the role of Indian diaspora in promoting Indo-US relations. [2018/15m/200w/7b]
- The natural behaviour of India and the United States is likely to serve each other’s interests. Hence a deliberate strategy of dovetailing their efforts will obviously benefit both. Elaborate. [2017/20m/250w/8a]
- Comment on India’s growing relationship with the USA in the background of constrained relations between India and China. [2016/15m/200w/6b]
- Before the year 2000, the Indo-US relationship had been marked more with estrangement than cordiality. Why? [2015/20m/250w/6a]
- Do you agree with the view that the USA is off late willing to treat India as a partner rather than merely a camp-follower? Give reasons for your answer. [2014/10m/150w/5d]
- Examine India’s response to the Af-Pak policy of the US. [2010/20m/200w/5b]
- Comprehensively examine the major development/trends in Indo-US relations since the early 1990s. Do you visualise the strengthening of ties between the two nations? Substantiate. [2007/60m/8]
- Examine the areas of cooperation and conflict in the Indo-American relations. [2003/60m/7]
- Examine Pakistan as a factor in Indo-American relations during the Cold War. [2001/60m/7]
- Examine the changing perspective of the US foreign policy towards South Asia in recent times and its implications for prospects of peace in the region. [1999/60m/7]
- Write a short note on Diego Garcia. [1997/20m/200w/5a]
- What, in your opinion, is the objective of the US policy in South Asia, status-quo or peaceful change? Examine the strategies adopted by Washington in this regard. [1995/60m/8]