As President Obama prepares to visit India, observers there and in the United States are debating his administration's policies toward the country. Some charge that Obama has tried too hard to cooperate with China in addressing regional and global challenges and has not done enough to bolster India. Carnegie’s George Perkovich presented his new report, Toward Realistic U.S.-India Relations, which addresses the debate over current U.S. policies toward India and exposes the tension between certain American and Indian interests.

The “Transformation” of the Relationship

Over the past decade, certain American and Indian elites have developed unsustainable expectations about the relationship between India and the United States, Perkovich stated. He contended that these expectations risk creating unnecessary tensions between the two countries.

  • Disparate Interests: India and the United States have very different interests on key short- and medium-term issues such as climate change, trade liberalization, and relations with Pakistan, Afghanistan, and China. These differences are inevitable for two demographically distinct countries in different stages of development.
  • Democratic Alignment: Although the shared democratic nature of the United States and India indicates the potential for shared values, these very democratic processes can also constrain the growth of bilateral relations. Washington and New Delhi are both constrained by local and national interests, which have a strong influence in democracies. For example, in the agricultural and service sectors, politicians beholden to their constituencies sometimes prevent closer alignment between the United States and India, Perkovich stated.
  • Democracy Promotion: The United States often hopes India will help it promote democracy abroad in countries such as Iran, but India has never expressed an interest in proselytizing or promoting democracy.

The Problem of China

Much of the criticism of President Obama’s approach toward India has focused on his supposed deference to China. These critics argue the United States must work with India to balance China’s military power. While trilateral relations among the United States, China, and India are certainly important, regional relations are more complicated than simple military balancing, Perkovich advised.

  • The Economic Conundrum: China’s primary leverage in the region comes from its economic strength. Countering this influence cannot be done through military balancing alone.
  • China’s Threat to India: Even if military balancing were the primary concern, no clear scenario exists in which India would join the United States in a military engagement against China. China is unlikely to invade India, and India is unlikely to intervene in any Sino-American conflict that might erupt over a flashpoint such as Taiwan.
  • Triangular relationship: Further, Perkovich reminded his audience, Indian and Chinese interests sometimes align against those of the United States, particularly on matters of trade and climate change.

Sources of Tension

Though in the long term the United States has a strong interest in a powerful, prosperous India, many obstacles remain that could prevent the relationship from flourishing as some of its proponents hope.

  • Afghanistan: Both nations want a stable Afghanistan, but the United States is entrenched in an untenable position and looking for a politically viable way to exit the country. The United States will likely be forced to seek an outcome that neither Pakistan nor India supports and negotiate with the Taliban.
  • Trade and Climate Change: Ultimately, India’s status as an emerging power will naturally lead to policy differences with the United States. The two countries have already clashed on trade and agricultural subsidies. For example, Perkovich said, there is already tension over climate change policies, as India rightly considers it unfair that it should be asked to cut its emissions while established powers like the United States make no progress on emissions reductions.
  • Nonproliferation: The civilian nuclear agreement between the United States and India, while hailed in some circles, has proven to be a controversial exception to global nuclear supply regulations. Its passage led to complications in negotiations with Brazil, South Korea, Iran, Egypt, Pakistan, and other countries, which want exceptions of their own. Meanwhile, India is seeking admittance to the Nuclear Suppliers Group, which was created in 1974 in response to an Indian nuclear test with the intention of preventing another test by a non-nuclear state. From India’s point of view, this is an understandable position, and India is trying to bring itself into the mainstream of nuclear powers, but the United States has an interest in upholding the nonproliferation regime it helped create. This goal may not be  furthered by favoring India, Perkovich warned.

Great potential exists for the U.S.-Indian relationship, but there is no reason to expect it to be any smoother or easier than any other bilateral partnership. Rather, Perkovich said, this relationship will be best served by adopting realistic expectations on both sides and by creating a U.S. policy that works toward both a strong India and a robust international system.