United States, Relations with

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UNITED STATES, RELATIONS WITH India's relations with the United States since independence in 1947 have varied between diplomatic hostility and cordiality, though never bordering on armed conflict. Their foreign policy perspectives and priorities during the cold war did not always coincide, leading to periodic tensions despite their common democratic value systems. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war in 1991, marked by the end of socialism and the commencement of dramatic economic reforms in India, generated a new era in Indo-U.S. relations. This has been especially spectacular in the areas of U.S. investment in India, economic collaboration, and defense technology cooperation. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the relationship is cordial and cooperative between the countries that are now widely referred to as the world's largest and most powerful democracies.

Non-alignment and the Cold War

Indo-U.S. relations had a promising beginning under Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration, when the United States supported India's struggle for independence from the British. During World War II, the Atlantic Charter called for freedom from Japanese and German aggression and occupations throughout Europe and China; Roosevelt would have extended this to the British imperial occupation of India, arguing that there could not be two different standards of freedom for nations. But Winston Churchill adamantly refused to agree. After the tragedy of partition that coincided with Indian independence in 1947, Indo-U.S. relations cooled. In the 1950s, following the commencement of the cold war, relations between India and the United States were weakened by India's refusal to join the U.S. alliance in the East-West cold war struggle. India also rejected the American capitalist system of free markets and unlimited private sector profit. Instead, India embarked on a policy of economic socialism in a series of five-year plans within a democratic political framework, allowing for only a limited, regulated private sector.

Resisting U.S. pressure to the join the proposed South-East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) in 1954, Prime Minister Jawaharhal Nehru declared that India would follow a policy of "non-alignment" between the Western bloc and the Soviet Communist bloc. India's most urgent need as a new state, Nehru insisted, was an era of peace unencumbered by military alliances. Nehru stated that it would be "a tragedy of infinite magnitude if we should be checked and baulked and our policy should be set at naught because of the troubles and quarrels of others" (cited in Thomas, The Defence of India, p. 34). India also refused to join the Baghdad Pact, expanded in 1955 to the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO), for the same reason.

India's refusal to join the U.S.-sponsored military pacts against the Communist bloc caused an adverse reaction in the United States, which was in the grip of a strong anti-Communist fervor, led by Senator Joseph McCarthy, in the mid-1950s. There was an immediate condemnation by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and Vice President Richard M. Nixon. Dulles called India "immoral" and "shortsighted," and claimed that remaining non-aligned in the face of the Communist threat was inconsistent with the United Nations Charter provisions on Collective Security. The United States then proceeded to arm Pakistan, which immediately joined all these pacts.

Despite the tensions raised by Nehru's refusal to join the U.S.-sponsored military alliances, there was no likelihood of the United States going to war against India, or even following an aggressive military policy of encirclement, as some Indians feared. And since the Indian political system was modeled on the pattern of Western political ideas and institutions, there could be no question of parliamentary democracy being subverted from this direction. What had not been foreseen, however, was the indirect, and perhaps inadvertent, threat that would arise from the U.S.-Pakistan alliance. The military risk to India had escalated, not because of threats from the Soviet Union and China, but as a result of the American decision to arm Pakistan against these Communist giants. Nehru complained that Pakistan had not joined these pacts "because it expected some imminent or distant invasion or aggression from the Soviet Union. The Pakistan newspapers and the statements of responsible people in Pakistan make it perfectly clear that they have joined this Pact because of India" (cited in Thomas, The Defence of India, p. 37).

Through much of the cold war, relations between India and the United States were bedeviled by two sets of conflicting strains: There were common political values of democracy and freedom in both countries, but these were undermined by the tensions that arose from the U.S. arming of Pakistan. India insisted that these arms would only be used by Pakistan against India. The United States provided the most economic aid to India in the 1950s and 1960s, yet India pursued closer ties with China (until the Sino-Indian War of 1962) and with the Soviet Union. A sense of Indian "ingratitude" rankled many members of the U.S. Congress, as well as the State Department and the White House.

The United States and the Wars of India

American arms supplied to Pakistan under SEATO and CENTO included fighters, bombers, tanks, artillery, and other logistical facilities. India responded by purchasing similar weapon systems from Britain and France, escalating a major India-Pakistan arms race. The effect of these developments was that Indian perceptions of threat were almost exclusively riveted on Pakistan. Contingency defense plans were aimed at Pakistan and all defense purchases were undertaken with a view to offsetting the American arming of Pakistan.

The most serious repercussion of this preoccupation with the Pakistani threat was India's neglect of its northern Himalayan borders, even though India's relations with China were far from satisfactory because of oppressive Chinese actions in Tibet. Deteriorating Sino-Indian relations over the Tibetan question and disputes over their boundaries in the northeast and the northwest eventually led to a border war between the two countries in October 1962. Although the war occurred concurrently with the Cuban missile crisis between the United States and the Soviet Union, the Kennedy administration was quick to rush mountain guns and other non-lethal aid to India to help it fight at high altitudes. More substantial American military equipment to India was opposed by Pakistan, and consequently the United States called upon India to resolve the Kashmir conflict with Pakistan before substantial military assistance could be advanced.

Pakistan's wars with India in September 1965 over Kashmir, and in December 1971 over the demand for an independent Bangladesh out of East Pakistan, caused further tensions between India and the United States. U.S. arms, supplied to Pakistan only for use against potential Communist advances from the north, were used against India during the 1965 war. While this aging equipment was also used in the 1971 war, India had by then obtained substantial heavy Soviet artillery and tanks, and Pakistan was easily defeated in two weeks, leading to an independent Bangladesh. Events leading up to this two-week war in December 1971 caused substantial tension between India and the United States, aggravated by the conflicting personalities of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and President Nixon. India wanted the United States to take swift action in ending the Pakistani military suppression of East Pakistan's Bengali revolt that had led to the deaths of an estimated million civilians and the flight of some 10 million refugees to India. However, the United States did not wish to alienate the military regime of General Yahya Khan, because Pakistan had provided a secret channel to pursue rapprochement with Communist China, Pakistan's ally.

This perceived emerging new triangular alliance among Pakistan, the United States, and China, and the need to take swift military action in East Pakistan, prompted India to sign a "Treaty of Peace and Friendship" with the Soviet Union in August 1971. The treaty carried some military clauses, which required the Soviet Union not to extend assistance to Pakistan in the case of military conflict, and that both sides would enter into consultations when either side was faced with immediate threats or armed conflict. With respect to the general purposes served, in the Indian case the treaty was primarily a response to the United States, an effort to neutralize its involvement in case of hostilities by making the consequences of any such involvement potentially a great power conflict. India then proceeded to resolve the East Pakistan conflict by armed force. In response to India's use of force, the United States sent its nuclear carrier, the U.S.S. Enterprise, into the Bay of Bengal, in a show of gunboat diplomacy—a warning that India should not venture beyond the liberation of Bangladesh to overrun West Pakistan.

The new regional and global alignments that occurred during the 1971 crisis subsided over the next few years. India's fears of an emerging Washington-Islamabad-Beijing alliance did not materialize. However, the aftermath of the 1971 Indo-Pakistan War generated discordant relations between the two countries during the prime ministership of Indira Gandhi. Her declaration of a "National Emergency" between June 1975 and March 1977, suspending the fundamental rights in India's democratic constitution, and her imposition of authoritarian rule in India caused new tensions in relations between the two countries, as these actions were widely condemned in the United States. An initial thaw began with a meeting between President Ronald Reagan and Indira Gandhi in Cancún, Mexico, in 1981, when a technology cooperation agreement was signed. The succession of Rajiv Gandhi as prime minister following the assassination of his mother in 1984 produced a further upswing in Indo-U.S. relations during the rest of the Reagan administration. These cordial ties continued to grow during successive Indian governments, headed first by the Congress Party, then the Janata Party, followed by two United Front coalitions, and then the Bharatiya Janata Party–led coalition government from 1998 to 2004.

India and the Wars of the United States

India supported various American diplomatic moves when North Korea invaded South Korea in June 1950. It voted for the United Nations Security Council's resolutions condemning the invasion and for military actions to drive back North Korean forces, which were about to occupy all of South Korea. The aggression was perceived as a test of United Nations (UN) credibility, but as U.S. forces under General Douglas MacArthur began to roll back the North Korean forces to the 38th parallel that divided South and North Korea, India warned the United States that moving further would provoke China to enter the war. After Chinese forces invaded and began to drive back American forces, India played an important diplomatic role at the UN and served as a mediator between the United States and China in helping to end the Korean War.

India opposed the U.S. war in Vietnam from 1964 to 1974. Frequent public and private criticism by Indian officials and the media became a source of irritation in the United States especially since India was then receiving substantial American economic aid. The United States perceived the Vietnam War as part of its policy of containing the advance of communism. India saw it as a civil war and a struggle against foreign military occupation. The withdrawal of American forces from Vietnam did not end Indo-U.S. differences on policy in the region. There were differences of policy and allegiance between India and the United States when China engaged in two short border wars with Vietnam in 1979 and 1984, and when Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1979 to overthrow the Khmer Rouge regime of Pol Pot. The Khmer Rouge was responsible for the deaths of about a million Cambodians, who were massacred or worked to death, between 1975 and 1979. India and the Soviet Union supported the Heng Samrin regime that was installed by the invading Vietnamese forces. The United States and China opposed the regime. These dissensions between India and the United States over Southeast Asian conflicts passed with the end of the cold war in 1991.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 was interpreted very differently in the United States and in India. The United States perceived the invasion as part of a wider Soviet strategy to seize the oil fields of the Persian Gulf and to gain warm water ports on the Indian Ocean. India perceived the invasion as an overreaction by Moscow, aimed at preventing the replacement of the pro-Soviet Marxist regime in Kabul by a pro-American regime. The American-supported insurgency against Soviet forces in Afghanistan between 1979 and 1989 was of great concern to India because the United States renewed massive arms shipments to Pakistan, which had been cut off after the 1971 war. India had preferred to see the more friendly Soviet-backed Marxist government remain in Afghanistan, fearing the possibility of a Pakistani-sponsored radical Islamic government coming to power. This concern became a reality when the zealous Islamic forces of the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan by armed force, following the Soviet withdrawal of its forces in 1989 and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union.

Subsequently, India differed with the United States in its use of force in the former Yugoslavia in 1999, in Afghanistan in 2002, and in Iraq in 2003. India joined Russia and China in opposing a U.S.-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) air war against Serbian forces in Kosovo. India's permanent representative to the UN declared to the Security Council on 24 March 1999 that the attacks were in violation of the UN Charter and illegal because they were not authorized by the council. The problem in former Yugoslavia's Muslim-majority province of Kosovo was not unlike that in India's Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir, where an insurgency had raged for over a decade. The use of force in Kosovo in 1999 by an American-led NATO was invoked as an additional post hoc justification for India's decision to test nuclear weapons earlier in May 1998. This difference with U.S. policy was short-lived, however, as there appeared to be no further effort to dislodge Kosovo from Serbia, which would have set a precedent for Kashmir. Subsequently, India welcomed the American use of force in Afghanistan, which removed the Islamic extremist Taliban regime. But India opposed the U.S. war against Iraq in 2003. Like much of the rest of the world, India saw this war as counterproductive against the terrorism conducted by nonstate actors such as al-Qaeda. However, India joined the United States in its worldwide campaign to root out the sources of international and transnational terrorism.

The Aftermath of the Cold War

The intensified momentum for better Indo-U.S. relations was prompted by the end of the cold war. India rushed toward embracing the United States, particularly seeking military cooperation. This drive initially ran into some difficulties over India's failure to protect U.S. pharmaceutical patents, its purchase of cryogenic engines for its space program and nuclear reactors from Russia, both of which were perceived to advance India's nuclear weapons and missile programs, and India's testing of its short-range Prithvi and medium-range Agni missiles despite American opposition.

Such disputes generated lukewarm responses from the United States for establishing closer military ties, and growing suspicions in India that U.S. friendship with Pakistan was closer than that with India. By the turn of the twenty-first century, however, Indo-U.S. relations blossomed at all levels. A series of joint air, naval, and army exercises were conducted, and there has been close cooperation in the war against international terrorism by both sides, especially following al-Qaeda terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in September 2001. India went through a similar experience on 13 December 2001, when the Laskhar-e-Toiba terrorist group, seeking independence for Kashmir, attempted to destroy India's parliament building in a suicide attack while it was in session. This experience strengthened India's commitment to the United States in its campaign against worldwide terrorism.

Meanwhile, Indo-U.S. economic ties continued to grow rapidly. The United States was India's main trading partner for more than two decades, and later became the leading foreign investor in India. Following liberalization and reforms in 1991, an avalanche of American corporations have rushed into India with newer investments. From the other side, India provides much of the software for American corporations and is the source of high-tech personnel for American industries. Further improvement in ties followed in the immediate aftermath of President Bill Clinton's visit to India in March 2000 and Prime Minster A. B. Vajpayee's trip to the United States in September 2000, and a number of new U.S. business investments in India were inaugurated during both visits. The volume of American trade with and investments in India, however, still remained overshadowed by U.S. economic ties with China.

A significant rift between the two countries followed India's decision to conduct a series of nuclear tests in May 1998. Those tests were swiftly followed in a tit-for-tat fashion by Pakistan. This led to a series of technology sanctions by Washington in areas that may have direct or indirect benefits to India's nuclear and missile programs. Prime Minister Vajpayee requested that the United States lift sanctions on dual-use technologies; these were partially lifted in 1999, and most of them were removed by 2004.

Overall, four basic policy concerns continue to characterize U.S. policies in South Asia and affect its relations with India. First, it has been a long-standing American policy to attempt to contain regional nuclear proliferation in South Asia, the Middle East, and East and Central Asia. This goal failed when India conducted five nuclear tests in May 1998 followed immediately by Pakistan. However, no further tests have been conducted, and further proliferation has been contained. Second, the United States made strenuous efforts to prevent an India-Pakistan nuclear war following their nuclear tests in 1998; since there has been no nuclear war between India and Pakistan, the American policy appears to have succeeded. Third, following the terrorist attacks on New York's World Trade Center in September 2001, the United States has conducted a campaign to root out global transnational terrorism from havens in South Asia, especially Pakistan. India has provided full cooperation on this front. Fourth, the United States has sought to facilitate a resolution of the Kashmir dispute with Pakistan which continued to plague Indo-U.S. relations. Occasional friction over this issue has been relegated to the margins of the relationship, which is now based primarily on common political and economic values. With a strong democracy and a free market economy, India's relations with the United States are now on very firm ground.

Economic Relations

The most spectacular change in the relationship has been on the economic front. Although India's share of U.S. imports and exports is only about 1 percent of the total volume of American trade, it represents a significant proportion of India's external trade. The United States is India's largest trading partner, the source of 9 percent of Indian imports and the destination of 21 percent of Indian exports. In 2002 total Indian exports to the United States were about $17 billion, of which about $6 billion consisted of software exports. Merchandise exports included diamonds and gold jewelry, woven and knit apparel, textiles, fish and seafood, machinery, carpets, iron and steel, and pharmaceuticals. Indian imports from the United States included machinery (computers and components, gas turbines, and telecommunications equipment), electrical machinery (recording/sound media), medical and surgical equipment and instruments, aircraft, spacecraft (small aircraft), precious stones (diamonds, not mounted or set), metals, jewelry, miscellaneous chemical products, organic chemicals, and plastic.

By 2003 several major American corporations had established subsidiaries and other facilities in India. A majority of General Electric's businesses worldwide have a presence in India, covering aircraft engines, broadcasting, capital services, lighting, medical systems. Some 19,000 General Electric professionals work in India, and the company set up its largest laboratory worldwide—the John Welch Technology Centre—in Bangalore. The multidiscipline laboratory covers research in hot-air gas paths, materials, design, and computer science. Other major U.S. corporations established in India include Whirlpool, Ford Motors, 3M, Microsoft, Intel, Texas Instruments, Sun Microsystems, Procter and Gamble, Oracle, IBM, Adobe Systems, and several others. They produce in India for the Indian and overseas markets. American banking and financial services such as Citicorp, GE Capital, and American Express have also established offices and operations in India. American corporations in the bioinformation and biotechnology fields have subsidiary operations in India.

India is the premier country for U.S. information technology (IT) services, with major corporations "outsourcing" its needs to Indian software engineers, who are able to perform the same tasks more cheaply than American software engineers. This business relationship has been aided by the large English-speaking high-tech workforce in India and the twelve-hour time difference between the two countries; software needs and problems can be sent to India at the end of the American working day to be resolved by highly qualified and less costly Indian technical staff by the end of their working day and the beginning of the next American workday. The arrangement has enabled round-the-clock collaborative operations between India and the United States. U.S. companies that have taken advantage of this unique outsourcing opportunity include American Express, Citicorp, Microsoft, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, HSBC, Morgan Stanley, AT&T, Reebok, GM, Boeing, Pepsi, and Coca-Cola. Outsourcing to India has caused some resentment within the U.S. labor force because of the loss of American jobs.

Investments by Indian companies in the United States grew rapidly in the 1990s. For example, India's United Breweries bought breweries in the United States, while companies such as Dr. Reddy's Laboratories and Ranbaxy bought pharmaceutical manufacturing units in the United States. Mahindra and Mahindra set up an automotive manufacturing unit. In the IT sector, Tata Infotech, Sathyam, Infosys, and WIPRO set up large operations in the United States.

Defense Cooperation

From strategic hostility and suspicion during the cold war, defense cooperation between India and the United States became the norm at the beginning of the twenty-first century. An India-U.S. Defense Policy Group, composed of senior defense officials and military officers, meets once a year in Washington to provide guidance and direction to potential collaborative efforts. A Joint Technical Group coordinates the transfer of technology and explores areas of scientific interaction between the two countries. An Executive Steering Group composed of the army, navy, and air force from both sides meets annually. Joint military exercises between the military services of the two countries have become commonplace.

While there is caution in the United States on the transfer of common civilian-military technologies in nuclear and space programs to India, defense technology cooperation has expanded in other areas. They include cooperation in three mission areas: aircraft technology, antitank systems, and technical manpower training.

The collaboration between Lockheed Martin Controls Systems of Binghamton, New York, and the Aeronautical Development Establishment of Bangalore, India, is one example of this growing cooperation in technology. Much of this revolves around the development of various systems for India's projected "Light Combat Aircraft." A Joint Technical Group, composed of members of the U.S. Department of Defense and the Indian Ministry of Defence, meets regularly to coordinate defense research and production and logistical support. Cooperation and technical exchanges now extend to defense research and development organizations in the United States and the Defence Research and Development Organization in India. Scientists from the latter regularly visit U.S. defense industries and military installations to update themselves on the state of art of defense technology.

The Role of Indian Americans

Indian Americans have contributed significantly to the growth of cordial ties between India and the United States. According to the U.S. census of 2000, there are approximately 1.7 million American citizens of Indian origin, representing the various languages, religions, and regions of India. They belong mainly to a highly educated class of academics, doctors, engineers, corporate executives, and businesspeople. Almost 60 percent of all Indian Americans are college educated and earn an average median family income of $60,000, compared to the national average of about $39,000. The average median income of Indians working in the Silicon Valley IT sector in the 1990s was about $125,000, with about 15 percent of the start-up companies there being initiated by Indian Americans.

With a vested interest in promoting close ties between their old and new homelands, Indian Americans have been active in supporting U.S. Congress members who support India in its various endeavors. In 2003 various Indian groups consolidated their political activities into an organization called the U.S. India Public Affairs Committee (USINPAC), modeled after the Jewish American lobbying group, the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee. With financial contributions from the wealthy Indian American community, USINPAC has become a major factor in expanding the relationship between India and the United States. USINPAC lobbies to prevent policies that may have an adverse impact on India, and promotes exchange visits between American and Indian political leaders to foster mutual understanding. Indian Americans of various ethnic backgrounds, such as Gujaratis, Tamils, Maharashtrians, and Punjabis, also promote American trade and investments with their Indian states. Chief ministers and economic delegations from various Indian states visit the United States to advance the economies of their states. These lines of communication initiated by the Indian American community have further strengthened the India-U.S. relationship.


The cordiality between India and the United States at the beginning of the twenty-first century appears irreversible. India is now part of the global economy, and its status has risen as a major diplomatic and economic player in world affairs. India's close relations with the United States have played an important part in the new, positive world image of India.

Raju G. C. Thomas

See alsoJammu and Kashmir ; Nuclear Programs and Policies ; Pakistan and India ; Russia, Relations with


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