India–US Strategic Partnership: Shifting American Perspectives on Engaging India

Date01 January 2017
Published date01 January 2017
Subject MatterArticles
India–US Strategic
Partnership: Shifting
American Perspectives
on Engaging India
K.P. Vijayalakshmi1
India–US relationship oscillated unevenly due to the politics of the Cold War.
Post-Cold War, both countries have taken gradual, positive steps towards each
other. While President Bill Clinton established a tilt towards India during his sec-
ond term, George Bush ushered a transformational shift in the relationship that
led to the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership and eventually to the path-breaking
Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement. Since then relations have been steadily
improving with the Obama presidency moving in the same direction. The joint
incentives for New Delhi and Washington have ranged from counterterrorism,
defence cooperation, cyber security, trade and economics, agriculture, education
and science and technology cooperation. Apart from the interest of mutual gains,
the relationship was further influenced by the enormous geopolitical changes
unfolding in the region. The mutual concern over the ‘peaceful rise’ of China
followed by its aggressive foreign policy and active military presence especially
in the India Ocean region has created fresh opportunities to both. However,
irrespective of the strategic potential of the relationship and the strong politi-
cal will at both ends, Indo-US ties have their own share of irritants in several
spheres. Recognizing the complex narrative of converging and diverging interests
functioning under the ambit of strategic partnership, this article examines the
constraints and imperatives, and the main determinants that drive the relation-
ship in the post-9/11 era. Various triggers and catalysts in US’ internal policy
process apart from the geopolitical factors that led to the growing engagement
with India are examined.
International Studies
54(1–4) 42–61
2018 Jawaharlal Nehru University
SAGE Publications
DOI: 10.1177/0020881718791403
1 Centre for Canadian, US & Latin American Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru
University, New Delhi India.
Corresponding author:
K.P. Vijayalakshmi, Centre for Canadian, US & Latin American Studies, School of International Studies,
Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi 110067, India.
Vijayalakshmi 43
NSSP, civil nuclear agreement, China factor, DTTI, quadrilateral security initiative,
India, notwithstanding several transitions underway domestically, is recognized
by the world and the US as one of the bright spots in the world today both eco-
nomically and geopolitically. It has purposefully integrated the political and stra-
tegic with the commercial and economic interests as is evident by its espousal of
New Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, while
discreetly pursuing the permanent membership on the UNSC as a nuclear weapon
state. India has also emerged as a leading strategic partner to many countries
including the US, as is evident by more than two dozen partnership agreements it
has signed, while several more are in the offing.
America, since the end of the Cold War, reset its policy towards India. In the
1990s, the US grew steadily attracted to the idea of an India-centric policy in
South Asia and as China rose, reassessed its policy approach towards Asia and
particularly India’s role in it. In the early 1990s, US viewed cooperation with
India as part of its strategy of preventing non-proliferation of weapons of mass
destruction and ensuring regional stability. As the decade drew to a close, the US
perception was that India shared its interests in terms of expansion of economic
relations, counterterrorism, access to energy sources, promoting human rights and
ensuring stable balance of power in Asia. Thus, a critical review of Indo-US rela-
tions began with the opportunity provided by India’s nuclear tests. By the end of
Clinton’s term, new priorities shaped the approach towards India and a ‘new
equation’ was established (US Senate: Congressional Hearing, 106th Congress,
First Session, 1999; Kronstadt, Kerr, Martin, & Vaughn, CRS, 2001). By March
2000, Clinton’s visit to India revealed that the US was engaged with India both as
a friend and an emerging security partner. The trend continued under Bush Jr., but
with a marked difference: the policy was to be ‘India first’ or India alone and not
hyphenated with Pakistan. To many members of the new Bush team, India was a
potential partner in maintaining stability in the Indian Ocean region, particularly
in fighting Islamic fundamentalism and checking Chinese ambitions. The occur-
rence of 9/11 brought changes where in Pakistan once again became the frontline
state. However, India did not get relegated to the Cold War status as Bush admin-
istration placed strong emphasis on the importance of partnering with India and
understanding how important it was for the US interests in the region and around
the globe (US Government, 2006a). As the National Security Strategy 2006
stated, ‘America’s relationship with Pakistan will not be a mirror image of our
relationship with India’ (US Government, 2006b). The ensuing discussions on
how to shape this strategic partnership animated the bilateral relations from 2004.
Thus, as a Congressional report stated, ‘the United States and India have since
2004, been pursuing a strategic partnership that incorporated numerous economic,

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