The Elephant in the Room: Auditing the Past and Future of the U.S.-India Partnership


Editor’s Note: This is the 27th installment of “Southern (Dis)Comfort,” a series from War on the Rocks and the Stimson Center. The series seeks to unpack the dynamics of intensifying competition — military, economic, diplomatic — in Southern Asia, principally between China, India, Pakistan, and the United States. Catch up on the rest of the series.


Optimism has steadied U.S.-India relations for more than a decade. Recently, security scholars and regional analysts have lauded India as “the Trump Administration’s foreign policy bright spot” and “a central partner in U.S. efforts to balance rising Chinese power.” Just last week, Assistant Secretary of Defense Randall Schriver highlighted “a lot of convergence on the strategic landscape” between the U.S. and India. U.S.-India relations have been a bipartisan success, deemed “one of Mr. Obama’s most important foreign policy achievements” and “one of the few success stories of the Bush Administration’s foreign policy.”

Yet, for such a resounding success, it is curious that the relationship repeatedly faces “India fatigue,” which seems to bubble to the surface every two years in U.S. defense policy discussions, including this year. This week, on the eve of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to India, veteran watchers of the relationship warn that it is not in a crisis yet, but could be soon. Mounting frustrations have led to calls for a “life jacket” to weather these downturns. Publicly, U.S. leaders have raised “serious concerns” and expressed disappointment with several of India’s defense decisions, including arms procurements from Russia, and there have been several warnings that India’s dismissal of U.S. concerns could “jeopardize U.S.-India relations.” Given India’s lackadaisical approach to defense, even leading proponents of the relationship have wondered aloud whether the U.S. wager on India might become a “failed bet.” Our private conversations with U.S. government officials and policy experts reveal frustration and concern over the supposed pattern of U.S. concessions and Indian shortcomings — criticized as “all talk and no show.” For their part, Indian observers and analysts have expressed equal frustration with the United States.

Indeed, the convergence between the world’s “largest and oldest democracies” has been slower and more limited than expected. Building upon some notable accounts, this essay seeks to trace America’s rising expectations for its relationship with India, evaluate where and how the relationship fell short of those expectations, and offer a simple structural explanation as to why. Alignment, as Glen Snyder explains, is “a set of mutual expectations between two or more states that they will have each other’s support in disputes or wars.” False expectations of alignment with India could lead to wasted investments, missed opportunities to cultivate other partners, perceptions of abandonment, and miscalculated exertions of leverage — all of which could create enough friction to undermine the partnership, and perhaps even produce outright hostility. If the U.S.-India relationship is to thrive rather than collapse from the weight of mismanaged expectations, both sides will need to trade the shibboleths of “natural allies” for more realistic ambitions based on structural realities.

The History of High Expectations

As early as the 1960s, the United States had its sights set on making India a key partner. Secretary of State Dean Rusk advised President John F. Kennedy that India would be crucial to countering China. Robert Komer of the National Security Council sought to persuade two presidents that India was “where we must put our chief reliance” because it was “the largest and potentially most powerful non-Communist Asian nation…the major prize in Asia.”

The United States tried twice to build a strong partnership with India in the 1960s and 1980s, but both efforts fell short, in part because of India’s nonalignment and defense trade with the Soviet Union. Another setback came in 1974 when India tested a “peaceful nuclear device,” and relations soured further when, in 1998, India tested nuclear weapons, which the United States framed as a violation of prevailing nonproliferation norms.

The tide turned in the early 2000s, when U.S. policymakers gambled that, by eliminating some of these fundamental obstacles, India could become one of America’s closest strategic partners. The Bush administration waged this bet with the 2005 civil nuclear agreement. Though the administration framed the deal as an effort to shore up the global nonproliferation regime, it in fact carved out a significant exception for India, allowing it to purchase nuclear materials from the United States. Essentially, India’s nuclear energy program was endorsed in a sign of how invested the United States was in removing “a basic irritant” from the U.S.-India relationship and attempting to “transform” it into a deeper strategic partnership.

Advocates raised expectations of a reinvigorated relationship with India in a variety of areas, particularly economic gains for U.S. businesses. On the strategic side, one of the most compelling and prescient arguments may have come in 2006 from Harvard Professor Ashton Carter, who would go on to champion the U.S.-India relationship as secretary of defense. Carter made a strong argument that significant asymmetric U.S. investments would generate “broad strategic alignment,” cultivating India as an “informal ally” with high expectations of policy gains. India could help check Iran’s nuclear ambitions and manage instability in Afghanistan and nuclear Pakistan. Further, he correctly highlighted the potential for substantial defense trade and cooperation, with the long-term goal of cultivating a strong democratic strategic partner to help balance China and protect the liberal international order. Carter forecasted significant defense cooperation, including joint military planning and exercises, intelligence sharing, joint military capabilities, “some preferential treatment for U.S. vendors” in the defense trade, and even potential “access to strategic locations through Indian territory and perhaps basing rights.”

Over time, priorities like Iran and counterterrorism, which loomed large in 2006, yielded to the higher priorities of U.S.-India defense cooperation, specifically for the purpose of balancing China. President Barack Obama’s 2015 National Security Strategy highlighted the strategic convergence between the United States and India in Asia and the Pacific. In the same year, Obama and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi released the U.S.-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean region, which pointed to the importance of safeguarding maritime security in the South China Sea, with China as the implicit violator.

U.S. expectations of the relationship have only risen in the years since. The 2017 National Security Strategy and recent statements by senior officials highlight India as one of the most important partners in the Indo-Pacific, while the 2018 National Defense Strategy and the 2019 Indo-Pacific Strategy envision these partnerships as forming a “networked security architecture capable of deterring aggression.” But even as U.S. officials attest that “the Trump administration has placed India firmly at the center of its Indo-Pacific strategy,” India’s reluctance to commit to such a strategy has become equally clear.

An Elephant Graveyard of Expectations

India has exceeded expectations in one of the areas Carter laid out — counter-terrorism — and exhibited a mixed record on another — Iran. Particularly after the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, counter-terrorism cooperation between the two countries accelerated significantly. On Iran, despite voting alongside the United States several times in International Atomic Energy Agency meetings, India maintains high-level diplomatic interactions and high stakes in its ties with Iran, as well as an uneven record on reducing Iranian oil imports to assist U.S. objectives. But U.S. policymakers have been most disappointed by India’s underwhelming effort in balancing China and straddling defense relations between Russia and the United States.

In recent years especially, Washington has heavily emphasized the idea that U.S.-India defense ties should help India balance China. In 2005, a State Department spokesperson announced that America’s objective was to “help India become a major world power in the 21st century,” adding, in a not-so-subtle nod to China, “We understand fully the implications, including military implications, of that statement.”

In its efforts to counter China militarily, India has authorized a new mountain strike corps, fielded new lift, fighter aircraft, and cruise missiles close to its border, expanded its naval forces, and flexed its nuclear deterrent with deployment of a nuclear-armed submarine, longer range ballistic missiles, missile defense, and multiple independent reentry vehicles. But the mountain strike corps has been shelved or at least delayed, India’s air squadrons are only at 80 percent of their own desired strength, and more than half of the Indian navy’s ships are “approaching obsolescence,” even as it lacks sufficient ships for power projection and remains torn between organizing for sea denial and sea control.

India has also been reluctant to cross its neighbor. Though it stood up to China during the Doklam standoff of 2017, India hesitated to antagonize China further, hoping to maintain stability on its border, encourage greater investment and trade, and dampen Chinese inroads into its regional backyard. Instead, Modi met Chinese President Xi Jinping in an informal summit at Wuhan to mitigate tensions. India later ducked diplomatic opportunities to hold China accountable on the world stage, and opted out of an infrastructure project to counter the Belt and Road Initiative. Some forecast a post-election deepening of Indian economic engagement with China. This spring, a former Indian official making the rounds in Washington recently warned of a coming “Wuhan 2” summit, which now appears to be confirmed.

Finally, the Indian people appear to be less suspicious of China than the general publics of the United States and most of its allies. This extends to the country’s strategic elites who, in a recent survey, preferred India “remain equidistant” in the event of intensified U.S. competition with China.

When it comes to defense ties, India has been designated a major defense partner, has signed three of the five foundational agreements for military technology transfers with the United States, rejoined the Quad, embraced the “2+2” dialogue with the United States, and recently conducted a naval drill in the South China Sea. Nevertheless, progress has been more limited than U.S. strategists envisioned.

First, joint military planning and capabilities are still far off, and basing access would be unfathomable because India actively avoids achieving interoperability, preferring to “go it alone.” While India exercises more with the United States than any other nation, the reverse is far from true. For example, in 2018, the U.S. Navy conducted 28 major exercises with the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force but only one with the Indian navy. While U.S. defense officials have prodded India to embrace a “networked security architecture capable of deterring aggression,” and a quadrilateral force capable of counterbalancing coercion, India has openly opposed the idea of giving any multilateral architecture a military dimension. The signing of a “routine” U.S.-India logistics agreement is often cited as a sign of progress, but it’s worth noting that it took over 10 years to finalize, thanks in part to Indian reticence.

Perhaps most disheartening for American proponents of the relationship has been India’s failure to give preferential treatment to U.S. defense vendors, despite immense confidence that it would. Though U.S.-India defense trade is trending upward with cumulative arms sales of $18 billion over a decade, India remains heavily reliant on Russian defense platforms, having lined up $15 billion in acquisitions over the past year. A U.S. offer to move a joint production facility for F-16s to India has been met with skepticism in Delhi, and seven years of efforts at joint production through the U.S.-India Defense Technology and Trade Initiative have floundered. Indian plans to purchase Russian strategic systems like the S-400 instead of the U.S. PAC-3 have raised “serious concerns” and rubbed salt on the wounds.

Though advocates are quick to point out the converging interests and upward trajectory of the relationship, India has failed to meet the pace of expectations, pursue the depth of interactions, and embrace the scope of ambitions set out in the early 2000s, preferring a “no-obligations partnership.” This could have consequences. As one senior defense official points out, “divergent, and possibly unrealistic, expectations for one another…can frustrate practical cooperation.”



Why the Expectations/Performance Gap?

Several explanations have been offered for why Indian convergence has fallen short of U.S. expectations: timid leadership, domestic political obstacles, anticolonial and non-alignment ideologies, and bureaucratic inertia. While all valid, these explanations somewhat understate the challenge because hope springs eternal as leaderships change, political coalitions and preferences realign, ideology fades, and bureaucracies evolve. It is important to recognize several structural reasons that limit convergence between Indian and American perceptions and preferences. India’s absolute capabilities and its developing economy constrain its military ambitions, its geography and nuclear weapons dampen its threat perceptions, and its relative position in the international system incentivizes it to hedge or shirk.

Absolute capabilities. Because of the sheer limitations of its resources and capabilities, India has not grown as rich, as militarily capable, or as intertwined in U.S. defense planning as expected. India remains a poor, developing economy whose GDP growth has lagged predictions of financial forecasters and officials over the past decade. The former chief economic advisor to the Indian government recently argued that growth between 2011-16 reached only 4.5 percent, considerably below the officially claimed figure of 6.9 percent. India has not been able to generate enough surplus or employment to convert this economic growth into substantially greater military power. Slower than expected growth was compounded by declining military spending as a percentage of GDP, down to 2.1 percent in 2019, even as rising labor and pension costs severely crowded out capital expenditures.

According to IISS data, over the past three decades China has slimmed down 2.5 million ground troops by 60 percent. While India’s 1.2 million ground forces have remained constant, its internal security forces have doubled to almost one million troops. These shifts have allowed China to modernize its forces, while India’s choice to employ large numbers of ground and internal security forces constrains any military modernization and power projection efforts. In short, India’s developing economy limits its ability to produce or acquire sufficient advanced military capabilities, making it much harder to fulfill U.S. expectations.

The tradeoff between economic growth and military modernization may grow starker considering that India reportedly identified major defense upgrades to 70 percent of the vintage hardware “crucial” to deterring China over the next 10 to 15 years.

Geography. In calculating that India would begin to turn its attention to power projection eastward, American policymakers largely overlooked India’s distinct geography, which contributes to a unique set of threat perceptions. Over the past two decades, India’s continued land-based vulnerabilities, westward focus, and general continental orientation have remained more constant than the United States expected.

Former Indian National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon contends the Indian Ocean has a relatively “open geography” – unlike in East Asia, no major power can dominate the region. Developments within the Indian Navy over the past 20 years suggest that, rather than directly countering the Chinese Navy or projecting naval power beyond its neighborhood, India’s primary focus seems to be on securing its sea lines of communication.

Moreover, while the U.S. presence in the Indo-Pacific concentrates on East Asia and the South China Sea, India concentrates more attention and resources on potential disruptions in the Western Indian Ocean, which lies beyond the scope of the U.S. definition of the Indo-Pacific. India depends heavily on this region for the plurality of its exports, critical energy resources, and migrant workers and remittances.

Third, while the United States worries most about Chinese threats to the maritime commons, India’s internal security situation as well as its long land borders with rivals Pakistan and China remain its principal threats. This continental orientation favored by India’s strategic elites is reflected in India’s defense spending, which prioritizes the Army and internal security forces. Chinese dual-use economic and political encroachment into India’s neighborhood — ranging from Pakistan to Bhutan to Sri Lanka — has done much to contain India, forcing it to play defense within South Asia at the expense of more expansive aspirations.

India’s priorities and threat perceptions may be gradually shifting eastward and into the maritime domain, but the United States overestimated how soon this shift would come.

Nuclear weapons. India’s continued distaste for alliances may be bolstered by its possession of a surprisingly advanced nuclear arsenal. Having nuclear weapons changes India’s threat perceptions, largely removing any need for extended deterrence from the United States, which allies like Japan and Australia cite as fundamental to their security. Nuclear-armed states may act more independently, with their arsenals serving as “a partial substitute” for military protection from allies. In this way, India maintains a healthy degree of bargaining space against China without resorting to U.S. support.

Relative position in the international system. Finally, India, as a rising power — as opposed to a hegemon and its formal treaty allies — has unique incentives for procrastination. Risers tend not to risk premature confrontation, preferring to wait for the power gap to shrink. Unlike the United States and many of its allies and partners, India can be confident that as it rises in the future, it will have greater bargaining power vis-a-vis China (as well as the United States), incentivizing it to delay deep confrontation or alignment. For the same reasons, India is also prone to “buck-passing” — deferring to others to take on the responsibility of confronting the aggressor and defending the international order. As the United States shifts to a more long-term view of competition and confrontation with China (as well as Russia and Iran), India has every incentive to continue to buck-pass and free-ride, and court all sides as a perpetual “swing state.”


Deeper U.S. engagement with India is both possible and desirable, but the relationship would benefit from some realism about its limitations, which pose larger implications for America’s Indo-Pacific Strategy. India faces significant economic challenges and capability deficits, geographic reasons to focus on its neighborhood and land borders rather than on the Pacific, incentives to hedge as a rising power, and more room than most states to maneuver independently given its nuclear weapons. These factors likely place a ceiling on the U.S.-India relationship for a decade or two, and it is important for the United States to adjust its expectations accordingly. Just as with adversaries, unreasonable expectations of partners can cause significant harm. The risks include foregone resources, miscalculated strategies, and outright hostility.

First, and most basically, false expectations of a relationship can cause one party to overinvest past the point of diminishing returns, diverting resources from potentially higher-return investments. Considerable human and bureaucratic resources have been poured into the “India bet” — as one official privately noted, there are more people in the Defense Department working on the India relationship than on the U.S. alliance with Japan. In this case, putting too much stock in the U.S.-India relationship may divert attention and resources from other more efficient Indo-Pacific investments critical to balancing China, whether doubling down on strong treaty allies (Japan, Australia), recovering old allies (Philippines, Thailand), or deepening nascent partners (Vietnam, Indonesia).

Second, false expectations can cause a partner to miscalculate on the assumption that its partners will back them. The United States appears to be circling the wagons on confronting China, but may be overestimating the willingness of critical partners like Singapore to side with it. False confidence in India as a proto-ally might cause the United States to mis-estimate its coercive leverage and risk more aggressive confrontations with countries like Iran or China than if it understood that India would avoid the fray. While the United States may not seek a high-end fight with China today, it may be discounting how much “ambiguous commitments tend to weaken deterrence.”

Third, false expectations about the trajectory of a relationship could cause a partner to overestimate its leverage and overplay its hand. At present, U.S. overconfidence in strategic alignment may be driving it to press India on a number of areas that could cumulatively undermine the relationship. Pompeo’s list of concerns on which he plans to confront India includes 5G, data localization, trade barriers, Iranian oil, and Russian weapons. These disputes force India to choose between the U.S. relationship (and all its attendant near-term demands) and several of its other long-term interests, including its optimal economic choices, relationships, and arms procurements.

Finally, these three consequences of unmanaged expectations can spiral into feelings of disillusionment, abandonment, or betrayal, festering into anger that poisons a relationship. One need only look at years of U.S. frustration with NATO allies shirking of explicit commitments on defense spending or troop commitments to Afghanistan, which has recently boiled over into resentment and even hostility. Today, descriptions of India as a “major defense partner” — a lofty status with undefined obligations — generate implicit expectations of Indian alignment with the United States on a whole raft of policies. High, explicit expectations can mobilize cooperation and build momentum in a relationship, but excessive implicit ones can place so much weight that they set back or undermine it.

Many of India’s limitations have been clear for a long time. So why do U.S. policymakers and analysts have such a hard time managing their expectations? We offer a few initial explanations. First, most appraisals of the relationship tend to privilege aspirations over sober cost-benefit analysis. And some assessments suffer from the inherent traps of all intelligence analysis —groupthink, excess consensus, failure to challenge assumptions, and confirmation bias. Second, lofty, gratuitous rhetoric by officials —“natural partners,” “most consequential bilateral relationship in the 21st century,” “one of our strongest and most dependable military partners”—helps inflate expectations. Though aspirational idioms seek to inspire breakthroughs, there is a point at which they slowly harden into unquestioned axioms. Third, the United States is more comfortable with binary choices — ally or adversary — than it is with the gray area of “aligned” partners. U.S. policymakers often default to referring to India as an “ally” even though they are continually warned by experts that is an inaccurate description.

Some have suggested the United States should adjust expectations of India to be, at most, a “friendly strategic partner” that aligns only “moderately and partially” with the United States. Rather than an “anchor of global stability,” expectations of the partnership could be downsized to a consequential, but neither sufficient nor necessary, element of U.S. deterrence in the Indo-Pacific. This would require a mutual relaxation of expectations and greater dexterity. The United States may need to better respect the primacy of India’s economic development, the security priorities of its immediate neighborhood, the utility of its relationships with Russia and Iran, and its desire for a defense strategy congruent with economic growth. Correspondingly, India may need to adjust to America’s diminished appetite for “strategic altruism” — under which India got more than it gave, with U.S. expectations of longer-term returns. Instead, policymakers in New Delhi should accept that greater cooperation with the United States will now come at the cost of proportionate rather than asymmetric concessions.

After years of overly lofty aspirations, modest policy adjustments derived from an honest assessment of divergences and their structural drivers just might be the thing to rescue the U.S.-India relationship from the weight of expectations.



Sameer Lalwani (@splalwani) is a Senior Fellow and Director of the South Asia Program at the Stimson Center. Heather Byrne (@HeatherRByrne) is a Research Associate with the South Asia Program at the Stimson Center.


Image: U.S. State Department