India and the United States: Economic, Strategic, and Maritime Implications

Stephen P. Cohen
Stephen P. Cohen
Stephen P. Cohen Former Brookings Expert

November 7, 2006

Any “National Security Strategy” that is ahistorical and culturally uninformed is unlikely to maximize American interests. On both counts, American strategy in the Indian Ocean region, especially as it pertains to India, the region’s most important maritime state and rising economic power, has more often than not been tone-deaf. This shortcoming was especially notable during the Cold War, when the Indian Navy (IN) was seen as a Soviet auxiliary, and India was thought to be the putative leader of a hostile nonaligned movement. Of course, Indians had their own stereotypes of the United States, and for nearly twenty years, from 1970 onward, American policy was seen as part of a China-Pakistan-U.S. axis that had India’s containment, if not suppression, as its chief objective.

These days are certainly over, and for a number of reasons both Washington and New Delhi have come to a more realistic (and optimistic) understanding of the possibility of strategic cooperation between the two states.

  • The end of the Cold War forced both sides to reassess the U.S.-India relationship. That reassessment took several years to complete—and in some places in India America is still regarded as a threatening state—but by and large the two states interact as “normal” great powers should.
  • The 1998 Indian nuclear tests began the process of removing the proliferation issue from the top of the bilateral agenda. The U.S.-India nuclear deal, if consummated, would complete that process.
  • India’s economic growth spurt has attracted strong American corporate interest, and American companies now comprise a significant India lobby in Washington.
  • With the exception of elements of India’s left, support for closer U.S.-Indian relations is strong across the political spectrum in both states.
  • India’s military capabilities are now more realistically seen for what they are: limited, but highly professional, and thus capable of significant growth.
  • Both India and the United States keep a wary eye on China; in both countries opinion about the question of whether China’s rise will be hostile or benign is fairly evenly distributed among strategic elites, including the military.
  • Pakistan and India-Pakistan relations are not addressed by America’s current national security strategy. That strategy does not adequately deal with the prospect of (a) another India-Pakistan crisis (or war), (b) Pakistan’s role in fomenting what most American policy makers would call terrorism (but which Pakistanis regard as legitimate freedom struggles), (c) Pakistan’s economic and political incoherence, and (d) remaining questions about Pakistan’s nuclear program.

This paper looks ahead five to seven years and explores those areas where we see an important intersection between economic growth, maritime strategy, and strategic ties between the United States and India. Our assessment is preliminary, but our major conclusions are (1) that the Indian Ocean and maritime security will be the most likely area of military cooperation, (2) the autonomous growth of economic ties between India and the United States provides the ballast for the overall strategic and political relationship, ruling out any major swing toward a new hostility, (3) Pakistan, not China, is likely to be the major area of contention between Washington and New Delhi, and (4) India can do little regarding America’s concerns about terrorism, and the issue has the potential to be divisive.