American interest in and concerns about India rose sharply after that country carried out underground nuclear tests in May 1998. Clinton administration officials belatedly acknowledged that developing a good working relationship with India should be one of America’s top foreign policy priorities. President Clinton’s visit to South Asia in March 2000 was an important symbolic step.
That initiative, however, does not constitute a major breakthrough in relations between India and the United States. Paying greater attention to India, although long overdue, cannot by itself dramatically improve uneasy U.S.-Indian relations and turn India into a de facto strategic partner. The fundamental mistake made by U.S. leaders has been to underestimate India and its economic and military potential. How India uses its growing power can either enhance or seriously undermine U.S. interests. Continued insistence by the United States that India liquidate its nuclear arsenal will only cause major problems in relations between Washington and New Delhi.
Washington’s overemphasis on the proliferation issue illustrates the tendency of U.S. policymakers to treat India as a potential adversary rather than a potential friend. U.S. leaders should not insist on improvement in New Delhi’s human rights record in Kashmir, or set other preconditions, for the U.S.-Indian relationship. Pursuing the current course may well extend the impasse in relations to the point of irrevocably “losing” India.
Mistakes in U.S. policy have contributed to India’s drifting toward a Russia-India-China nexus aimed at preventing U.S. global domination. The likelihood of India’s participation in an anti-U.S. alliance will depend on what New Delhi thinks about American geopolitical designs toward India and its national security interests.
A long-range strategy needs to be based on Washington’s willingness to accept India’s world power status. That means accepting India into the club of nuclear weapons states and enthusiastically endorsing New Delhi’s bid for permanent membership in the UN Security Council. The main benefit to the United States of such a breakthrough in U.S.-Indian relations would be to prevent a dramatic adverse change in the current global geopolitical situation, which currently favors the United States. An assertive India could help stabilize the Persian Gulf and Central Asian regions. Even more important, India could become a strategic counterweight to China and a crucial part of a stable balance of power in both East Asia and South Asia.