Editor’s note: This essay is a product of the US-India Program at the Hoover Institution. The goal of this initiative is to generate, identify, and advance policy-relevant scholarship and connections that will deepen the relationship between the world’s oldest democracy and the world’s largest democracy.
For the past twenty years, US-India relations have been deepening to the point where both sides have become comfortable referring to a key strategic partnership binding the countries together more closely than ever before. This well-advanced initiative has been taking place across a broad front, which has engaged in virtually every area of human endeavor. There has been no formal treaty agreement of cooperation. The relationship is simply there and has worked.
Now, in the short space of a few months, we see changes to international relationships brought about by Russia’s violent and illegal invasion of Ukraine. These events, an unfolding human tragedy on a scale not seen since the Second World War in Europe, involve a people who have clearly declared their desire and right to remain independent.
India has had a long-standing relationship with the Soviet Union and now Russia, especially in defense and security affairs, and it continues to remain dependent on Russia in important ways today. Although India disapproves of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, India has maintained a position of neutrality toward Russian actions in Ukraine in the name of its long-standing policy of nonalignment in global affairs.
An Independent History
The history of India’s foreign policy since independence in 1947 is important. Since its beginnings as a free and independent sovereign nation, India has attempted to represent itself as a nonaligned state, free from formal treaty alliances with others.
India’s early governments after independence were led by political leaders who were trained and influenced largely by British socialists in post–World War II Britain. India also had and still has a deep hostility to colonialism.
Over the years, India regarded itself as the leader of the nonaligned world. It crafted for itself the image of a truly independent nation, devoted to big government and a state-controlled economy imposed on what can be described as a paternalistic society, and governed by paternalistic leaders. India’s economic policies in its first fifty years produced a steady flow of poor economic growth and widespread poverty that were secondary to the pride of enlightened leadership and to India’s continuing commitment to its foreign policy of nonalignment.
In 1991, these policy foundations collided with economic reality. India narrowly avoided economic collapse. It began a program of significant economic reforms and began opening its closed economy to the world.
During its early years of sovereign independence, India remained close to the Soviet Union, especially in its defense relations—purchasing some 95 percent of its weaponry from the Soviets. Today this figure is approximately 60 percent from Russia. This was a part of India’s strategy of proving it was independent from the Western democracies that had committed themselves to rebuilding a prosperous, capitalist world of free and democratic nations. It was this world that India gradually started opening up to as the twentieth century drew to a close.
India’s reforms and liberalizations during the first twenty years of the new century were a most remarkable success. India broke out of its long-standing low-growth cocoon in 2003 and achieved an average annual growth rate of 7–8 percent through the next fourteen years. India established record levels of foreign direct investment, both incoming and outgoing, as well as dramatically rising trade figures as it opened its markets.
Living standards began to rise and major inroads were made against India’s widespread poverty. India became a focus of world interest, a democracy, and a land of potential opportunity because of its massive young population, its huge consumer market, and the startling and visible impact technology was having on its economy and society. Global technology companies saw a new market and fresh opportunity for investment and exciting potential for start-up investments.
US-India relations took on a new life, especially after the initiation of the Civil Nuclear Cooperation Initiative, launched in 2005 and completed successfully in 2008. This agreement opened to India the world of civil nuclear technology from which it had been excluded since 1974, without forcing India to give up its strategic nuclear defense program. The agreement was ratified by the US Congress and also approved by a consensus among the forty-five then-members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group of countries whose chief focus, as suppliers to the world of peaceful nuclear technologies, is on global nuclear nonproliferation.
In short, India is on the rise to becoming a great power and a partner in a key geopolitical relationship for the United States in the Indo-Pacific region and the world at large. The world’s oldest and largest democracies have rapidly deepened and strengthened their relations across the board, including defense, business, science, and technology. These developments have extended well beyond the base of friendly relations already in place for many decades between India and America’s civic societies, private sectors, and the more than one million NGOs (nongovernmental private organizations) active today in India. Indeed, it can be said that both governments have followed the leadership and initiative of private societies over many years in founding and nurturing relations.
Today we find ourselves in a potentially awkward moment, with India seeming to support the perpetrator of an illegal and violent war against the people of Ukraine, and the United States shocked to find that our great friend and important partner may not share all the values and objectives that are important to our current strategic partnership. We must maintain our tradition of frank and open discussions. And as long-standing friends and partners, we also must seek to understand each other’s interests.
India occupies the critical strategic area of the subcontinent between the Middle East/Africa and south and east Asia. India, significantly, has the third-largest standing military in the world. Moreover, it shares a two-thousand-mile border with China. India’s security priorities over time will shift more toward China’s threats to India itself, as well as to India’s interests in south and east Asia and its security interests in the Indian Ocean region.
Defense and interoperability relations with the United States will deepen. US-India trade and two-way foreign direct investment will flourish. And if the United States preserves the priority of broad-based US-India relations as they stand today in civil society, our private sectors, our shared democratic values, and our shared economic and political interests, our progress in these areas will benefit both countries. If we maintain our tested course of relationship building with India and a crisis develops over China’s ambitions in the region, there is every reason to believe that the United States and India will stand together as allies with or without a formal treaty.
Building stronger relations with the two other Quad countries (Australia and Japan) and taking steps to deal more firmly with an opportunistic Pakistan—now moving into China’s orbit—should enhance this effort. Attention should also be focused on strengthening India’s ties with a more united Europe.
Meanwhile, every effort should be made, as a US-India priority, to help India strengthen its position in the currently challenged global supply chain. All the tools are available to help India become the world’s leading supply chain hub in Asia.
India has a population of 1.4 billion, a figure that is rising even as China’s population begins to decline. More than half of India’s population is under the age of twenty-five, and the average Indian is approximately ten years younger than a resident of China.
India educates four times more engineers each year than does the United States, and technology is one of India’s key national priorities, as we see in Indian communities in the United States.
Clearly the United States’ geopolitical relationship with India will be among our most important of the twenty-first century. The Hoover Institution has made a major commitment to strengthening understanding of and our relationship with India.