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  • Realizing the Potential:Mature Defense Cooperation and the U.S.-India Strategic Partnership
  • Cara Abercrombie (bio)

india, united states, strategic partnership, cooperation

[End Page 119]

executive summary

This article argues that the defense and security dimension of the U.S.-India strategic partnership, despite demonstrating significant growth and progress in recent years, still lacks the maturity critical to enabling the cooperation envisioned.

main argument

The U.S.-India global strategic partnership, now well into its second decade, has continued to be a priority for successive governments in both countries because of its tremendous economic and security potential. Washington and New Delhi have demonstrated the political will to propel robust cooperation and have begun to put into place the architecture of a mature relationship. Yet the overall output resulting from numerous dialogues, military exercises, and engagements and the tangible impact on Indian and U.S. security objectives are less than one would expect given the level of input and the number of years spent working toward these goals. Additional effort is required to habituate the type of cooperation the U.S. typically enjoys with its closest allies and partners and realize the relationship's full potential.

policy implications

  • • Until and unless the U.S. and India routinely engage one another at all levels within government—from the strategic to the tactical—and build habits of cooperation, the relationship will not mature.

  • • Dissimilar perceptions of how to implement the strategic partnership can cause the U.S. and India to have unrealistic expectations of one another, which in turn can frustrate practical cooperation.

  • • Different foreign policy approaches to relations with Russia, Iran, and Pakistan could complicate future cooperation if not managed carefully.

  • • Bureaucratic obstacles and a lack of resources dedicated to the bilateral relationship can inhibit the development of informal relationships and habits of cooperation. [End Page 120]

The U.S.-India global strategic partnership, now well into its second decade, has continued to be a priority for successive governments in both countries because of its tremendous economic and security potential. Since President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee outlined a vision for a new bilateral relationship in 2000, U.S. Democratic and Republican administrations and Indian governments led by the Congress Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) alike have committed significant time, energy, and resources to building the foundation for close cooperation. Both sides are motivated by the shared belief that a strong India is in the United States' interest and that continued U.S. global leadership, as well as a sustained forward U.S. military presence in the Indo-Pacific, benefits India.1 At its core, the relationship is rooted in the two countries' shared democratic values and increasingly convergent interests. Prominent among them is the desire to ensure that no single power dominates Asia, to counter international terrorism, and to uphold the liberal international rules-based order.2 As Prime Minister Narendra Modi said before a joint session of the U.S. Congress in 2016, "A strong India-U.S. partnership can anchor peace, prosperity and stability from Asia to Africa and from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific."3

Today, motivated in part by China's assertive actions in the region, Washington and New Delhi have amplified the importance of the relationship and have accelerated efforts to improve cooperation. The Trump administration has placed India firmly at the center of its Indo-Pacific strategy, which gives more prominence to India than did the Obama administration's rebalance policy, in which its role was ambiguous. In the 2017 National Security Strategy, the United States prominently welcomed "India's emergence as a leading global power and stronger strategic and defense power," in marked contrast with China, which the document refers to as a strategic competitor—a first in a public U.S. strategy document.4 Former secretary of state Rex Tillerson further underscored the importance of India, making it the focus of his first major foreign policy speech. He said, "We need to collaborate with India to ensure that the Indo-Pacific is increasingly a place of peace, stability, and [End Page 121] growing prosperity so that it does not become a region of disorder, conflict, and...


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