“The U.S.-India strategic partnership came with great hype about India’s potential contribution to U.S. interests,” Colin Geraghty of the American Security Project in Washington said in a report this month, adding that a “sense of disappointment” has set in.
In Washington, analysts and business leaders have expressed disappointment in the past two years over the pace of reform in India, the lack of progress in civil nuclear cooperation and India’s continuing engagement with Iran. While the longer-term logic of the relationship remains firmly intact, there is a growing sense that India will never be a truly trusted ally.
The U.S. strategic rebalance reflects the Obama administration’s belief that the center of gravity of American foreign and economic policy has shifted toward Asia and that maintaining peace in the Asia-Pacific has become increasingly important as a result of China’s rapid rise.
In one of the few concrete measures announced so far, the U.S. Navy will gradually move more of its ships to the region, deploying 60 percent of its fleet there by 2020.
“India clearly plays an important role in our rebalance,” Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said in an e-mail interview, looking to it as an “anchor of regional stability . . . and a partner on issues in the Indian Ocean and beyond.”
Privately, some senior Indian officials say they would welcome a stronger American presence in the region — New Delhi shares a strong strategic interest in hedging against China’s rise and in maintaining open sea lanes and free commerce throughout the region.
Publicly, though, the reaction has been distinctly lukewarm, with Adm. Nirmal Kumar Verma, then Indian naval chief, delivering what Indian media called a “snub” in August, when he said deployment in the Pacific and South China Sea was “not on the cards.”
“We want strategic autonomy,” retired Indian diplomat T.P. Sreenivasan said in Washington last month, according to a Foreign Policy blog post. “We don’t want to be identified with U.S. policy in Asia, even if we secretly like it.”
Caution regarding China
India’s reluctance to tie itself to the U.S. mast is partly a legacy of its Cold War antipathy toward Washington and distrust stemming from the imposition of American sanctions after India’s nuclear tests in 1974 and 1998.
India has also watched nervously in recent years as President Obama first courted China and then as he seemed to move toward a policy of containment.
The strategic rebalance has inflamed nationalist sentiment in China, and there is a sense in New Delhi that a little distance from the occasionally clumsy Americans is a generally sound foreign policy approach — especially when India shares a long, disputed border with the Chinese.