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American and Indian Interests in India's Extended Neighborhood

Ashley J. Tellis
June 25, 2007

The U.S.-India relationship has recently undergone a dramatic transformation, with both countries committing themselves to a global strategic partnership symbolized most prominently by the agreement on civilian nuclear cooperation. This transformation is anchored in a commonality of values but, equally importantly, in the systemic changes occurring in the international order, namely, the rise of China and India as emerging great powers. The rise of China, against the backdrop of larger Asian economic and political dynamism, provides strong strategic motivations for renewed U.S.-Indian collaboration. In this context, India's relative weakness vis-a-vis China-an issue that often provides grounds for many invidious comparisons between the two countries-actually turns out to be a geopolitical strength as far as U.S. incentives for partnering with India are concerned.

While the logic underlying the U.S.-Indian partnership is usually not contested in principle, the question of whether the two countries can actually work together in practice often evokes skepticism. One way to answer this question is by systematically examining the possibilities for U.S.-Indian collaboration on a range of functional and regional issues. When the prospects for bilateral cooperation in India's extended neighborhood-that is, the area outside of South Asia proper, but including China, Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean, West Asia and the Persian Gulf, and Central Asia-are examined, it is possible to demonstrate that in each of these geographic areas, there exists a broad congruence of goals between the two countries. With the exception of West Asia, there is a congruence of strategies as well, leading to the conclusion that U.S.-Indian cooperation can manifest itself not simply in abstract cooperation but also in terms of concrete policy coordination. A systematic survey of U.S. and Indian objectives and strategies in each of the quadrants of India's extended neighborhood corroborates this conclusion abundantly.

U.S. and Indian objectives and strategies vis-a-vis China, for example, are remarkably similar. Both countries are trying to protect their interests, primacy and security obligations in those critical regions where China's rising power could pose a significant threat: Asia for the United States, and South Asia for India. Since both countries have avoided prematurely designating China as an adversary and want to benefit from economic interdependence with Beijing, their respective strategies of political and economic engagement also include elements of an insurance policy which revolves around the development and preservation of those military capabilities required to deter, (and defeat if necessary) any Chinese threats to their strategic interests. American and Indian interests and strategies towards China thus display remarkable congruity.

In Southeast Asia, Indian and U.S. objectives are again perfectly complementary. A core national security objective for both countries is to prevent the key Southeast Asian states from becoming strategically dependent on China. The Southeast Asian states, in turn, realize that their goals of securing freedom and political space are best achieved through a calculated policy of inviting India, along with China, Japan, and the United States, to operate freely within the region. Besides aiming to protect the sea lanes of communication that pass through Southeast Asia, the United States and India share economic objectives as well, including the preservation and enhancement of economic ties with the key regional states through different kinds of free trade agreements. Moreover, the United States, which maintains a residual military presence in the region, and India, which is gradually increasing its own military ties with Southeast Asia, agree that a region free from Chinese military domination serves their common strategic interests.

The Indian Ocean offers subtle but interesting differences from Southeast Asia. Since the ocean affords direct access to the Indian landmass, it constitutes an intrinsically important security area to India, whereas it is only extrinsically important to the United States. Pakistan and China, through their naval operations and their relations with the littoral states on India's periphery, represent the most consequential challenges to Indian security emerging from the maritime basin; a future Chinese naval presence in the area also has serious strategic implications for American interests. With a growing economy that is increasingly interconnected globally, India has a stake in protecting freedom of navigation and maritime security along the ocean sea lines of communication (SLOCs), an interest shared by the United States. The United States and India seek to prevent the use of the ocean's transit routes for the movement of weapons of mass destruction and associated materials, in addition to protecting the littoral island states from internal and external threats and from exporting instability.

Not surprisingly, both countries maintain a strong naval presence in the region: the U.S. Navy maintains bases in Diego Garcia and the Persian Gulf, while the Indian Navy maintains a significant presence throughout the northern Indian Ocean. In addition, both have invested significant political, military and diplomatic capital on maintenance of cooperative security relationships with various littoral states as well as other key regional actors such as Japan and Singapore. The goals and strategies pursued by the two countries are thus clearly complementary.

In contrast, the West Asian region represents the most important point of potential discord between the United States and India, not because of significantly divergent objectives but due to the adoption of different strategies that, in turn, reflect each country's larger compulsions. As far as objectives go, the United States and India share the goals of protecting access to regional energy resources as well as the need to protect their nationals living there, who are mostly military personnel for the United States. India also seeks to strike a balance between maintaining its access to Israeli military technology and its older (though currently decreasing) commitment to Arab causes in the region. U.S. objectives also include the containment of anti-American regional powers, such as Iran and Syria, and limiting their access to WMD capabilities. This latter objective is shared by India, which also supports the U.S. goal of promoting pluralist democratic governments in the region.

While U.S. and Indian objectives are thus largely complementary, their strategies are not. The variance can be traced to their differences in national perceptions about Saudi Arabia and Iran. While support of the Saudi monarchy remains a key pillar of U.S. strategy in the region, India has often been at the receiving end of Saudi-financed Wahabi proselytization in South Asia, which has underwritten several terrorist groups at war with the Indian state. This difference of perception extends to Iran, which serves as the fulcrum of India's Near Eastern policy. Although India is strongly opposed to the Iranian effort to acquire nuclear capabilities, Tehran remains an important provider of energy resources to India. Moreover, Iran provides India with land transit routes to Afghanistan and Central Asia and is viewed by New Delhi as a crucial partner in preventing the resurgence of the Taliban. In contrast, U.S.-Iranian relations are extraordinarily strained due to Tehran's pursuit of nuclear weapons, its support of radical groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, and its stridently anti-Israeli rhetoric. Although New Delhi finds Iranian policies on these issues distasteful, its dependence on Iran for the reasons highlighted above make the U.S.-Indian-Iranian triangle a delicate exercise in diplomatic balancing. The U.S.-Indian disagreement over strategies towards the Near East is thus likely to become the single most problematic issue in their emerging strategic partnership.

In Central Asia, U.S. and Indian goals, though not identical, are again highly complementary. The region, though important, is not as central to both countries' foreign policy priorities as other regions. U.S. objectives in Central Asia include preventing undue Chinese or Russian influence over the newly independent Central Asian republics, helping these states develop alternative exit routes for their oil and gas other than through Russia or Iran, preserving military access to Central Asia for anti-terrorism operations, and defeating Islamic fundamentalism and supporting democratic transitions in these countries. Similarly, in addition to securing access to Central Asian energy resources, India seeks to consolidate its close historical ties with the region in order to preclude excessive Chinese influence, strengthen Afghan autonomy and its ability to resist Taliban resurgence, and limit Pakistani influence and the export of Islamist ideologies in the region.

The U.S. strategy of strengthening existing partnerships with the most important regional states by providing economic, diplomatic and military assistance, while seeking to stabilize the situation in Afghanistan, is substantively similar to India's strategy. India seeks to support secular rulers against Islamist forces, while providing them with technical assistance in education, infrastructure, and nation-building activities as a way of countering China's increasing influence and maintaining its own strategic relevance to the region. As a matter of strategic priority, the United States has in turn attempted to integrate Central Asia with South Asia more tightly by encouraging Indian trade, investment, and assistance to the Central Asian states. Again, the convergence between the United States and India in the near-to-long term is significant.

Where India's extended neighborhood is concerned, U.S.-Indian goals and strategies converge more often than is usually appreciated. Even though this does not mean that the United States and India will automatically collaborate on every problem, or that U.S. and Indian tactics will be identical in every case, the presence of common summum bonum that the two sides can secure only collaboratively and through a common vision provides a basis for strong practical cooperation between the United States and India in the future.

Ashley Tellis is Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. As Senior Adviser to the U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, he was intimately involved in negotiating the civil nuclear agreement with India.


India in Transition (IiT) is published by the Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI) of the University of Pennsylvania. All viewpoints, positions, and conclusions expressed in IiT are solely those of the author(s) and not specifically those of CASI.

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