India and the United States: Perceptions and Policy

Snehlata Panda, Reader, Berhampur University, Orissa


Perceptions of India's poverty and diplomatic considerations during the Cold War influenced US policy towards India which by and large has remained unchanged despite improved Indo-US relations after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. This paper addresses the nuclear triangle perspective of the US and its policy towards the sub-continent after India conducted nuclear tests in May 1998.

Despite India's growing economic, political and strategic importance, it was neglected by the United States due largely to its perception of the South Asian region which resulted from a combination of factors. An important factor was lack of its contact with the region, to the extent it had with China and Japan. Except for missionary activities, it had no political or economic relations with India prior to World War II. As Harold Issacs writes, "American interaction with India occurs less along a narrower arc, in a smaller compass of awareness and interest because the United States has much less shared history with that country than with China or Japan."1

Lack of contact resulted in subjective perceptions about India and misconceptions and negative feelings about India and Indians.2 US academicians, policy makers and people have almost the same image of India, that it is economically backward, placed in an agrarian setting where foreign trade and industry are rather neglected.3 The general presentation of India is focussed on death, disease, illiteracy and poverty.4 The US Congress denied US citizenship to Indian migrants who went there in search of employment as far back as 1917. The matter was protracted for about three decades until President Truman intervened for the passage of reforms proposal relating to quota and naturalisation of South Asians. Restriction on Indian migration restrained contact further and misperceptions about the region strengthened.5 The policy of Richard Nixon during the Bangladesh war in 1971 was largely shaped by his dislike of India arising from the perception that it is a "poverty stricken helpless country." The relative unimportance of South Asia was perceptible from the clubbing of South Asian affairs in the State Department with the Near East till 1992. Until recently, US relations with India were handled by a Deputy Assistant Secretary of the State Department. In the US legislature South Asian discussions cropped up mainly in the context of foreign aid appropriation process and nuclear non-proliferation.6 India is perceived as part of South Asia which has no resources vital to the Asian economy.7

The pre-War inhibitions of the United States about India were further strengthened by its refusal to be aligned in the post-War period. US-Soviet competition during the Cold War and their stand on the Indo-Pak conflict determined US relations with India. Unlike China, India is not seen as an international power.8 Pakistan, meanwhile, is viewed as a necessary balancer and a more reliable partner despite the fact that India is the dominant state in the region. Indo-US relations during the post-War period were normally cool except for the fact that US aid to India totalled $10 billion during 1954-64. As an aid recipient, India could hardly convince the US about its economic potentialities. Nor could it clear the prejudices about India arising from several factors, largely based on the British rulers' perception of India. US obsession with anti-Communism, use of newly independent states in great power rivalry, dislike of non-alignment, its economic power to influence the Third World, etc. created suspicion among the Indian leadership whose nationalist orientations were shaped by their involvement in the country's struggle for freedom. US rivalry with the Communist bloc headed by the former Soviet Union and the proxy wars in Korea and Indo-China, the Arab-Israeli conflict, India's use of force in Goa, its stand on the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and conflict with Pakistan were some of the major issues which reinforced its negative perception about India and impeded the development of a friendly relationship.

But after the end of the Cold War, India and the US came closer due to the changes in the bipolar world system which denied India an alternative to guide its foreign policy, while the US industry was in search of markets to promote business and commercial interests. The US has emerged as the most powerful country with rich natural resources, superior technology and military power. Its liberal economic principles have dominated the world economic system under the aegis of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank. Almost all countries, including India, are eager to be integrated in the global economic system. US business too, has realised the potential of India's market and has identified it as one of the ten emerging markets in the world. This is based on US identification of economies where rapid growth is likely to take place in the next two decades. The prediction is that three-fourth of world trade in the next 20 years is expected to take place in the developing countries, and most of it in the ten emerging markets. Accordng to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report of May 23, 1995, the Asian developing countries will account for almost a third of global demand by 2010. India is one of the emerging markets in Asia where growth will have a profound impact on the economy. India's interest in modern technology has further reinforced the interest of the US business community that has lobbied for maintaining good Indo-US relations. Indians settled in the US have proved their credentials by hard work and their family income is 25 per cent higher than the national average. Its vibrant private sector, rudimentary financial system, a huge consumer base, a predominantly English speaking, technically trained personnel, a well developed system of property rights and commercial law, and independent judicial system and free press are some of the major considerations for the US business which have influenced US policy towards India after end of the Cold War. But perceptions about India have had to be readjusted after Pokhran II. India's nuclear weaponisation is not perceived by the US just in terms of its general non-proliferation and arms control concerns. The nuclear test, conducted by India have disrupted the US plan for preventing horizontal missile and nuclear proliferation which was the core of its world order after the Cold War ended. Moreover, the US is troubled by the strategic equation among the countries of the Asia Pacific which could damage its dominance in the region. A nuclear confrontation between India and Pakistan would also hamper US interests in Central and West Asia, Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and in the Gulf.

Nuclear Triangle Perspective

The most contentious issue impeding Indo-US relations is India's nuclear policy. Ever since 1974, the "nuclear triangle perspective" of the United States has frustrated every attempt made by India to strengthen the confidence building measures. India's nuclear option is perceived by the United States as having two purposes: one, military and the other, political. The military dimension is viewed primarily as a response to the Chinese nuclear weapons programme, whereas the political dimension is viewed as its determination to achieve greater recognition on the strength of its heritage of an ancient civilisation and in a world where nuclear power is viewed as the currency of power.9 Its negative attitude towards India's nuclear capability deepened after Pakistan's nuclear tests. For the US, Pakistan's acquisition of nuclear power was a political necessity after India acquired it. Therefore, if Pakistan is to be restrained, the initiative must be aimed at first pressurising India to cap its nuclear programme and join the NPT, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and the proposed Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT).

India has always viewed that the US has a soft corner for Pakistan which was its Cold War ally, and its military support to Pakistan was an outcome of the "Cold War collective security concept"--a perspective influenced by the British view of the South Asian region. The Gulf is important for the United Kingdom, as it opens directly to Karachi. Therefore, Pakistan was included in the "Baghdad Pact" which Pakistan was more than willing to join, because as a newly created state it had no vision of the future role that it would play in foreign affairs, except for its obsession with India--and to humble India, it needed military aid from the United States. The US has no proper perspective of Indo-Pak rivalry which has deep roots. The United States perceived that the partition of India and creation of Pakistan in 1947 had settled Hindu-Muslim rivalry because it was not aware of how deep rooted it was. Besides, the US was not comfortable with India's neutral foreign policy. India was also strategically unimportant for Middle East defence and, therefore, it was excluded from the military alliance. On the other hand, Pakistan under its military ruler was eager to enter into such alliances which enabled it to receive economic and military aid totalling $1.5 billion during the decade 1954-64. Pakistan's strategic importance vis-a-vis India further increased during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan when its territory was used to "set up secret electronic intelligence bases in northern Pakistan to monitor Soviet missile tests in nearby Soviet Central Asia." US economic and military support to Pakistan was over $2 billion during this period. India could decipher the contradictions in the US policy of championing democratic governments worldwide but supporting non-democratic governments from the Cold War perspective.

India's argument that the NPT is discriminatory which restrains acquisition of nuclear power by non-nuclear states but does not commit to phaseout the nuclear weapons of the declared nuclear states, is not compatible with the US perception of the nature of the global power structure. On the other hand, India views that the US policy of allowing ownership of nuclear power to a "manageable number of countries including itself" is "an attempt to retain its dominant place in the international system and to shape the international order in a way which suited its interests."10 India insists on a nuclear weapon free world where the declared nuclear states should attempt to denuclearise. The "stability concept" of the US has filtered down in to compelling India and Pakistan to sign the NPT which, it suggests, will prevent a nuclear war in South Asia.

In the recently held negotiations, the US has reiterated that nuclear non-proliferation "is a crucial and immutable guideline for US policy. The basic difference in the perception of India and the US on the nuclear issue is that the US is committed to the present nuclear non-proliferation regime and India is committed to breach it." Unless this posture is reconciled, any dialogue between India and US will be unsuccessful.

India also cannot accept the US suggestion for strategic restraint on the development, flight training and storage of missiles and nuclear capable aircraft. If India applies restraint and others are allowed to develop, transfer, sell and purchase missiles and nuclear capable aircraft, then India's wider objectives as well as its security will be jeopardised.

During the Cold War, massive influx of US arms into Pakistan not only deteriorated Indo-Pak relations but made Pakistan more adamant while negotiating with India on several outstanding bilateral issues. The US military alliance with Pakistan changed the whole content of the problem existing between India and Pakistan, and turned the bilateral relations into triangular relations where the US became a third party. After the Cold War, it appeared that the US will no longer need Pakistan as a strategic ally in its diplomatic venture in the Gulf and Central Asia and also to counter Communist influence in South Asia. But the US still considers Pakistan as an ally to safeguard its interests in the Gulf, useful in influencing its policy in Central Asia and also to counter India's emergence as an effective regional power. Therefore, it continues to bolster it with military and technological power commensurate with India's capabilities.

The US is also reluctant to "square up the Indian demand for strategic preeminence in the South Asian region." An early reconciliation between the US and India after Pokhran II would have been possible had the US accepted India's views, and India could have abided with its demands on non-proliferation of nuclear weapons. The Indian government's view reflects the view of a majority of the Indian population who opposes the "inequities and asymmetrical rules of global nuclear bargain." Article I of the CTBT forbids the carrying out of any nuclear test explosion or any other nuclear explosion, but does not clearly state what constitutes a "nuclear explosion." Under the SSMP (Stockpile Stewardship and Management Programme), no retraint is provided to carry out experiments, which would go against the primary objective of the test ban treaty. These facilities, together with the Accelerated Strategic Competing Initiative (ASCI) and SSMP would enable virtual testing of nuclear weapon designs which would go against the primary objective of the test ban treaty. Therefore, India is reluctant to join the CTBT which would be infructuous if any one of the 44 countries including the US fails to ratify the treaty.

Nuclear Non-Proliferation Perspective

The post-Cold War world system as perceived by the US is a nuclear free world where weapons of mass destruction should not proliferate beyond the five declared nuclear powers who have a high stake in the present nuclear order as it affects their ability to supply strategic materials (conventional as well as nuclear), their command over markets and resources, which in fact affect their growth and prosperity. The US which spearheads the nuclear non-proliferation agenda, desired that India should not test nuclear bombs, nor should it deploy missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons. The tests conducted by India threatened US interests and fuelled American fears of the possibility of an arms race destabilising the Indian subcontinent.

During the Cold War, the US did not accept the linkage between vertical and horizontal proliferation, ignored the nexus between nuclear proliferation and sale of conventional weapons and "its proliferation concerns were compromised for other security and strategic concerns." In the post-Cold War period and after Pokhran II, the US desires to create a climate of security in the South Asian region through tension reduction, confidence building and arms control measures. But its goal of complete nuclear disarmament in South Asia may not be realised as both India and Pakistan have come too far to accept such suggestions. The only workable solution would be lowering of nuclear weaponry to the level of "minimum deterrence" or "defensive defence."

On November 12, 1998, Strobe Talbott said at the Brookings Institute that the US remained committed to the common position of the P5 and G8 and will not concede that India and Pakistan have established themselves as nuclear weapon states under the NPT. Until and unless they disavow nuclear weapons and accept safeguards on all their nuclear activities, they will continue to forfeit the full recognition and benefits that accrue to members in goodstanding of the NPT." He also reiterated US demand on the implementation of five steps which are: signature on the CTBT, suspension of production of fissile material, non-deployment of missiles, restraint on nuclear exports and Indo-Pak bilateral dialogue. But there has been no progress on any of these issues even after the eighth round of the Talbott-Singh talks. The Indo-Pak dialogue too has not been very successful on issues like Siachen, Sir Creek and Tulbul barrage which yet remain unresolved.

US negotiations with India on nuclear non-proliferation are guided by the goals set by "an international community" which includes among others, Argentina, Brazil and Ukraine. India insists on the complete "elimination of nuclear weapons" and views the present nuclear non-proliferation regime as a creation of the United States and one that has been forced on others through coercion and pressure. The sanctions imposed by the United States against India are evidence of its pressure tactics. Sanctions are defined as "a measure taken to comply with internationally agreed norms." Economic sanctions involve economic pressure in the form of trade and financial restrictions which are employed with varied intensity and scope against a state whose behaviour is against the set norms and commitment to pursue important policy goals on the imposing state. Trade restrictions may be in the form of complete suspension of trade or raising of tariffs and financial restrictions. They may envisage complete or partial stoppage of financial flows to the target economy. Sanctions can coerce either directly by persuading the target government that the issues at stake are not worth the price, or indirectly by widening popular pressure to force the government to concede or by inducing a popular revolt that overthrows the government in power, installing one that will make the concessions. Suspension of trade may be total or partial, and in the latter case, the imposing state has a calculated strategy to indicate that worse measures would follow, if the target state fails to comply. Short-term measures are aimed to achieve defined political goals whereas long-term measures are aimed to marginally limit the adversary's military capabilities.11 The success of economic sanctions can be evaluated by the target state conceding to a significant part of the coercer's demands. On the data available on sanctions imposed from 1914 to 1980 and evaluations based on the success of economic sanctions as viewed from the sender country and the degree to which sanctions contributed in policy outcome, it has been found that sanctions are less effective in achieving foreign policy objectives. After the Cold War, it was presumed that sanctions may become more effective. But the "nationalist" goals of sovereign states ar too high to yield to the coercer's demands and, therefore, countries prefer to suffer rather than surrender their national interest. The administrative capabilities of modern states have improved substantially and are able to minimise the risk of economic sanctions. Greater multilateral cooperation may fail in making sanctions effective as increased economic punishment will not compel the target state to concede.12 Sanctions are successful if conditions are conducive and the targetted country's trade is exclusively dependent on the state imposing sanctions.13 But, at the same time, it can boost self-reliance--India achieved food self-sufficiency through the green revolution in the sixties when in 1965, the US changed its regular PL 480 aid to India to a "short letter policy. However, while lifting specific sanctions imposed on India after Pokhran II, the US did claim that "substantial progress has been made to defuse the explosive situation" but it took a comparatively rigid stand denying access to international funding agencies i.e., the World Bank and IMF. The lifting of sanctions shows the difference in US diplomacy which has been lenient towards Pakistan on the plea that its economy is in very bad shape compared to India. This is no justification in situations where Pakistan claims parity with India and leaves no opportunity to humble India bilaterally and internationally. This has ignited the deep rooted suspicions regarding US policy towards India and Pakistan. No doubt, the US has other interests in Pakistan like terrorism and the political developments in Afghanistan, but the "sanction diplomacy has again made us believe that the US is not rising above its inhibitions against India and its pro-Pakistan attitude still dominates its policy towards the subcontinent."

The same perceptions about India and Pakistan seem to have prevailed on US policy makers when they took a prejudiced stand in lifting the sanctions. Pakistan could obtain finance from IMF whereas India could not. Moreover, US companies seeking to trade with 40 Indian companies identified as "parent," and around 200 as "subsidiaries," will have to obtain prior US government clearance. All the subordinate research institutions of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) and Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) have been black-listed by the US Department of Commerce. The ban has also been extended to civilian research and educational sectors. India deplores the US attitude as coercive, prejudiced and misplaced, and which would harm Indo-US business.


India perceives the US as patronising one country against the other due to its conflicting policy towards India and Pakistan. India desires that in view of its resources and achievements, it should not be treated at par with Pakistan. India's assertion of a major power status is evident from the sophistication of its space programme and its capability to arrange and deliver short range and intermediate nuclear weapons through the "Agni" and "Prithvi" missile programmes. But overt weaponisation without economic viability and diplomatic success is seen as fatal for India and the subcontinent. The Indian government has reiterated in its negotiations with the US, its basic nuclear doctrine of credible nuclear deterrence, no-first use, joining the CTBT and FMCT without immediate stoppage of fissile materials production. This posture is derived from India's national security imperatives and modern international nuclear strategic thinking. India has also displayed at all the negotiations with the US, its "inability to stop the intermediate missile programme, R&D on nuclear weapons and missiles and their deployment, fissile material production" unless a universal and non-discriminatory order in the nuclear power context is accepted.

The US has rejected the Indian resolutions on nuclear risk reduction which is derived from the Canberra Commission's proposals. The US insistence on maintaining its right to use nuclear weapons as the core of its doctrine of deterrence has an impact on the imposition of overall nuclear restraint in the region. India's view of promoting nuclear restraint should be taken up in the nuclear dialogue between India and the US. If India agrees to a unilateral moratorium on the production of weapon grade fissile material, it will be a travesty of India's basic purpose of acquiring minimum nuclear deterrence.

It is a welcome signal that the US has acknowledged the need for "minimum deterrence" and the need for developing medium range missiles. But the ongoing dialogue between India and the United States, may end without any tangible outcome due to the inflexibility on the part of the dialogue partners. Issues relating to minimum deterrence, Indo-Pak talks on bilateral matters, including Kashmir, impending missile tests by India and Pakistan, US denial of World Bank and IMF loans to India, and China's role in the region, would be the most contentious, solutions to which appear a remote possibility. India has conveyed its willingness to join the CTBT, FMCT and global arms control negotiation with the great powers. Therefore, the basic perception of the US in ignoring India and soft cornering Pakistan needs to be changed in view of India's size, its economic resources, a huge market, technological capabilities and economic success in several fronts. The present US policy towards the subcontinent will only result in a polarisation of forces similar to what happened in the Cold War period which will neither serve US interests nor ensure peace in South Asia.



1. Harold R. Issacs, Scratches on our Minds (Ar Monk, New York: ME Sharpe, 1980) p. 239.

2. William Watts, The United States and Asia: Changing Attitudes and Policies (Lexington: Lexington Books, 1982).

3. "National Target for South Asia Specialists." A report to the National Council for Foreign Languages and International Studies," p. 18.

4. United States, Indian Cultural Relations (Washington: Bureau of Educational and Culture Affairs, 1982).

5. John W. Mellov, India As a Rising Middle Power, (Boulder Co: Westview Press, 1979) p. 359.

6. Perceptions have been more important in shaping the US policy towards India resulting in indifference, hostility, resentment, exaspiration and disdain." Sulochana Nathan Glazer and Nathan Glazer, Conflicting Images: India and the United States (Glenn Dales Md: The Riverdale Company, 1990) p. 4.

7. Myron Weiner, "Critical Choices for India and America," in Donald E. Hellman, ed., Southern Asia: The Politics of Poverty and Peace, (Lexington).

8. Ibid.

9. Selig S. Harrison, "The United States and South Asia: Trapped in the Past?" Current History, December 1997.

10. S.P. Limaye, US-India Relations: The Pursuit of Accommodation (Boulder Colo: Westview Press, 1993).

11. Hafbauer, Schott and Elliot, Economic Sanctions Reconsidered, vol. 2, pp. 54.

12. Ibid.

13. Fourteen cases of sanctions in which the US was involved during 1956-82 played only a moderate role in achieving US objectives.