Failed Balancing Act

The Modi government in India is fast losing trust because the South Asian nation has failed to deliver on many fronts.

By Shahrukh Mehboob | February 2021


South Asia is riddled with multiple antagonisms and mutual suspicions. India mistrusts Pakistan and vice versa. When confronted by such a diplomatic snarl, there are, in reality, only two options: either allow the disputes to boil in their cauldrons, or lower the temperature on all of the region’s antagonisms before a cataclysmic explosion occurs. Today’s frozen regional diplomacy must end; far too much of global importance is at stake. India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the US form a rectangle of relationships in South Asia, with India, China, and the US constituting a triangle that not only contains the South Asia region but is also a major theatre in an increasingly global struggle. The emerging geopolitical centrality of the Indian Ocean, through which an ever-increasing share of world trade passes, is a third complicating factor.

India, the region’s dominant actor with more than 1 billion people, is often characterized as a nascent great power and “indispensable partner” of the United States, one that many analysts view as a potential counterweight to China’s growing clout. Since 2004, Washington and New Delhi have been pursuing a “strategic partnership” based on shared values and convergent geopolitical interests. Numerous economic, security and global initiatives, including plans for civilian nuclear cooperation, are underway. The latter initiative — first launched in 2005 and codified in U.S. law in 2008 — reversed three decades of U.S. nonproliferation policy, but has not been implemented to date.

In 2005, the United States and India signed a ten-year defence framework agreement to expand bilateral security cooperation. The two countries now engage in numerous and unprecedented combined military exercises and major U.S. arms sales to India are underway. The value of all bilateral trade tripled from 2004 to 2008 and continues to grow; significant two-way investment also flourishes. The influence of a large, relatively wealthy and geographically dispersed Indian-American community is reflected in Congress’s largest country-specific caucus. More than 100,000 Indian students are attending American universities.

Further U.S. attention on South Asia focuses on ongoing, historically rooted tensions between India and Pakistan. In the interest of regional stability, in particular, as a means of facilitating U.S.-led efforts to stabilize nearby Afghanistan, the United States strongly endorses an existing, but largely moribund India-Pakistan peace initiative and remains concerned about the potential for conflict over Kashmiri sovereignty to cause open hostilities between these two nuclear-armed countries. The United States also seeks to curtail the proliferation of nuclear weapons and missiles in South Asia.

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