National Security & Defense

The U.S., India, and the Opportunity of the Century

President Obama and Prime Minister Modi in 2014. (Pete Souza/White House)
Obama needs to ally with India, or India will look elsewhere.

Narendra Modi yesterday concluded his fourth visit to Washington as India’s prime minister. Addressing Congress, Modi spoke of the growing trade, diplomatic, and military cooperation between the U.S. and India. He also cited his personal affection for America. Thanking the sacrifices of young Americans in the cause of freedom, he applauded the chamber. That moment was genuine and inspiring. Yet it was also a metaphor for untapped opportunities: A U.S.–​India alliance is the opportunity of the century and has never been more possible — or closer to being lost.

Tangible links between the U.S. and India are growing each day. Defense and commercial trade has stepped up significantly in recent years and is likely to increase further. At the same time, assuming that Prime Minister Modi pushes forward with domestic economic and political reforms, American businesses will find a vast opportunity to export goods to India’s rising middle class.

But it is in the field of maritime security and global power politics that the opportunities are most obvious. The Indian navy has spent the last five years significantly upgrading its transnational capabilities. This includes the development of a new class of nuclear attack submarines, and the commissioning of advanced Kolkata-class guided-missile destroyers. India also has a strong fleet of French-designed diesel-electric submarines. These developments reflect India’s long-term desire to be a global player.

Obama is reluctant to expend political capital helping India. Why the hesitation? China and Pakistan.

Especially relevant to the U.S., these acquisitions also signify India’s willingness to challenge Chinese imperialism. Moreover, in his address to Congress, Modi issued a very thinly veiled rebuke to China’s imperial campaign in the South China Sea, stating: “A strong India-U.S. partnership can anchor peace, prosperity, and stability from Asia to Africa and from Indian Ocean to the Pacific. It can also help ensure security of the sea lanes of commerce and freedom of navigation on seas.” Those words matter. They represent Modi’s concern about Chinese challenges to global sea lanes, and his nationalist anger at China’s efforts to steal territory along the Indian border. Consider that last week India sent warships on a four-day port visit to Vietnam, in the South China Sea, a move that reflects India’s new strategic links with Vietnam. India does not want to antagonize China unduly, but because Modi seeks greater access to and influence in the U.S.-led international system, we have the means to encourage India’s support for U.S. interests.

Take, for example, India’s strong desire to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), consisting of countries that seek to prevent nuclear proliferaton by controlling the export of materials needed to build nuclear weapons. The NSG promotes international trade and technology sharing between various nuclear industries, so inclusion in the NSG would spur India’s economic development. India’s entrance in the NSG would also represent its practical and symbolic emergence into top-tier international politics.

#share#But there are unnecessary complications: President Obama. After much dithering, Obama is at last supporting India’s membership in the NSG. But, as with most of his foreign policies, he prefers lofty rhetoric over substance. Obama is reluctant to expend political capital helping India. Why the hesitation? China and Pakistan.

Desperate not to upset China (which opposes India’s entry into the NSG for reasons of balance-of-power politics), Obama will be timid in supporting India’s NSG ambitions. Don’t believe me? Just contemplate the White House’s supine response to China’s escalating cyber warfare and Pacific-island imperialism.

Strong support for Modi would show Pakistani officials that there’s a price for supporting child-murdering terrorists.

And then there’s Pakistan. In an effort to assuage Pakistan’s paranoia about India, Obama remains reluctant to go fully in to boost America’s relationship with India. He worries about the 80 percent of the Pakistani defense establishment that sees national security through the blinding lens of its obsessive anti-India paranoia. But this is short-sighted. Strong support for Modi would show Pakistani officials that there’s a price for supporting child-murdering terrorists (groups such as Lashkar e-Taiba and the Pakistani Taliban) — and the U.S. will make them pay it. It would also strengthen the position of those Pakistani officials who do recognize that Islamist terrorist groups are their main enemy. And that would help ameliorate the deep damage Obama has inflicted on U.S credibility in international-security affairs.

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Ultimately, waiting is not something America can afford, because Obama’s current word-vs.-reality approach to relations with India stands in stark contrast to Putin’s pure realpolitik. Putin happily supports Indian participation in all the international organizations it desires (including a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council). If the U.S. ignores Modi’s legitimate interests, Modi could gravitate toward the Kremlin, as U.S. allies in the Middle East are doing. It was not a coincidence that Modi ended his Tuesday press conference with President Obama by referring to the NSG. That signified his priorities and expectations — and a seriousness behind his pleasant smile.

Tom Rogan is a panelist on The McLaughlin Group and a senior fellow at the Steamboat Institute. He tweets @TomRtweets.

Tom Rogan is a columnist for National Review Online, a contributor to the Washington Examiner, and a former panelist on The McLaughlin Group. Email him at


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