The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
object(WP_Session)#89 (5) { ["session_id:protected"]=> string(32) "c09e2446db97eddbfb88696aded3d2d1" ["expires:protected"]=> int(1406360238) ["exp_variant:protected"]=> int(1406359878) ["container:protected"]=> array(1) { ["ai_visit_counter"]=> int(0) } ["dirty:protected"]=> bool(true) }
The Return of the Raj

India should be America’s key strategic partner in 21st-century Asia.

Published on May 1, 2010

It is not clear what French President Nicolas Sarkozy had in mind when he invited a contingent of 400 Indian troops to march down the Champs-Élysées for the Bastille Day parade in 2009. But Paris might be on to something that Washington has missed, in spite of its more intensive military engagement with India in recent years. Although Paris does not have the power to engineer international structural changes in New Delhi’s favor, it has often been ahead of Washington in strategizing about India. In its effort to build a partnership with India, ongoing since the mid-1990s, France has helped India renegotiate its position in the global nuclear order: It provided diplomatic cover

when India defied the world with nuclear tests in May 1998, promoted the idea of changing the global non-proliferation rules to facilitate civilian nuclear cooperation with India, and worked with the Bush Administration to get the international community to endorse India’s nuclear exceptionalism.

Of course, Sarkozy’s motives might have been merely tactical: a move to butter up Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who was among the honored guests at the parade, or to raise its share of India’s rapidly expanding market for advanced arms. But Paris is capable of more than tactics: It may sense the prospects of a fundamental change in India’s defense orientation and its potential to contribute significantly to international security politics in the 21st century. It may see that a rising India, which runs one of the world’s major economies and fields a large armed force, will eventually bear some of the military burdens of maintaining the global order.

If so, it would not be the first time that India has done so. Western analysts, some British excepted, seem not to appreciate two historical facts: that the Indian armed forces contributed significantly to Allied efforts in the 20th century’s two world wars; and that India’s British Raj was the main peacekeeper in the Indian Ocean littoral and beyond. And it is not just the West that is ignorant of the security legacy of the British Raj; India’s own post-colonial political class deliberately induced a collective national amnesia about the country’s rich pre-independence military traditions. Its foreign policy establishment still pretends that India’s engagement with the world began on August 15, 1947.

The image of Indian troops marching in Paris should remind the world that India’s military past could be a useful guide to its strategic future. If the United States and India can together rediscover and revive the Indian military’s expeditionary tradition, they will have a solid basis for strategic cooperation not only between themselves but also with the rest of the world’s democracies. The Bush Administration showed an instinctive sense of this possibility when it committed itself to assisting India’s rise and boosting its defense capabilities. President Barack Obama does seem to have a fund of goodwill toward India, which was reflected in his decision to receive Prime Minister Singh in November 2009 as the first state guest at the White House. But it is not clear if the Obama Administration has a larger strategic conception of the prospects for military and security cooperation with India.

In general, the Democratic administrations of recent times have tended to define engagement with India in terms of global issues and multilateralism rather than converging bilateral interests. Rather than frame the relationship with India using such ambitious but unrealizable multilateral goals, or drag Delhi further than it wishes to go into the Af-Pak mess, the Obama Administration needs to elevate the bilateral military engagement with India to a strategic level. While the U.S. debate on military burden-sharing has traditionally taken place in the context of Washington’s alliances with Western Europe and Japan, a rising India may well be a more credible and sustainable partner than these two in coping with new international security challenges. If both sides can shake off the remaining historical baggage that has kept them at arm’s length for most of the past sixty years, we may see something remotely like the return of the Raj.

A good deal of that old baggage has already been discarded. More Americans than ever now see beyond India’s third-worldish rhetoric and appreciate its quiet affection for power and realpolitik. Ever more Indians appreciate the genuine opportunities for strategic, economic and political partnership with the United States and the West in general. This appreciation accelerated dramatically during the tenure of the Bush Administration, having just come off a stretch of poor relations during the Clinton years.

Although Indian opposition to the “liberal wars” of the 1990s was couched in terms of sovereignty and non-intervention, the real problem for India was the potential threat of American meddling on the Kashmir question. India faced an intense insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir supported from across the border beginning in the late 1980s, a serious effort by Pakistan to “internationalize” the dispute, and the Clinton Administration’s constant hectoring on India’s nuclear efforts and human rights. Unsurprisingly, India resolved to resist these new “Wilsonians” in the security debates following the Cold War.

Eventually, Washington figured this out. The Clinton Administration in its final year, and the Bush Administration throughout its tenure, sought to make amends and develop a new level of political understanding between the two nations. Clinton stepped back from linking improved ties to progress on Kashmir and non-proliferation. The Bush Administration fell almost completely silent on Kashmir and put an end to nearly four decades of Indo-U.S. quarreling over nuclear issues. It also exerted itself to prevent an Indo-Pak war in the winter of 2001–02. Taken together, all of this opened the way for constructing a new security partnership.

Having initially raised fears that it might undo the good work of the Bush Administration, the Obama Administration has since signaled that it will avoid destabilizing activism on the Kashmir question, will not let the deepening U.S. engagement with Pakistan undermine possibilities with India, and will elevate the relationship with Delhi to what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called “India-U.S. 3.0.”1 But although Secretary Clinton has spoken of cooperation on global security as one of the pillars of the U.S.-India relationship envisaged under the Obama Administration, she has been hesitant thus far to construct a case for a defense partnership.

The Raj Legacy

That defense partnership is no longer a bridge too far, and I believe that it may come to resemble the strategic profile of the British Raj. A genuine partnership between Washington and New Delhi can reconstitute in the 21st century the “India Center” that organized peace and stability in much of the Eastern Hemisphere during the 19th and early 20th centuries.2 And it will be a more effective partnership than that of Empire and Colony, for the United States has no desire to inflict such limits on Indian potential. The Raj legacy contains four key elements, each of them subject to creative renewal in the 21st century.

The first of these elements is the expeditionary tradition that accompanied the creation of modern armed forces by the Raj. The armed forces under colonial rule initially focused on domestic constabulary functions and the defense of ever-shifting frontiers, but beginning in the late 18th century the Raj also put them to expeditionary use.3 Through the 19th century, Indian troops saw action in theaters ranging from Egypt to Japan, from Southern Africa to the Mediterranean. Despite growing nationalist opposition, British use of Indian armed forces surged in the first decades of the 20th century. During the Great War, nearly 1.2 million Indians were recruited for service in the army. When it ended, about 950,000 Indian troops were serving overseas. According to the official count, between 62,000 and 65,000 Indian soldiers were killed in that war. In World War II, the Indian army saw action on fronts ranging from Italy and North Africa to East Africa, the Middle East and the Far East. In Southeast Asia alone, 700,000 Indian troops joined the effort to oust Japanese armies from Burma, Malaya and Indo-China. By the time the war ended, the Indian army numbered a massive 2.5 million men, the largest all-volunteer force the world had ever seen.

Yet, as I noted earlier, modern India’s political leadership has been reluctant to recognize the contributions of its men to the making of the modern world. The Indian national movement was deeply divided in its attitudes toward the Indian army under British rule. These divisions became sharper as the movement confronted the meaning of World War II and the political choices it offered. While the Indian National Congress, speaking as the principal vehicle of the national movement, condemned the “imperialist war”, individual leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru backed the Allied war effort against the fascists. Further accentuating India’s ambivalence, an “Indian National Army”, led by Subhash Chandra Bose, used Japanese assistance in an effort to forcibly liberate India from the British. It was no surprise, then, that the divided national movement could not leverage the Indian army’s extraordinary contribution to the Allied victory in the negotiations with the British on the terms of independence, the distribution of the spoils of the war and the construction of the postwar international order. As the Indian leadership confronted many security challenges immediately after independence, it is perhaps understandable that it momentarily forgot this complex history.

A second legacy of the Raj is the “military surplus” in the Subcontinent, which has endured despite all the political changes of the past six decades: partition, permanent Indo-Pak conflict, the occupation of Tibet by China and the resultant Sino-Indian military tensions on the Indo-Tibetan border. Despite these challenges, the now-separate armies of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have made an important mark on international security politics. That the South Asian armies, including those of Nepal, contribute nearly 40 percent of the world’s peacekeepers underlines the region’s role as a military reservoir. But this extraordinary role is widely overlooked in international debates on peacekeeping, particularly in India’s case.4

A third legacy of the Raj is a security system for the smaller states of the Subcontinent. Britain constructed a glacis around India that involved the creation and maintenance of a set of protectorates and buffer states from Persia to Siam through Afghanistan, Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan and Burma. If Partition ruptured the strategic unity of the Subcontinent and enormously weakened the so-called “India Center” in Asian security affairs, then the Cold War between the United States and Soviet Russia, and the re-emergence of a centralized China, likewise chipped away at the presumed primacy of New Delhi in the region. In seeking to preserve that status, independent India revived the British Raj’s protectorate arrangements with Nepal, Bhutan and Sikkim in 1949–50. Sikkim was eventually integrated into India, and New Delhi saw itself as responsible for both the external and internal security of the Himalayan Kingdoms. From direct military intervention to coercive diplomacy, India used a variety of measures to prevent the internal and external destabilization of its smaller neighbors. India’s military interventions in East Pakistan and Sri Lanka, and its coercive diplomacy to promote federalism in Sri Lanka and democracy in Nepal, are best seen in this context.

The fourth legacy bears similarity to Great Britain’s efforts to prevent, first, France and, later, Czarist Russia, from encroaching on the Subcontinent in the much celebrated Great Game. Namely, India claimed an exclusive sphere of influence in South Asia. An Indian version of the Monroe Doctrine for the Subcontinent, aimed at preventing other major powers from intervening in the region, became an integral element of India’s policy.5 It also argued that its own conflicts with neighbors should be managed in a bilateral rather than a multilateral context and viewed with great suspicion the interests of major powers in its neighborhood. To the extent it could, too, New Delhi prevented its neighbors from granting military bases and facilities to great powers.

The influence of India’s Raj inheritance was somewhat tempered, however, by its relative economic decline in the decades after independence. Delhi simply could not sustain the Raj legacy within the Indian Ocean littoral. In Southeast Asia and the Gulf, it largely abandoned its traditional security role. Even within the Subcontinent, the attempt to sustain the glacis was not entirely successful: Note, for example, China’s occupation of Tibet, its growing influence in South Asia and Burma, Russia’s intervention in Afghanistan, and Pakistan’s alliances with Washington and Beijing. As India’s economic growth gathered momentum in the 1990s and its relations with the great powers began to improve, Delhi initiated policies aimed at re-asserting a privileged role in all the subregions abutting the Subcontinent (the Gulf, Central Asia, Southeast Asia) and, more broadly, the Indian Ocean littoral.

Reconfiguring the Raj

Well before the notion of India’s rise was even debated or accepted, former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger argued that India had the potential to emerge as one of six major powers of the post-Cold War international system.6 He recognized that independent India had internalized the strategic logic that had driven the Raj’s policies in the Indian Ocean, arguing that India’s

goals are analogous to those of Britain east of the Suez in the 19th century—a policy essentially shaped by the Viceroy’s office in New Delhi. It will seek to be the strongest country in the subcontinent, and will attempt to prevent the emergence of a major power in the Indian Ocean or South East Asia.

Whatever the day-to-day irritations between New Delhi and Washington, Kissinger became convinced a decade ago that India’s “geopolitical interests will impel it over the next decade to share some of the security burdens now borne by the United States in the in the region between Aden and Malacca.”7

While most American analysts considered such an outcome a remote prospect at the time, Kissinger’s two basic propositions—that India will behave like the British Raj and that there will be room for burden-sharing between Delhi and Washington in the Indian Ocean arena—have been borne out to some extent. When India changed its economic orientation in the early 1990s and embarked on a high-growth path, it arrested its postwar marginalization in Asia and the Indian Ocean. Given its size, an India that could produce an annual economic growth rate of 7–8 percent was bound to acquire the basis for a vigorous regional diplomacy. Such rapid economic growth easily provided for annual defense expenditures of 2–3 percent of GDP, which are large enough in aggregate terms to modernize India’s military capabilities.

After an extended period of economic growth, India’s regional security strategy took on not only new momentum but a new name as well: “neo-Curzonian”, a reference to the expansive policies of the Raj under Lord George Curzon, the Viceroy in Calcutta at the turn of the 20th century. As Parag Khanna and I have argued:

A neo-Curzonian foreign policy is premised on the logic of Indian centrality, permitting multidirectional engagement—or “multi-alignment”—with all major powers and seeking access and leverage from East Africa to Pacific Asia. Such a forward foreign policy emphasizes the revival of commercial cooperation; building institutional, physical and political links with neighboring regions to circumvent buffer states; developing energy supplies and assets; and pursuing multistate defense agreements and contracts.8

Most assessments of Indian foreign and security policy have confirmed the growing Indian capacity and will to project power (hard and soft) throughout what Delhi calls its “extended neighborhood”, a concept that now includes all subregions in the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific littoral.9

As India’s military capabilities grew and the Bush Administration reached out to Delhi, a new basis for bilateral security cooperation took shape. This would not have been possible without the Bush Administration’s “de-hyphenation” of India-Pakistan relations, which produced a new level of mutual trust between Washington and Delhi.10 Both sides began to take steps in the defense and security realm that, although small, went against the grain of the bilateral relationship of the past. For its part, India offered the U.S. military access to facilities immediately after 9/11. The U.S. government, which needed the Pakistani army’s cooperation to oust the Taliban from Afghanistan, declined the Indian offer. Looking for other ways to lend political support to U.S. operations in Afghanistan, India escorted U.S. naval ships participating in Operation Enduring Freedom through the Malacca Straits in 2002. In 2003, the Indian government vigorously debated the U.S. request to send troops to Iraq. While Delhi eventually backed off, fearing a domestic political backlash, the fact that it considered such a deployment at all was significant.

When the tsunami disaster hit the eastern Indian Ocean in December 2004, India quickly decided to join forces with the navies of the United States, Japan and Australia to provide relief and rehabilitation. In June 2005, India signed a ten-year defense framework agreement with the United States that involved broad-ranging bilateral cooperation as well as participation in multinational military operations. Although the left-liberal Indian opposition attacked Delhi’s departure from the previous policy of participating only in UN-sponsored operations, the government held to its agreement with the United States.

The agreement was also significant for another reason: It was the first time India identified a broad range of cooperative military missions that it could undertake with a major power. Throughout the Cold War, India had deliberately limited its military engagement with Russia to weapons acquisition and had refrained from any service-to-service exchanges, joint exercises or joint missions. That India was now willing to do all these things with the United States signaled Delhi’s transition from non-alignment and military isolationism to cooperative security engagement with other powers.

The U.S. government, in turn, promised to raise India’s power potential. After decades of partnering with India’s regional rivals, Pakistan and China, the Bush Administration intensified U.S. military engagement and opened its weapons store to India. At a time when the United States was unwilling to sell arms to China and prevented its European partners from doing so as well, one did not need to go to great lengths to explain the proposition of assisting India’s military rise. The Bush Administration made a strategic assessment that the emergence of a militarily powerful India was in American interests, especially in hedging against the potential negative consequences of China’s rise. The second term of the Bush Administration brought rapid expansion in the frequency and quality of joint military exercises with India. The U.S. government also agreed to sell the first ever military platforms to India: the USS Trenton amphibious transport ship (now called the INS Jalashwa), C-130 military transport aircraft and the P-8 maritime reconnaissance aircraft. Boeing and Lockheed Martin are both bidding for the Indian plan to purchase 126 advanced fighter aircraft, a contract said to be worth $10 billion, which would make it one of the largest arms deals in history.

The stage was thus set for a rapid expansion of Indo-U.S. defense cooperation under George W. Bush, but the pace of action was slowed somewhat by the inability of the two sides to negotiate a range of supplementary agreements on mutual support in logistics, a framework for secure military communications, and end-use monitoring agreements for weapons and technology acquired from the United States. The bureaucratic delays were due in part to American unwillingness to be flexible in accommodating Delhi’s hypersensitivity to any language that might suggest an unequal relationship. The visit of Secretary of State Clinton to India in July 2009 produced the long-awaited breakthrough on end-use monitoring and opened the door to significant arms transfers from the United States to India.

Although the Obama Administration has started off on a positive note with India, it is not yet clear where it wants to go with the new defense possibilities. To be sure, U.S. companies would be delighted to sell more arms to India and explore opportunities for long-term defense-industrial collaboration with Indian firms. The U.S. armed forces are pleased with their substantive interactions with their Indian counterparts. Yet there is little to suggest that President Obama and his top advisers share the two basic convictions of the Bush Administration: that a militarily powerful India serves long-term U.S. interests, and that the two nations can work together to stabilize the Indian Ocean littoral and insure against future attempts at domination by China. To be fair, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, a holdover from the Bush Administration, has talked of India’s positive role as a “net security provider in the Indian Ocean and beyond.”11 But as we have seen with the civil nuclear initiative, imaginative moves toward India cannot be sustained without a strong presidential commitment to override bureaucratic nitpickers in Washington. Meanwhile, the middle levels of the Obama Administration and the liberal Democratic establishment would be happy to return America to the old ways of dealing with India, either through the South Asian prism or through the global multilateral agenda of non-proliferation. Add henpecking about global warming, and it will be all too easy to lose sight of the strategic possibilities that are at hand with India.

While Af-Pak issues and the global agenda are indeed important in the advancement of the Indo-U.S. relationship, progress on the bilateral defense/security agenda is the key to Delhi’s willingness to cooperate with Washington across the board. The idea that India is exceptional and must be dealt with on its own terms is difficult for most Washington liberals to accept. If Obama is willing to bet on this proposition, which guided his predecessor’s policies toward India, he will find in Manmohan Singh a partner who is ready to work with the United States in constituting a post-colonial Raj that can bear the burdens of ordering the Eastern Hemisphere in the 21st century.


1Clinton, “Remarks at the U.S.-India Business Council”, Washington, DC, June 17, 2009.
2For an insightful discussion of the “India Center” concept in the British imperial defense, see Peter John Brobst, The Future of the Great Game: Sir Olaf Caroe, India’s Independence and the Defense of Asia (University of Akron Press, 2005).
3See Harold E. Raugh, Jr., The Victorians at War, 1815–1914: An Encyclopedia of British Military History (ABC-CLIO, 2004); Partha Sarathi Gupta and Anirudh Deshpande, eds., The British Raj and its Indian Armed Forces, 1857–1939 (Oxford University Press, 2002); and David Omissi, The Sepoy and the Raj: The Indian Army 1860–1940 (Macmillan, 1994).
4See Kabilan Krishnasamy, “‘Recognition’ for Third World Peacekeepers: India and Pakistan”, International Peacekeeping (Winter 2001).
5See Devin Hagerty, “India’s Regional Security Doctrine”, Asian Survey (April 1991). For a more recent analysis of the maritime context, see James R. Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara, “India’s ‘Monroe Doctrine’ and Asia’s Maritime Future”, Strategic Analysis (November 2008).
6Henry A. Kissinger, Diplomacy (Simon & Schuster, 1994), chapter 1.
7Kissinger’s remarks to the Aspen Strategy Group’s Inaugural India Dialogue, Udaipur, India, January 24, 2001. I have been a member this group.
8Khanna and Mohan, “Getting India Right”, Policy Review (February/March 2006).
9See David Scott, “India’s ‘Extended Neighborhood’ Concept: Power Projection for Rising Power”, India Review (April 2009); and Walter C. Ladwig III, “Delhi’s Pacific Ambition: Naval Power, ‘Look East,’ and India’s Emerging Role in Asia Pacific”, Asian Security (June 2009).
10See Ashley Tellis, “The Merits of De-hyphenation: Explaining U.S. Success in Engaging India and Pakistan”, Washington Quarterly (Autumn 2008). 1
11Gates, “America’s Security Role in the Asia Pacific”, remarks at the eighth Asia Security Sum mit of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Singapore, May 30, 2009.

C. Raja Mohan is strategic affairs editor of the Indian Express, and from 2009–10 was the Henry A. Kissinger Chair in Foreign Policy and International Relations at the John W. Kluge Center, Library of Congress.