Sanctions and Strategic Autonomy: Course Correcting the US-India Partnership (Marcellus Policy Analysis)

By James Himberger, Spring 2022 Marcellus Policy Fellow

China’s economic, political, and military ascent in the 21st century has triggered an unprecedented convergence of Indian and American interests. Since the George W. Bush administration, each American president has sought to maintain and expand its partnership with New Delhi. Members of Congress from both parties are generally favorable to closer economic and military ties with India even as doubts persist regarding India’s turn toward Hindu majoritarianism. India’s geographic position, population size, and economic potential make it the preeminent power in its neighborhood and a significant actor on the world stage. Furthermore, it is a nuclear power with the world’s third largest military budget. For the U.S., these facts make India essential in its strategy of balancing against Chinese influence.

When considering the historically variable relationship between the two countries, these advances constitute a significant achievement for American foreign policy in the 21st century. But the bipartisan interest in expanding US-India ties operates on the teleological assumption that the two nations will increasingly share the same strategic outlook on most problems of international concern rather than taking advantage of shared interests on a particular set of issues. Proposals to expand the U.S.-India relationship do not consider substantive differences between the two countries.

A more effective and realistic US-India policy will require greater recognition of India’s traditional desire for strategic autonomy. A continuous roadblock to cooperation with India is the impression in New Delhi that Americans do not respect India’s status as a great power with its own distinct interests. As I argue, the U.S. can unwind this tension by exempting India from C.A.A.T.S.A. sanctions and committing to waiving energy sanctions, considering India’s unique position. Furthermore, it can help wean India off Russian military equipment through Excess Defense Article transfers.