As Washington braces for another $400 billion in defense spending cuts, the urge to find a strategic partner in Asia is gaining steam. In that search, Indiaoften seems like the dream option—almost by default.
America's alliance with Japan, while remaining the linchpin of the U.S. position in the Indo-Pacific, remains buffeted by political tension and an inability to resolve the long-standing Futenma airbase relocation dispute. South Korea, while playing an increasingly welcome global role, remains focused on the threat posed by Pyongyang. Washington has enhanced its engagement with Southeast Asian nations like Indonesia and Malaysia, but they remain limited in their capacity for regional action.
That has left India as the great hope for many geopolitical thinkers in Washington. The world's largest democracy will soon overtake China as the most populous country, and its strategic location astride the Indian Ocean gives it direct access to China, Pakistan and much of Southeast Asia. India, for its part, has indicated a desire to play a greater regional role both politically and militarily.
Yet my nearly three weeks of discussions with government officials, academics, think tank experts and the media around India tell me that the Indo-U.S. relationship of the future will remain just that for quite some time. Although political ties have strengthened in recent years, and India is eager to purchase more U.S. military products through the Foreign Military Sales program, such as C-17 cargo planes ($4 billion) and Apache attack helicopters ($1.5 billion), much of the partnership remains aspirational.
The high hopes of recent years have tempered lately. The heralded 2008 civil nuclear deal is moribund, thanks to a liability law passed by India's parliament that raises the risks for foreign nuclear companies to an unacceptable level. Washington is palpably disappointed that New Delhi did not choose U.S. bids for its $11 billion fighter jet program last month. There is also ongoing concern about India's role in the BRICs, particularly when the group broaches the idea of replacing the dollar as the world's reserve currency.
To hear Indian officials tell it, New Delhi is simply pursuing business as usual: working with all nations, avoiding problems with any one specifically. That includes China, which nearly everyone recognizes as the greatest long-term challenge to India's security. Indians are quick to condemn China's arming Pakistan with nuclear weapons and advanced fighters this month, but even that is not cause for a fundamental rethink of New Delhi's policies, I'm told:India cannot afford to antagonize China when its economy is still a quarter the size of China's.
Former military officials I spoke with seem far more eager for an enhanced partnership, provided that Washington releases more goods for Foreign Military Sales, especially for the navy. Yet others, including diplomats and academics, take pains to argue that America will remain but one important partner of India.
This continued adherence to Jawaharlal Nehru's non-aligned strategy clearly animates the worldview of most thinkers here, even if the language used to describe it no longer partakes of such Cold War imagery. There is a firm commitment in New Delhi not to have any firm commitments to any one state. It seems the Indians have taken to heart, far more than the Americans, George Washington's warning against entangling foreign alliances.
Still, none of this should deter American policy makers from attempting to deepen the Indo-U.S. relationship, while remaining realistic. Almost all the Indian policy makers and thinkers I talked to wanted closer ties to the United States. All viewed the U.S. positively, except with regard to Washington's Pakistan policy.
The real question lies with how to move the relationship forward. On the civilian side, further encouragement of market liberalization is a good start, combined with continued U.S. aid for development and public health.
On the foreign policy side, the U.S. faces a tougher challenge as long as Washington remains embroiled with Pakistan. Thus, U.S. policy makers should focus on India as part of the eastern-facing Indo-Pacific and attempt to draw it into a larger regional role on issues like enhanced maritime security, promotion of democracy throughout the region, information sharing, joint training among regional military officers and participation in grassroots civil society gatherings (especially with neighboring Bangladesh and in southeast Asia).
The more India gets involved in these efforts along with America, the more it will see their benefit to its own peace and prosperity in the longer term. Though tricky, a closer relationship with Washington may also benefit New Delhi's attempts to keep stable relations with Islamabad's beleaguered civilian government.
Washington needs not only to recognize New Delhi's concerns over the Pakistan threat, but also show India how greater involvement in promoting regional stability will bring it dividends beyond mere non-alignment. That will make the relationship of the future a reality for the benefit of all.
Mr. Auslin is the director of Japan studies at the American Enterprise Institute and a columnist for WSJ.com. He is the author of "Pacific Cosmopolitans: A Cultural History of U.S.-Japan Relations" (Harvard University Press, 2011). Originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal, this article is published with the author's permission.