PRIME Minister Rajiv Gandhi will be visiting the United States in June. This first official visit by India's young leader will raise expectations of more constructive US relations with the world's largest democracy. But a word of caution is in order. There are subterranean stumbling blocks in the relations with India which are not easily removed and which in large measure account for the perennially prickly character of the US-Indian relationship. The problems between the two nations go deeper than the much-discussed issue of US military aid to Pakistan; they relate to India's fundamental regional security aspirations and policies. For historic and strategic reasons, India sees its own security as indivisible from that of the entire subcontinent. As the largest power in the region, India considers itself to be ultimately responsible for the subcontinent's security and strives to insulate the region from outside intrusion by any of the big powers -- the Soviet Union, China, or the US. Consistent with this fundamental policy tenet, New Delhi discourages linkages between the big powers and other South Asian countries and seeks to evolve a regional security arrangement of pliant neighbors that acknowledge India's leadership.
In sharp contrast, all of India's neighbors -- Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Pakistan -- see India as the principal, though not the only, threat to their own security. To offset India's overwhelming presence, they all systematically cultivate links with outside powers. These links are not just a means of tweaking the elephant's tail, but reflect a deep urge for national integrity and survival.
Indians, however, see such ties as big-power trespassing on their subcontinental ``turf,'' and the US is perceived as the principal offender. For many Indians, concern over the US role in the region is transmuted into suspicion of US conspiracies to undermine India. Soviet disinformation encourages such apprehensions.
Why is the US seen as a greater obstacle to India's regional aspirations than the Soviet Union, which has invaded and occupied South Asia's traditional buffer zone, Afghanistan? The answer lies in India's relations with the three major powers, the USSR, China, and the US. Since the late 1950s, India has seen China as a long-term competitor and threat -- a perception burned into the Indian psyche by the humiliating defeat in the Sino-Indian war of 1962. As the Sino-Soviet split widened, India and the USSR increasingly saw themselves as having common interests. US arms aid to Pakistan in the '50s, and the 1965 Indo-Pakistani war, reinforced India's doubts about Washington and also its conviction that close relations with Moscow served Indian interests. Soviet support in the 1971 war further confirmed this view, especially in light of the American threat manifested in the dispatch of the aircraft carrier Enterprise toward the Bay of Bengal.
The Soviets, moreover, have been India's principal supplier of sophisticated weapons, on highly concessional terms. Political backing has been forthcoming in United Nations forums. Economic assistance, while not generous, supported India's early predisposition toward a large-scale public sector.
From the Indian point of view, close relations with the Soviet Union have consistently served important national interests without compromising Indian independence. India provides Moscow with political support on a number of issues, but Delhi has not granted tangible assets to the USSR, such as port facilities, or associated itself with Soviet security arrangements in Asia. Most outside observers would agree that India is no client state or proxy of Moscow.
Delhi's close relations with Moscow, however, prompt India's neighbors to look toward the US and China. This is not necessarily a matter of ideological affinity, but rather of pragmatic diplomatic efforts to enlist big-power support to offset dominant Indian influence -- and for this purpose one does not turn to India's closest ally, the USSR. Delhi sees these external links as intended to counter India's influence -- a perception that reinforces India's opposition to big-power ``intrusion'' in general and its suspicions of the US and China in particular.
Indians are concerned about US ties to all the neighbors, but they object most strenuously to the US arms supply to Pakistan. Beneath the surface, the present controversy is not about military hardware, but about what India sees as a US intrusion into India's security sphere. In the Indian view, US support, wittingly or unwittingly, encourages Pakistan to resist accommodation to an India-centered security arrangement on the subcontinent. This is perceived by many Indians as more threatening to India's regional dominance -- and thus its own security -- than the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
Some Americans would argue that US interests in South Asia would be adequately protected if the US recognized India as the region's security manager and guarantor. India, after all, is a major power and has a fundamental interest in keeping both the Soviet Union and China (as well as the US) from intruding into its security preserve.
Such an arrangement is anathema to India's neighbors, who fear that India's aspirations for regional leadership could infringe on their own freedom. Without a common perception of a shared threat, an Indian-managed security arrangement is not a viable proposition.
Rajiv Gandhi, after taking office, stated India's intention to improve relations with its neighbors. During Mr. Gandhi's visit to the US, Washington should stress its conviction that improved relations among South Asian countries not only are consistent with US interests in Asia but also could help erode that subterranean stumbling block to better Indian-American relations. The US recognizes that India is legitimately concerned with the security of the subcontinent, but in its view a viable security arrangement depends on the evolution of relations of mutual trust and confidence between India and its neighbors. Washington should also reaffirm that the US is not in the business of conspiring with neighbors against India. US interests in southern Asia and the Indian Ocean region depend in large measure on India's own unity, stability, and territorial integrity and on its stubborn resistance to becoming incorporated in any bloc.
Jane Abell Coon, formerly US ambassador to Bangladesh, is diplomat-in-residence at the American Enterprise Institute. These are her personal views.