UNTIL recently the prospect of security ties between the United States and India seemed unthinkable. Since 1972, US policy has sought to offset the growth of Soviet military power, first by seeking closer ties with its communist rival, China, and after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan by beefing up the defense and economy of Pakistan. China and Pakistan are both traditional adversaries of India.
As in earlier decades, the military buildups in Pakistan and China increased Indian military dependence on the Soviet Union. More than two-thirds of India's military hardware is now imported from the Soviets or co-produced with their assistance. According to traditional American ``cold warriors,'' notably those in the Department of Defense, Indian protests of US military assistance to Pakistan and China were best ignored, given India's political and military quasi-alliance with the Soviet Union.
This approach ignores a basic problem, however. The arming of Pakistan or China increases Indian military dependence on the Soviet Union and invites a greater Soviet presence in South Asia. The policy is self-defeating. The subcontinent cannot be defended against great-power threats without India's cooperation.
The visit last month by a US Department of Defense delegation led by Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger to China, India, and Pakistan suggests a new effort to co-opt India into the American regional security framework. For the first time since the aborted efforts following the 1962 Sino-Indian war, the US has indicated it is willing to negotiate the transfer of arms and military-related technology to India.
Two major items on the agenda following the memorandum of understanding for the transfer of technology signed between President Reagan and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1985 are the sale of supercomputers to India and the co-production in India of a new generation of light combat aircraft based on an advanced General Electric engine.
These negotiations with India are accompanied, however, by continuing efforts to provide Pakistan with about $1.75 billion in arms, including the possible transfer of Boeing's airborne warning and control system aircraft. All this takes place at a time when Indo-Pakistani relations have deteriorated over Indian criticisms of Pakistani assistance to Sikh extremists and of Pakistani assistance in the handling the Pan Am hijacking in Karachi. Can the US please both regional rivals with their defense requests when such efforts have failed in the past? Can there be Indo-US military collaboration when India is still getting Soviet military aid?
Any suggestion that India has security ties with either of the great powers will be hotly denied in New Delhi. India claims to be a nonaligned state. It seeks military assistance from all viable sources while also refusing military bases and other collaboration that may suggest an alliance relationship. Although there may be differences in the interpretation and execution of India's nonalignment policy, this doctrine continues to be an article of faith no matter which government or leader is in power. As such, this Indian posture is not likely to change soon.
Therefore, the basic change of attitude and approach will have to come from the US. This may seem like succumbing to Indian pressures to obtain military assistance from the US in exchange for nothing. The major objection within the Pentagon is not only that India offers nothing in return, but that the transfer of such advanced technology could fall into Soviet hands, given the large number of Soviet technicians assisting India in the production of MIG-21s and T-72 tanks.
But another view of the situation is possible. Washington perceives issues at the global and regional levels along East-West conflict lines. On the other hand, India perceives issues at the regional level in terms of reducing threats from Pakistan and China, and at the global level in terms of North-South efforts to transfer capital and technology from the industrialized to the developing countries.
If closer Indo-US security ties are to come about in the long run, Washington must ride the North-South bandwagon and not attempt to co-opt India into its cold-war politics. Thus, India seeks technology transfer from the US, both civilian and military collaboration, to balance the heavy military dependence on the USSR. But this is not part of a long-term strategy to end its close ties with Moscow. This is what Indian nonalignment is all about. So what does the US gain in security from such technological cooperation?
Note that Indo-Soviet military collaboration did not result in a formal alliance relationship. The 1971 Indo-Soviet Treaty may be considered a quasi-alliance now rarely mentioned. India has, however, produced political support for the Soviets on various international issues, such as the Afghanistan and Cambodian crises.
In the earlier cases of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, regional security interests in common with those of the US produced military alliance relationships and, later, close economic and political ties. Close economic and technological ties between India and the US may in the long run produce common perceptions of mutual security interests in southwestern and central Asia.
During the last decade the US was India's leading trade partner; it provided the largest number of new joint ventures in India annually. Indo-American military and technological collaboration must be seen as part of this trend rather than as part of a direct offset of Soviet military power and influence.
Such an approach will advance security and stability in the region as a whole, since all the states of South Asia as well as China look to the US and the West as the primary source of capital and technology. Transfers of military technology to India buried within such North-South technological transfers are less likely to aggravate the antagonisms of Pakistan and China than the direct sale of military equipment.
Raju G.C. Thomas is professor of political science at Marquette University and the author of ``Indian Security Policy,'' Princeton University Press.