Since the end of the Cold War, India has slowly been gravitating towards the United States. These once-strengthening ties between India and the United States come at a crucial time with China emerging on the global stage and Asia promising to become one of the most intense geopolitical arenas in the world. Now, relations are collapsing after an Indian diplomat was arrested for allegedly lying on a visa application and underpaying her maid. India has countered that the diplomat has been mistreated and the U.S. is overstepping its bounds.

India Khobragade

Devyani Khobragade, an Indian consular officer based in New York, has been charged for allegedly paying her maid, an Indian national, only $3.31 per hour. Not only would this violate U.S. wage laws, but Mrs. Khobragade claimed she would pay the maid $9.75 when applying for a visa. Lying on a Visa application is a serious offense. India claims that Khobragade was mistreated during the arrest, which the United States strongly denies. While most diplomatic officers enjoy immunity from arrest, Consular officers are generally protected by lesser levels of immunity.

India has expressed outrage over the incident, especially after it came to light that the U.S. Marshals strip-searched Khobragade. There have also been claims that she was cavity searched, and that she was placed in a cell with drug addicts. Take this treatment and add in the conservative values traditionally held in India, and it’s a perfect recipe for a major breakdown in relations over what should have been a minor incident.

India reacts with rage while State Dept. urges restraint

While the United States has moved quickly to point out that this is only an isolated incident, India is not taking it very lightly. A spokesman for the Department of State expressed hope that the incident would not have a negative impact on bilateral relations. These hopes, however, appear to be wildly optimistic as the Indian government has expressed outrage and begun to roll back relations with the United States.

Already, the Indian government has demanded that U.S. Diplomats turn in special passes and Indian government issued IDs. This move will downgrade diplomatic immunity for all Embassy staff to the same level enjoyed by consular officers and will deny them special privileges in airports and other special treatments. Perhaps more importantly, the Indian government has begun to remove barriers and scale down security measures around the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi.

American embassies abroad often resemble fortresses due to the high security threats and desire of terrorist and radical organizations to target said compounds. Often, American embassies rely on support and security from local governments to secure the premises outside of the embassy itself. Without said security, embassy staff could be placed at risk. While the barriers have been removed in New Delhi, a police presence does remain, and barriers are still in place in Mumbai.

Weaking relations come at a crucial time

This setback comes at a bad time for both countries. Since 2009, India and the United States have been engaged in a so-called strategic dialogue. This dialogue includes cooperation on numerous issues including science, economics, nuclear energy, education, and climate change. At the same time, the countries have been growing closer in military ties. In November, India and the U.S. participated in a joint naval exercise, while in the past various other exercises have been conducted.

India faces threats from both an emerging China, which has previously defeated India in a war, and an increasingly unstable Pakistan. Traditionally, the U.S. has been closer with Pakistan, but given the domestic situation there, many believe that India could emerge as a strong ally. Now, these relations are being strained, and the U.S. might once again gravitate back towards Pakistan, which would be a serious setback for India.

The U.S. is primarily concerned with the emerging China. While the U.S. is still the largest military force in the region, China is quickly ramping up its military investments. At the same time America’s closest ally, Japan, is still largely disarmed. Further, the collection of S.E. Asian states surrounding China do not have the military or fiscal might to seriously contain the Chinese military. Meanwhile, South Korea must still worry primarily about North Korea.

India could be a valuable ally in curbing Chinese influence. With over a billion people, a fast growing economy, and a population that is well-educated by developing world standards, India is one of the few countries in the region that might be able to challenge, or at least curb Chinese influence in the region. Indeed, an emerging China has been one of the principle factors driving India towards the United States.

If the United States does not do some quick damage control, there is a high risk that they could alienate a potentially important ally. India has already proven in the past that it will not allow itself to be slighted or mistreated, even if the consequences of shutting down relations could damage the country. India sided largely with the Soviet Union during the Cold War and shunned the British over a variety of issues and slights. Now, this most recent diplomatic row could set relations back by several years.