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India-US Relations: The Need to Move Beyond Symbolism

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  • December 03, 2009

    Manmohan Singh’s visit to the United States, the first official state visit of the Barack Obama administration, has been dubbed as merely symbolic and lacking substance by several analysts. Their disappointment appears to stem from lack of dramatics and “something spectacular” in this rather quiet, but certainly not unproductive, visit.
    During Manmohan Singh’s previous state visit to the United States in 2005, the iconic India-US nuclear deal was seen as marking a watershed in bilateral relations. In comparison, the issues that found mention in the joint statement released during the latest visit are bound to be viewed as ‘non-significant’. Moreover, in the backdrop of Obama’s visit to China that preceded Singh’s US tour and the joint statement with the Chinese that spoke of an important role for China in South Asia, analysts perceive an unstated US tilt towards China.

    However, what seems to have missed the eye is that in the shadow of the grandiose ‘nuclear deal’, India and the United States have moved significantly in strengthening traditional areas of co-operation like agriculture, education, health, service sector and a forward movement on global commons like space co-operation and enhanced cooperation on clean energy, energy security, and climate change launching the Clean Energy and Climate Change Initiative. The Obama-Singh 21st Century Knowledge Initiative aims at building linkages between American and Indian universities through increased exchanges and programmes to strengthen educational opportunities for the disadvantaged. As the Indian government focuses on making ‘inclusive growth’ a mantra for surging India, these areas of co-operation will assume greater importance in the coming years. During Secretary Clinton’s visit to India earlier this year these were the focus areas of cooperation in the five pillars of the Strategic Dialogue.

    Analysts have harped on India’s supposed relegation to the background in the Af-Pak strategy of the Obama administration. It needs mention that while the Bush administration emphasized on the de-hyphenation of India-Pakistan relations and provided India an elevated status through the nuclear deal, it looked the other way when Pakistan under General Musharraf did not do much to counter the Taliban threat, despite the billions that were poured into that country. On the contrary, under the Obama administration, military aid to Pakistan has come under scrutiny and is being provided with strings attached. The Kerry-Lugar Bill is also a case in point. Moreover, despite statements from the top US military commander in Afghanistan, India’s role in Afghanistan is seen as being in tandem with American interests of capacity building and rebuilding of the war-torn nation. Manmohan Singh’s visit which occurred on the eve of the first anniversary of the 26/11 Mumbai attacks as well as of the impending announcement of Obama’s new Afghan policy provided the Indian prime minister an opportunity to deliver a strong message to the United States – “Don’t go wobbly on Afghanistan”.

    Post-26/11, counter-terrorism co-operation between India and the United States has increased substantially, particularly in the realm of information sharing. The Headley- Rana saga is one such instance. The Counterterrorism Co-operation Initiative is seen as enhancing the joint counterterrorism working group’s mandate. Defence co-operation and joint exercises, especially ‘Yudh Abhyas’ in Babina (October 12 to 29) which saw the largest number of strykers used outside Iraq and Afghanistan are signs of growing military-to-military co-operation. The subset of defence co-operation includes collaboration on humanitarian, disaster relief, and maritime security efforts. Greater co-operation in guarding the sea lanes and anti-piracy operations will assume added significance in the days to come. More importantly, India’s large defence market continues to be of tremendous interest to American investors.

    While it is easy to dismiss the growing economic co-operation as outside the realm of the strategic partnership, they are force multipliers in taking the India-US relationship ahead. The Indian-American community in the United States has contributed significantly to strengthening the relationship between the largest and oldest democracies. In the years to come the ‘Knowledge initiative’ and investment in human capital will help actualize the American and Indian dreams of ‘Knowledge economies’.

    According to a recent Confederation of Indian Industries (CII) estimate, the India-US services trade is likely to grow from the present $60 billion to an ambitious $150 billion in the next six years. This fast growing services trade has remained relatively stable despite financial melt down. Given the growing demand for services in the United States and assuming that the demand for outsourcing will continue to grow from American corporations, India can expect larger market access in this sector.

    While critics were obviously looking for path breaking outcomes during the visit, it needs to be emphasized that during the first official state visit focus on issues considered insignificant are actually essential to strengthen the foundations of the partnership. With continuing road blocks to operationalising the India-US nuclear agreement, there seems to be little forward movement in finalizing a mutually agreeable legal text.

    Some earth shattering headlines, like American support for India’s membership in the UN Security Council, would have been much welcomed among Indian audiences. Apart from the fallacy of such heightened expectations, what is clearly lacking in Indian commentaries is the willingness to define India’s role as a major power in the region. While there has been a reluctance to move beyond viewing the India-US relationship through the prism of US-China or even US-Pakistan relations, it is pertinent to note the absence of ability to define India’s role in this growing partnership with the United States, both by our political leadership and strategic community. Given such a trend, India is certain to remain a fence sitter, alien to great power politics and unable to influence the course of global power reconfiguration in these times of ‘change’.