WATGDPI Primer topic – India USA relations
Relations between the US and India look better today. Closer ties between India and the US would have been unthinkable a year ago after a diplomatic row, but Barack Obama’s visit heralds new opportunities.
The idea that Barack Obama would be the first American president to take the salute from Indian soldiers as the chief guest at India’s Republic Day parade was unthinkable just twelve months ago.
India typically uses the selection of the chief guest as a diplomatic signal that it wishes to cultivate deeper ties with a particular country, yet during his time in office Mr Obama repeatedly appeared to disregard India in favour of Pakistan or China.
From hostility to honoured guest in under a year
Last January Washington and New Delhi were locked in a bitter diplomatic row over an Indian diplomat’s alleged exploitation of her housekeeper that ultimately saw the resignation of the US ambassador to India.
The bold decision by Narendra Modi, India’s new prime minister, to have the American president accompany him in the reviewing stand suggests that not only has he overcome his past differences with the United States, but that there is a level of warmth in the bilateral relationship that has not existed since the high point of the George W. Bush years.
Glass half empty?
The importance of symbolic gestures and warm personal ties between leaders should not be underestimated, but what of the substance of Indo-US ties?
The bilateral relationship has never been short of critics who contend that its benefits were oversold. Such critiques are certainly not without merit. On a number of key issues, such as trade, climate change, and aspects of foreign policy, the US and India have found themselves on the opposite sides of the debate.
The United States would like to deepen its commercial ties with India, however, the two sides have been actively locked in a trade dispute over access to the Indian market for agricultural imports that nearly brought down the Doha round of trade negations in the World Trade Organisation.
When it comes to the climate, the United States would like to encourage India’s move towards renewable energy and perhaps even secure an agreement to cap emissions of greenhouse gases. Conversely, the priority for India is economic development, not reduction of carbon emissions. Indeed, New Delhi is keen to gain access to America’s burgeoning supply of natural gas to fuel its growing economy.
Finally, the US and India have been at odds on a range of foreign policy issues in recent years, such as intervention in the crises in Libya and Syria or response to Iran’s nuclear program, not to mention the efforts of the so-called BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) countries to establish a New Development Bank that rivals the World Bank and IMF.
Or glass half full (and getting fuller)?
Like any pair of countries, the US and India have differing policy priorities in a number of key areas. However there are equally, if not more powerful factors pulling the two sides together.
On a range of issues, such as the rise of China, the future of Afghanistan and international terrorism, New Delhi and Washington are increasingly on the same page. First and foremost, long-time South Asia watchers see shared concerns about China’s rise as a cornerstone of Indo-US strategic partnership. There is a noteworthy similarity between Washington’s and New Delhi’s objectives vis-à-vis Beijing.
A fire breaks out of the dome of the Taj hotel in Mumbai. Nearly 80 people were killed in terror attacks in the city on November 26, 2008 (AFP)
Both nations have adopted “congagement” strategies that seek to gain from economic exchange with China while maintaining sufficient military power to deter threats to their key strategic interests posed by China’s rising power.
As a result, India has worked to deepen its ties with US allies in the Asia-Pacific, such as Japan, South Korea, and Australia as well as countries like Vietnam that are of growing importance to Washington.
America and India have also both supported the Afghan government and opposed the spread of the Taliban. India desires to see a continued American military presence in the country and the US is increasingly aware of the role that India can play in contributing to stability in that fragile state.
Finally, both India and the United States share a concern about terrorist attacks against their homeland or interests overseas. Cooperation between the US and India on counter-terrorism issues has deepened significantly since the 2008 Mumbai attacks, and is characterised by frequent exchange visits and intelligence sharing.
Convergence of policy priorities is matched by an institutionalisation of defense cooperation. Since 2002, India has conducted more joint military exercises with the United States than any other country.
A defence pact signed in 2005 has facilitated the training of military personnel, missile defense collaboration and arms sales, as well as opening the door to joint weapons production. Consequently, in 2013, the US displaced Russia as India’s top weapons suppler.
Next week’s summit may be short on tangible accomplishments, but the Modi-Obama relationship appears to have given new energy and new purpose to a strategic partnership that had been characterisd by a state of malaise for the past three years.
There are still many question marks ahead: Mr Modi has yet to lay out his vision for the Indo-American relationship and Mr Obama’s foreign policy team is far from the “best and the brightest”.
Nevertheless, the prospects of a meaningful expansion of Indo-US relations appear to be better today than at any point in the recent past.
Dr Walter C. Ladwig III is a lecturer in International Relations at King’s College London. Source telegraph UK.