The South Asia Channel

Indo-U.S. Relations: Moving Beyond the Plateau

U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, is in India this week for his first formal interaction with the newly elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government. This will be the first U.S. cabinet-level visit to New Delhi with the Modi government, and Kerry, along with the Indian External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj, will be co-chairing the fifth round of the U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue on July 31. The United States and India will be exchanging views on a host of bilateral and global issues of common interest. More significantly, this meeting will be aimed at laying the groundwork for the visit of the Indian prime minister to the United States in September. Describing the post-May 2014 landscape in India as “a potentially transformative moment” and calling India “an indispensable partner for the 21st century,” Kerry has suggested that deepening United States’ ties with India is a “strategic imperative.”

President Barack Obama’s administration is trying to recover some of the lost ground in reaching out to the Modi government. It was only in February 2014 that the United States ended its decade-long boycott of Modi when then U.S. Ambassador to India, Nancy Powell, paid a visit to Modi. This came long after other European countries had already moved to restore their ties with India’s soon to be prime minister. But the United States remained strangely immune from changes in the policies of some of its closest allies.

Since the Indian elections in May, however, the Obama administration has been trying to restore some semblance of normalcy in its equation with Modi. Obama personally phoned Modi to congratulate him on his historic election victory and invited him to visit Washington. Kerry followed Obama’s call with a statement underlining Washington’s readiness “to work closely with Prime Minister Modi and the new government to promote shared prosperity and strengthen our security.” The resignation of Powell, in March 2014, was also part of a larger effort by Washington to mend the damage in Indo-U.S. ties caused by the United States’ inability to reach out to Modi in time.

Modi himself had been categorical that “relations between the two countries cannot be determined or be even remotely influenced by incidents related to individuals.” Going further, Modi suggested that it was in the interest of both the United States and India to further develop their bilateral relationship, even describing the United States as a “natural” ally. Despite personal sensitivities, when an opportunity presented itself after his election victory, Modi lost no time in reaching out to Washington, agreeing for a bilateral summit meeting with Obama in Washington. Modi showed his trademark decisiveness in attempting to mend Indo-U.S. ties, which had tapered off under his predecessor, underlining the significance of the United States in India’s foreign policy priorities.

It is in this larger context that the latest round of the U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue assumes significance. The dialogue was launched in 2009 under the leadership of then U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, with the first round being held in June 2010. The two sides have tried to keep the focus on critical issues, grouped under the categories of Strategic Cooperation; Energy and Climate Change; Education and Development; Economics, Trade, and Agriculture; and Science and Technology, Health and Innovation. For all the annual hype associated with the dialogue, it has not been able to achieve much so far. With the Obama administration busy with multiple fire-fighting in the Middle East and Europe, and policy paralysis in New Delhi over the last few years, the two sides had other priorities. But with a new political dispensation in New Delhi, both Washington and New Delhi have a fresh opportunity to significantly alter the trajectory of their bilateral ties.

Washington is signaling that it is ready. Nisha Biswal, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for South Asia, in her testimony to the U.S. Senate, has underlined Obama’s suggestion that the U.S.-India relationship would be “one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century.” As the United States moves towards implementing its "rebalance to Asia" strategy, Biswal suggested “India has vital role to play in South Asia, in the Asia Pacific, and, increasingly at the global stage.” U.S. Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, will follow Kerry to India in early August. Hagel has indicated that he would be taking “a very personal” role in the U.S.-India Defense Trade and Technology Initiative, a joint effort launched in 2012 to increase defense trade and deepen technology development. Large sections of the United States Congress want to invite Modi to address a joint session of the Congress during his visit in September.

But differences abound, from the geostrategic to the economic sphere. American businesses have been concerned about various issues including high tariffs, retrospective tax policies, intellectual property rights protection, and foreign direct investment (FDI) restrictions in various key sectors in India. Meanwhile, Indian concerns have revolved around visa barriers and technology transfer restrictions. Discussions on the Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT), which aims to increase present U.S.-India trade of around $100 billion to $500 billion, have not moved forward despite its launch in 2012. India is worried about the impending U.S. departure from Afghanistan, and the United States views India as a less than helpful partner in managing global crises from Ukraine to the Middle East.

There is certainly a window of opportunity now for both Washington and New Delhi to re-launch their partnership. U.S. Senator John McCain, who was in India earlier this month and met Modi, is right in suggesting that “if India and the U.S. are to build a truly strategic partnership, the two countries must each commit to it and defend it in equal measure.” While the United States needs to categorically underline its willingness to work with the Modi government, India too needs to articulate a forward-looking agenda for U.S.-India ties. A durable partnership is the need of the hour for both India and the United States. It will not happen if the leadership in New Delhi and Washington fails to nurture it from the very top. Also, nurturing a strong bilateral relationship requires sustained hard work. It cannot be done by merely holding annual strategic dialogues.

 

Harsh V. Pant is a professor of International Relations at King's College London and a non-resident fellow with the Wadhwani Chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, D.C.

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