Singh and Obama Play ‘Small Ball’

Editor’s note: Teresita Schaffer has started work on a book called India at the International High Table. The book, co-authored with Howard Schaffer, will examine how India sees its role in the world, and how this translates into India’s negotiating style. This article argues that the latest Manmohan Singh-Obama meeting did some useful work but was an example of “small ball” — incremental moves with modest and hopefully steady results for U.S.-India relations. It was published in The Hindu October 7, 2013.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s White House visit September 27 was workmanlike and cordial, but the sense of barely meeting low expectations was hard to miss. The two governments put out a long list of accomplishments. They announced a few new items, notably a new defence framework statement and a preliminary contract between Westinghouse and the Indian nuclear authorities regarding construction of a nuclear power plant in Gujarat. The discussions were wide-ranging. But those who were looking for a dynamic relaunch of the relationship were destined to be disappointed. In American baseball language, they were playing “small ball” – a game of small moves and modest, hopefully steady, rewards.


Papers put out by the White House chronicled the issues that had been worked out before the visit. Both the Fact Sheet and the Joint Statement underlined the positives in the India-U.S. relationship: an established strategic partnership; goods trade now close to $100 billion, up five fold in a decade and 50 per cent in three years; defence trade of $9 billion; high technology trade now $5.8 billion a year, with only 0.2 per cent of U.S. exports to India requiring export licences compared to 24 per cent in 1999. One item that may take some of the sting out of disagreements on visa issues is India’s participation in the Global Entry Trusted Traveler Network program, which speeds entry procedures at U.S. airports for select travellers. It is important to underscore these solid accomplishments, which contrast with the sour mood among U.S. officials who deal with economic relations.

Among the items announced during the visit, two stand out. The first was the preliminary contract for Westinghouse — apparently short of the Early Works Agreement that had been hoped for but nonetheless a formal milestone on the way toward constructing a nuclear plant. The second was a Joint Declaration on Defence Cooperation. It starts with a sentence acknowledging that the United States and India “share common security interests and place each other at the same level as their closest partners.” This relatively bland sentence is an important scene-setter, publicly acknowledging that this defence relationship is based on a genuine convergence of interests. The reference to “specific opportunities for cooperative and collaborative projects in advanced defense technologies and systems, within the next year” is also welcome coded language, pointing to moves toward joint development and co-production, which represent India’s principal goal in the defence relationship. An early indication of what this might mean lay in the announcement by Deputy Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter, shortly before the visit, that the U.S. had proposed co-development with India of the next version of the Javelin missile. Carter’s efforts to remove obstacles to U.S.-India security cooperation were a major factor in preparing the declaration, and demonstrate the value of having a dedicated senior-level interlocutor engaged with India over an extended period.

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