Visit to Washington Ends Era in U.S.- India Relations

Editor’s Note: This piece first appeared on the
New York Times “India Ink” blog.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India, who is on a visit to the United States, will meet President Obama in Washington on Friday.

Mr. Singh is meeting Mr. Obama at a time when both the United States and India have their attention directed elsewhere. India is preoccupied with domestic political developments and the economy. On the foreign policy front, there is perhaps greater interest in the meeting Mr. Singh is scheduled to have with Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister of Pakistan in New York. Washington is focused on a potential government shutdown, and Iran and Syria are the top issues on the foreign policy docket.

The United States and Indian governments are keeping expectations low for the Obama-Singh meeting. Thus it is easy to lose sight of what the visit does signify — the end of an era during which administrations of different stripes in both countries laid the foundation of a strong bilateral relationship. The question that lies ahead is whether the two countries — and not just the governments — will build something substantial upon it.

The state of the two countries is different today than it was four years ago when Mr. Singh last visited Washington. Then, the Indian economy was growing at about 8 percent and Mr. Singh’s coalition had recently returned to power. It was the United States that was struggling with the financial crisis and geopolitically. Mr. Singh’s current visit comes after announcement that the Indian economy grew at a 4.4 percent rate in the last quarter and at a time when people are questioning whether his government will have a mandate to do anything substantial before the 2014 elections.

Despite the impending politico-economic crisis in Washington, the American economy seems better off today than four years ago. In combination with the unconventional energy revolution, this has observers and policymakers cautioning against betting against the United States.

Recently, there has been much talk about the drift and the differences between India and the United States. There is little doubt that there are differences — most of which will be on the agenda when the two leaders meet.

On the geopolitical side, there has been much concern in India about what the United States’ drawdown of forces from Afghanistan will mean for India’s role there, the American and Indian relationships with Pakistan, and the American stance on terrorism. In the United States, Indian imports of oil from Iran have been a concern, especially on Capitol Hill. On the economic side, there has been heartburn in the corporate sector.

Over the last decade, corporations had been among the strongest proponents of the United States-India relationship, but more recently it has been the complaints from this sector that have been louder. Some Indian companies are concerned that potential American immigration reform will adversely affect their business model. Sections of American business and labor have expressed chagrin about Indian trade and investment policies — their unhappiness has been evident in letters to and from congressional members, at hearings on the Hill, and in advertisements being placed in advance of the prime minister’s visit. Multilaterally, the two countries disagree on climate change, global trade negotiations and issues like Syria.

The agenda, however, won’t just be full of lamentations. The two countries have a host of regional issues to discuss, including those related to the Asia-Pacific region and the Middle East. Both sides are playing down the possibility of potential agreements, but there has been an effort to get deals done on the defense and climate change fronts.

Ashton Carter, the American deputy secretary of defense, just returned from India having offered that country the opportunity to produce the Javelin missile jointly. There were some indications that there might be an agreement on climate change akin to the one China and the United States reached, but an Indian official noted that that was still a “work in progress.”

There are signs of some movement on a deal between Westinghouse and NPCIL — which would represent symbolic, even if not highly substantive, progress in the nuclear energy realm. Also on the energy front, the two countries continue to cooperate on clean energy technology, as well as potential American exports of liquefied natural gas to India.

The visit is also a good moment to take stock of the relationship. It is a far cry from the late 1990s. American administration officials routinely talk of the bet they have placed on India, and India is led by a man who put his government’s survival on the line for a bilateral deal with the United States.

The India-United States relationship is broader and deeper than ever before. Cooperation ranges from India buying C-130s from America to the United States Centers for Disease Control helping their Indian counterpart establish an Epidemic Intelligence Service. Bilateral trade and investment have increased; significantly, this has been a two-way street.

Bilateral defense trade has gone from zero to $10 billion dollars and India is likely to purchase more military equipment from the United States. In 2017, U.S. liquefied natural gas exports to India are scheduled to begin. Over the last year, dozens of senior American and Indian policy makers from both the central and state levels have exchanged visits. There are indeed so many dialogues, working groups, and business and government delegations, that policy makers seem to lose track of the exact number.

It has taken a decade and a half to lay this foundation. The question is: what will the new phase of the United States-India construction project require? Some have called for the two countries to look for another “big idea.” Such initiatives can spark optimism and focus the attention of the bureaucracies and the press.

However, a big idea unfulfilled can lead to disillusionment as with the two countries’ civil nuclear deal. Some are waiting for the elections and the formation of a new government in India, but there is no certainty what that government will do. In fact, some of the obstacles in bilateral relations today, especially on the energy and economic fronts, have been placed by India’s opposition parties, which are trying to replace Mr. Singh’s governing coalition in 2014.

One can list a number of specific initiatives for a new phase of the nations’ relationship. A key prerequisite, however, will be to recognize that the partners in this project will differ. Differences don’t have to be deal-breakers. As others have pointed out, the key is to learn how to manage the differences.

India and the United States are clearly learning by doing and are better at dealing with disagreements. The two countries worked together to ensure that their differences over Iran did not spiral out of control. The executive branches have also become more cautious about publicly debating differences on issues such as Afghanistan, Iran and surveillance by the National Security Agency — even when there has been domestic pressure to criticize the other side openly. These skills will continue to be necessary, for example, as the two countries head to global trade talks in Bali later this year.

There will continue to be other complications. The very element that facilitates the United States-India relationship — democracy — will continue to complicate it. The democracy factor is often cited as driver of good relations. But it also means that debates and differences will play out publicly; that negotiations will take place under the gaze of a free press; and that domestic politics will have to be navigated and negotiated. American policy makers only need to look to their experiences with France and Israel for lessons learned. And Indian policy makers will have to show the same patience with the domestic political constraints their American counterparts face that they demand.

Complications will also arise because the quantitative and qualitative change in the relationship means that it involves more issues, interactions and stakeholders than ever before — making greater friction natural. It also involves engagement on issues that span the foreign-domestic divide, including in the economic, energy and immigration realms. These issues require policymakers to tread carefully, given that both countries are sensitive to outsiders trying to influence domestic politics.

There are also legacy issues that will continue to complicate the relationship. While the United States might be popular in India with the public and coalitions led by both parties have worked toward closer bilateral relations, opposition parties still use the term “pro-U.S.” to attack governments. Indian governments continue to feel vulnerable to such attack.

The construction of a substantial partnership between the two nations won’t be easy; there will probably be delays and cost overruns. The two governments have, nonetheless, decided that it is worth building. But the project will need attention and resources at a time when both sides have other, arguably more pressing, preoccupations. It will also require heavy-lifting from the private sector and public, constituencies who benefit from the relationship to be vocal, and the two sides not to shy away from talking transactions.