01 March 2013
While the U.S. presidential candidates were slugging it out during the debates on foreign policy, India remained conspicuously absent from the narrative. At face value, the omission of India from the debates gave an impression that the country hardly matters in U.S. foreign policy. However, the case was exactly opposite. If there was one foreign policy issue where the Republicans and Democrats had more or less similar views, it was the role of India in the future of U.S. Grand Strategy. In some sense, the presidential elections settled the debate on India’s importance in the U.S.'s world view and future strategic plans. While the campaign was reaching its crescendo, India and the U.S. were engaged in their third annual strategic dialogue–an event of immense geo-political significance first started in 2010. The annual strategic dialogue clearly indicates the level of strategic convergence between New Delhi and Washington, DC.
It was therefore not surprising to see that during the recently concluded Asia-Pacific summit, President Obama called upon Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to reveal that India is a "big part" of his second term foreign policy plans. In his first term, President Obama continued the strategic engagement with India initiated by his predecessor, President George W. Bush. The highlight of U.S.-India relations during Obama's first term was his visit to India, in which for the first time the U.S. supported India’s candidacy for a permanent seat at the UN Security Council (UNSC). However, for many critics, Obama has failed to capitalize on the momentum generated in the bilateral relationship by addressing the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal.
The reasons for such pessimism are multi-faceted. First, the promise of the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal remains unrealised. Though the U.S was instrumental in manipulating the global nuclear regime to allow India to trade in nuclear material and technologies, its own nuclear industry has not benefited much out of the agreement. India’s killer nuclear liability law, with provisions for supplier culpability, has hindered the participation of nuclear consortiums such as Westinghouse and General Electric in India’s vast nuclear energy market.
Second, the strategic partnership has failed to convince India to tow the U.S. line on a number of issues, including a nuclear Iran and a more robust alliance against China. Though India has repeatedly declared that it opposes Iran’s development of a nuclear bomb, the suggestion of military action against Iran finds no traction with Indian policymakers. Similarly, India remains cagey about consummating the military component of its strategic relationship with the U.S. insofar it wants to keep China in good humour.
Finally, President Obama has not been able to lift India-U.S. relations from the plateau on which the Bush administration had left it. With no grand plans or deals like the nuclear pact in sight, U.S.-India relations seem to just float around rather than gain altitude.
These criticisms, however, have a component of truth. But rather than putting the complete onus on President Obama, such obstacles do have an origin in India’s domestic politics and its foreign policy strategy. Even though India’s democratic polity makes it a natural partner for the U.S., it also ensures that certain policy issues will not always favour India-U.S. relations.
The nuclear liability law is a case in point. No democratically-elected government in India could have played deaf to the strong public outcry against U.S. multinational corporations after the Bhopal Gas tragedy. The Fukushima nuclear accident made it even harder for the government not to implement policies implicating the suppliers of nuclear material in case of a nuclear accident. Chaotic domestic politics also ensures that a number of important policy decisions remain suspended. Though India did liberalise its economy after the end of the Cold War, a number of economic measures such as the labour reforms still remain pending. The paralysing debate on Foreign Direct Investment in India’s huge retail sector is just one example of how democratic processes impede bilateral relationships. Democracy, therefore, cuts both ways in U.S.-India relations.
Second, a more unnerving trend observed in Indian foreign policy thinking in recent years is the ‘India is too big to fail’ argument. The increase in India’s global power and stature has created a mythical notion that India is just too important for the U.S. Unfortunately, the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal is often considered evidence to support this thesis. For some of the more sober thinkers on foreign policy, India’s reluctance to engage constructively with the U.S. on issues which are peripheral to its interests, such as Libya and Syria, smacks of this rising power conceit.
There is hardly a doubt that Indo-U.S. relations have come a long way in the post-Cold War period. Strategically, India and the U.S. are much closer than they ever were in the history of their bilateral relations. To look at just one metric, in the last seven years, the number of military exercises U.S. defence forces have conducted with their Indian counterparts have outnumbered those with traditional allies such as NATO, South Korea, or Japan. On the other hand, India, which has always been reluctant to accept U.S. involvement in the Indian Ocean region, has actually welcomed President Obama’s pivot strategy. These examples indicate that a qualitative change has taken place in India-U.S. relations.
However, as a growing power, India must realise that its rise also depends on the goodwill of the world's most dominant power. It is not a coincidence that global acceptance of India’s rising power took place in an era of U.S. unilateralism. The U.S. single-handedly lifted India from the backwaters of international politics to the forefront of global power struggles through the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal. However, for India to acquire its rightful place among the comity of nations, it has still a lot to ask and expect from the U.S. To give just one example, India’s candidacy for permanent membership of the of UN Security Council–or for that matter the Nuclear Suppliers Group–hinges on the than active support of the U.S. Second, any strategic vacuum in relations with U.S. could actually backfire on India as the latter gets cosy with China. In such a case, the obvious fallout would be loss of strategic space for India, as China constitutes both a territorial threat and also a long-term competitor in terms of influence in Asia.
Rather than waiting for a new agenda to evolve automatically, New Delhi should take the lead. A free trade agreement with US would be a strategic step with wide ranging ramifications. While the U.S. is shaping a new economic policy, as is evident in the negotiations of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) to replace the old Trans-Atlantic Partnership, the role of India in this new economic order is definitely going to rise. India-U.S. trade volume is already to the tune of $100 billion. A free trade agreement will further bolster India’s economic growth and especially help its fledgling manufacturing sector to gain strength. India has already concluded FTAs with ASEAN and is negotiating free trade agreements with the European Union and other East Asian economies.
Second, the full potential of the vital agreement–Next Steps in Strategic Partnership (NSSP)–signed in 2004 still remain underdeveloped, especially the Logistics Support Agreement, even when Indian Armed Forces are supportive of such a arrangement between the defence forces of India and U.S. A more robust military relationship between the armed forces of the two countries is a force for stability in the Asia-Pacific region and in the Indian Ocean.
The last time India took a major initiative to change the quality of the India-U.S. bilateral relationship, it was primarily motivated by the necessity to manage the political fallout of the 1998 nuclear weapons tests. The talks between Jaswant Singh, special envoy of Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and Under Secretary of State Strobe Talbott were the lynchpin of the negotiations and the future of the relationship. But in the present context, the principle driver for a bigger and better strategic relationship between the two countries is not the need to manage a crisis such as the 1998 nuclear weapons tests–rather it is the need to make use of a strategic opportunity that knocks on the door of nations only rarely.
Yogesh Joshi is a doctoral student in international politics at the Center for International Politics, Organization and Disarmament (CIPOD), School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi studying post-Cold War transitions in Indian foreign policy. He is a CSIS-Pacific Forum young leader and also represented India at Global Zero World Summits in Paris (2010) and London (2011). Recently, he joined the steering committee of the International Network of Emerging Nuclear Specialists (INENS) as a career and professional development liaison.
Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.