The Promise of U.S.-India Ties

What path will relations between Washington and New Delhi take in the years to come?

With Indian Prime Minister Singh due to meet President Obama in Washington on September 27, hopes are modest for what the two leaders can agree or achieve together.

Against a backdrop of damaged global governance, with both leaders suffering serious credibility deficits at home or abroad, it hardly seems an auspicious time to reinvigorate relations between America and India.

By all means the leaders should proceed with care, to avoid accusations of further widening the gulf between rhetoric and reality in U.S.-India ties.

But now is no time to lose faith in the relationship or let it drift–not least because it turns out that a good proportion of people in the world’s largest democracy wants quite the opposite.

According to a representative opinion poll released earlier this year, most Indians remain positive about U.S.-India relations and want them to grow stronger.

To be sure, the narrative of the U.S.-India strategic partnership is beginning to sound strained. Both economies, especially India’s, are going through hard times. The relative power and appeal of both countries is less than what it was meant to be by now, when President George W Bush and Prime Minister Singh began transforming the relationship about a decade ago.

The game-changing civil nuclear deal, commenced in 2005 and concluded after courageous parliamentary brinksmanship by Singh in 2008, remains afflicted by India’s extraordinary nuclear liability laws. These strongly discourage U.S. nuclear industry from following through on the flagship diplomatic initiative of the transformed relationship.

Despite substantial advances, and talk of natural gas adding a serious energy supply link, the two-way trade and investment relationship remains a fraction of what it could be. Parts of American and multinational business are put off by India’s investment restrictions, bureaucracy and corruption, while Indians are understandably concerned about the impact of possible changes to U.S. immigration rules on prospects for their human capital to deliver in both nations’ interests.

On the geopolitical stage, globally and in Indo-Pacific Asia, there is a palpable sense of neither country being keen to ask very much of the other, because, as the time-honoured shop notice says, refusal often offends.

From UN votes on Iran, Syria and Libya, to climate change and free trade, the global diplomatic dividend hoped for from closer U.S.-India ties has been uneven in some places, disappointing in others.

And when it comes to the big regional security issues of fighting jihadists in Afghanistan or rebalancing to hedge against the uncertainties of Chinese power, Washington is learning to expect neither gratitude nor straightforward alignment from its cautious and pragmatic Indian partner.

Regarding China in particular, Washington should not misunderstand the New Delhi policy establishment’s imperatives. As an unofficial yet influential Indian policy report called Nonalignment 2.0 put it last year:

“It is in our interest that China remains preoccupied with its first-tier, more immediate maritime theatre. The retention of strong U.S. maritime deployments in the Asia-Pacific theatre, a more proactive and assertive Japanese naval force projection, and a build-up of the naval capabilities of such key littoral states as Indonesia, Australia and Vietnam: all may help delay, if not deter, the projection of Chinese naval power in the Indian Ocean. We need to use this window of opportunity to build up our own naval capabilities. Our regional diplomacy should support this approach by fostering closer relations with these ‘countervailing’ powers.”

This ‘no, you first’ kind of polite realpolitik may be a far cry from the traditional nonalignment that Western strategists so despaired of, but it does not seem the making of a durable alliance based on shared values and shared risk.

And yet for all that ...

Supporters and advocates of the U.S.-India relationship are right even now to accentuate the positive, given both how far the relationship has come and the vast potential that remains. There is now candid and deepening dialogue and collaboration across dozens of practical issues, from defense to development, education, to energy, science to space.

The military relationship is about the busiest and fastest-growing between any two countries that are not treaty allies. The just-concluded visit to India by Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter has underlined that the defense sales and technology dimension of bilateral ties is helping sharpen New Delhi’s conventional deterrent capabilities as well as its capacity to provide public goods such as disaster relief. This will be the case even if the overall modernization of India’s armed forces remains troubled and askew.

Even with the U.S.-India relationship forever remaining far short of a mutual-defense pact, its continued strengthening will quietly complicate others’ calculations of coercive or unsettling security actions across the wider region.