How Obama Revived U.S.-Indian Relations

How Obama Revived U.S.-Indian Relations

Modi’s visit solidifies a new trajectory.

Indeed, the biggest challenge for President Obama has been to create access for American goods and services in the Indian market. Unfortunately, India has not always been a willing and cooperative partner. Policy bottlenecks in starting and running a successful business are enormous; corruption and bureaucratic inertia are just a few. In 2015, Transparency International ranked India 76 out of 168 for ease of doing business. Despite concerted efforts of the current government, the general consensus is that the business environment is still unfriendly in India. And this is precisely what restricts access to the Indian market and limits economic cooperation between the United States and India.


PRESIDENT OBAMA’S third priority, to entangle India in America’s pivot to Asia, has largely been unsuccessful. President Obama strongly believes that “America’s economic future lies in Asia.” From the administration’s earliest days, the pivot to Asia has been a very high priority. America’s core foreign and economic policies, in his view, have shifted to Asia. As a large and growing power, Obama believes that India will play a critical role in this strategy. “I believe that if we’re going to be true global partners, then our two nations must do more around the world together,” Obama remarked on his visit to India in 2015.

India would welcome a stronger American presence in the region, and simultaneously a greater role for India, but only with a substantive military guarantee. Although the United States deploys over one hundred large surface ships, it is clear to India that America also has other strategic obligations, severely limiting its ability to commit those ships to the Asia-Pacific. Comparative trends in naval power have further added to India’s sense of ambivalence toward the pivot to Asia strategy. The U.S. naval fleet has shrunk by more than half since 1990, when it had 230 large surface ships. Given Washington’s continuous wrangling over its national budget, the fleet is likely to further shrink. In one of the few concrete decisions in 2012 to reallocate resources to the Asia-Pacific, the U.S. Navy will move nearly 60 percent of its fleet to the region by 2020.

India’s ambivalence toward the pivot to Asia strategy has two additional sources. First, India is wary of tying itself too closely to the United States because of its Cold War antipathy. Washington had imposed sanctions twice in 1974 and 1998 after India tested nuclear devices. Although a majority of the 1998 sanctions were quickly lifted, their effects lingered and hardened anti-American sentiments, particularly among sections of the Indian intelligentsia and bureaucracy. Consider the statement of a retired Indian ambassador: “We don’t want to be identified with U.S. policy in Asia, even if we secretly like it.”

Finally, India is skeptical of the United States’ dependability. From the Indian perspective, American policies change at the whims of leaders who spend little time to understand the pressures and compulsions of the region. Take for example President Obama, who first courted China to manage Asian affairs in a G2 alliance, but later seemed to move toward a policy of containment. In this initial supposed G2 partnership, President Obama suggested that China take an active role in the management of South Asian affairs, including India and its traditional rival Pakistan. This approach revealed total ignorance of Indian foreign policy. China formed an “all-weather friendship” with Pakistan and has supported its about claims over Kashmir. President Obama, in India’s view, neglected India’s territorial disputes. According to one account, between 2012 and 2015, there were about six hundred Chinese military incursions into Indian territory. Moreover, the Indian navy reported no less than twenty-two troubling encounters with the Chinese navy in the Indian Ocean over a twelve-month period in 2015. These Chinese incursions into Indian territory have become commonplace. Washington’s restrained response to Chinese aggression in the South China Sea does not inspire confidence in Delhi. India sees U.S. involvement in the region as fundamentally self-serving and as a transactional arrangement.


IN SPITE of his initial reservations about closer relations with India, President Obama appears to be ending his second term on a high note. This dramatic shift in his foreign-policy priorities stems from the assessment of three components of American interests and India’s role in them. In Obama’s view, strong security and defense relations with India benefit the United States. Despite apprehension over sharing sensitive defense technologies and India’s own domestic constraints, the United States has made the greatest headway with India in this regard. Bilateral trade flows have also significantly increased under the Obama presidency, but U.S. exports to India leave much to be desired. As a result, America runs a growing trade deficit with India that undercuts an important element of President Obama’s goal of advancing American economic interests. However, the U.S. pivot to Asia strategy faces an India’s attitude that is, at best, ambivalent. This skepticism stems from India’s conflicting perception of a greater American commitment to the region on the one hand, and the U.S. failure to devote sufficient military resources on the other. India’s concern over China’s budding relationship with Pakistan only compounds its insecurities. Although the results of President Obama’s India policy are mixed, bilateral relations have an overall positive trajectory.

Shivaji Kumar is assistant professor at the Centre for International Politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University’s School of International Studies.

Image: Flickr/The White House.