Geo-strategically, some of the big issues that confront the United States today, China, Pakistan, and the shaping of the post-2014 transition in Afghanistan, all happen to be in India’s periphery. A more rapid expansion of India’s economy can accelerate the creation of a common economic space in South Asia
India’s weak economic performance, the 2008 financial crisis and the economic downturn in the United States have all diminished the India-U.S. relationship in recent years, after the two countries had come a long way together since the 1950s. When I arrived in Philadelphia in early April, Prof. Surjit Mansingh — once an Indian Foreign Service officer and now teaching at the American University — ruefully said, “Nothing can be expected from a U.S. government that has relegated South Asia, India included, to the strategic unimportance it had during the Cold War.” While the two governments remained somewhat somnambulant, business and industry leaders and the Indian-American community, the other drivers of the relationship, became dormant too. Extricating it from the depth it has sunk will be no easy task.
Consonance of interests
Post-election, there has been a visible change in the outlook of experts on India within think tanks, universities and the beltway in Washington DC. There is a sense that India’s destiny depends not just on economic progress; it also needs governance that has a social vocation, public institutions that are accountable, and a society that is tolerant and secular. From Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s statements, they hope he might turn out to be different from how he has been portrayed by the Opposition. They believe it is time to re-engage with an India that is energised, self-confident, and which will grow faster under a new government.
On his part, Mr. Modi has set aside the personal affront of his visa blacklisting. Declaring that national interest is higher than individuals, he has committed himself to work for improved India-U.S. ties. He fought the election on an agenda of development, for which India needs markets, investments and technology. For India, the U.S. remains the prime source of all three.
Geo-strategically, some of the big issues that confront the U.S. today, China, Pakistan, and the shaping of the post-2014 transition in Afghanistan, all happen to be in India’s periphery. A more rapid expansion of India’s economy can accelerate the creation of a common economic space in South Asia. Such an India can better contribute to the design of the currently absent security architecture in Asia and the Indo-Pacific. India’s contribution to stabilising the subcontinent, underwriting its integration and development through its own growth, and investment in building regional infrastructure and connectivity, as also India’s growing role in protecting maritime routes in the Indian Ocean, all benefit the U.S too.
Besides the economy, India’s focus externally will be on improving relations with the contiguous countries, including China. Given our experience since Independence, this also requires better defence preparedness, for which the relationship with the U.S. will be critical in the years ahead.
So far, India’s major military platforms, including some still being developed, have come from Russia. The two countries have enjoyed a special relationship for several decades and this must be preserved and nurtured. The inept U.S. handling of its ties with Russia has cemented Sino-Russian strategic relations in a way that India’s preferential customer status of Russian defence supplies is now imperilled. India might not be able to rely indefinitely on exclusive or favoured treatment from Russia vis-à-vis China.
During his just concluded visit to Beijing, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Russia-China relations were “at the highest level in history.” The Skovorodino-Mohe pipeline project worth over $60 billion in investment, and nearly half a trillion dollars in overall value over three decades, is about to roll. In his phone-in-interview on April 17, available on his website, President Putin said Russia and China are neighbours and “allies,” and that, with China, Russia has “never had such trust based relations in the military industry.” Earlier, this year, Kommersant, a Moscow trade paper reported that Mr. Putin had given his assent for a deal to sell China — over the objections of his general staff — the state-of-the-art S-400 missile system, capable of shooting down all “enemy aerial targets that are known today.” Talks are at an advanced stage for sale of Su-35 fighter aircraft to China. Meanwhile, Russia itself is buying higher quality military platforms, such as the Mistral helicopter carriers from France.
India might, therefore, need to diversify its defence procurement further. On offer from the U.S, among other equipment, is the ‘Javelin,’ said to be among the best available crew fired anti-tank weaponry, as also the co-development and manufacture of the next generation of such missiles, long-range surface-to-air missiles, and the next generation naval gun. An even more pressing need for India is to raise the level of technology domestication in the defence industry, for which a tweaking of the offset policy and increasing the cap on foreign direct investment (FDI) in defence to nurture joint ventures might lead to a breakthrough in an area that have confounded India’s efforts at indigenisation so far.
Another area where constructive India-U.S. ties will have a positive impact is on India’s other external relationships. Until 15 years ago, India-U.S. exchanges were confined largely to bilateral issues. When on the Americas Desk in the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) between 2001 and 2004, I saw the start of multiple India-U.S. dialogues, on East Asia, the rise of China, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Indonesia, the situation in the Gulf and the Middle East, and a range of multilateral and global issues. Other great powers quickly took notice and followed suit by pursuing similar conversations.
As the India-U.S. relationship gathered momentum, and an accord with the U.S. on peaceful uses of nuclear energy began taking shape, not perhaps as a consequence of but certainly as a sequel to it — there has been a spate of small successes in India’s interactions internationally. A case in point is the agreement with China in 2005 on the “Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the India-China Boundary Question.” It was arguably the sole, significant success of the 17th round of talks of the Special Representatives negotiating the India-China boundary. This came when India’s global importance was at a high point, with flourishing relations with Russia, the U.S., the European Union, key European countries, and the start of warming relations with Japan. That traction in India’s external engagement was lost concurrently with India-U.S. relations losing steam, especially over the past five years.
The instruments of revival
For a revival in relations, the onus is on the U.S. side. The challenge would be how to do it. Mr. Modi has had the least contact with U.S. leaders, compared to those of Russia, China and Japan, and not of his own volition. U.S President Barack Obama has reached out to Mr. Modi by doing what other world leaders have done, but that is not enough.
The right mechanics must be harnessed in cranking up a cold motor — for starters, a new U.S. Ambassador in New Delhi. It appears that the eminent personalities who have been sounded out, such as the U.S. Exim Bank chairman/president, Fred Hochberg, do not want it with a lame duck presidency behind them. As of now, there is more than an even chance that in the coming Congressional elections, the Republicans will gain a narrow majority in the Senate, foreclosing presidential initiatives that do not have bipartisan support.
India’s well-wishers in Washington DC are urging the President to send out an envoy soon to confer with India’s new leadership. The obvious choice for this, U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, might not find enthusiastic resonance in New Delhi. Bill Burns, the Deputy Secretary of State, is leaving at the end of summer. A more inspired choice, some have suggested, might be Vice-President Biden, who knows India better than President Obama does. That might also indicate that the White House is taking back the India account from the State Department.
On India’s side, the most categorical step to revive its global standing, including with the U.S., would be to get the engine of the Indian economy roaring again. In today’s world, economic heft is the booster rocket of foreign policy.
In discussions in New Delhi, both in South Block and outside, there is often a debate on whether the India-U.S. story should be strategic or transactional. When times are difficult, there is nothing wrong with a give-and-take approach, a prudent and practical engagement that looks at the relative costs and benefits and eschews normative arguments. The congruence of interests of India and the U.S. is self-evident. So also is the current hiatus in the relationship. There is a window of opportunity to resuscitate it now.
(Jayant Prasad is a former diplomat and currently a visiting scholar at the Center for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania.)