The relationship between India and the U.S. is emerging as one of the three that will shape Asia and global politics in the decades ahead, the other two being U.S.-China and India-China

It is rare for the ideas people to be behind the curve but those who say the India-US relationship has been reduced to merely “feel good” meetings and junkets are exactly that — a little behind the curve. Critics in both Washington and New Delhi complain about the preponderance of grand rhetoric which remains unmatched by delivery. Yes, India has signed some significant defence deals with the U.S. but where’s the real beef or the strategic content, they ask.

This reductive description is more a function of the traits typical of people in the two countries — if some Americans are driven by “instant gratification,” their Indian counterparts see “melodrama” as a virtue. But beyond these personality quirks, clues point to a maturing partnership that no longer needs the adrenalin rush of big-ticket developments such as the Indo-U.S. civil nuclear agreement of 2008.

The language

It is apparent that India and the U.S. have made a long-term bet on each other even though the language reflects a cautious discretion bred in political realities. In India it is still not kosher for many to call America a good friend, a useful partner. It is ever so easy to point to the long history of Washington’s coddling of Pakistan and its disregard of Indian concerns as exhibit A. Their counterparts in Washington complain: what has India done for the U.S. lately? Remember the promise of commercial dividends from the nuclear deal?

Fortunately, those who make decisions are largely unfettered by this narrative. They don’t want the present to be completely hostage to the past. They are already moving ahead, pushed by new geographies and challenges. The India-U.S. relationship is emerging as one of the three bilateral relationships that will shape Asia and perhaps define global politics in the decades ahead. The other two being U.S.-China and India-China.

Four trends

The new India-U.S. partnership has four broad trends, which were apparent during recent discussions between Indian parliamentarians and scholars with senior officials in the departments of State and Defence, and at the National Security Council as part of a delegation organised by the Naval Post-graduate School, Monterey Bay and the Observer Research Foundation.

The relationship has moved beyond “parallel actions” where both countries despite a congruence of interests moved separately, whether in Myanmar, the Middle East or Afghanistan. The old distrust has been replaced by a new respect for this kind of independent parallelism, which now seems to be converging. This has opened up the field to a wide variety of issues for frank discussion and an exchange of ideas between the two. From Pakistan to cyber security to space, no subject is taboo.

The two main drivers for American consolidation of thought: an externality called China on the one hand, and internal doubts about the merits of unilateralism, on the other. American people have no appetite for new, expensive engagements. They imagine themselves better off “leading from behind” despite the hawkish clamour from conservative talking heads.

The second noticeable trend is the understanding between the political leadership in both countries, stressed and repeated at very senior levels. In the U.S., bipartisan support for India is public and enthusiastic, putting New Delhi in the sanguine position of not having to fret about a change of administration in Washington this November. In India, the support is pledged quietly and firmly and repeated through itinerant former foreign secretaries and retired generals. The challenge here is to overcome the inertia of the mid-level bureaucracy on both sides which can puncture their political masters’ biggest dreams with pinpricks born of residual institutional memories.

Also apparent is a new appreciation at high levels that the bet on India cannot and should not be purely for its large market. India’s emergence is good in itself because of strategic convergences. Short-term transactional expectations around that odd contract or defence deal gone awry will continue to disappoint, but policymakers understand the need for “patience” — a word that has become part of official U.S. speak on India. The understanding has opened the door to Washington looking at India in the medium-term instead of just for short-term gains. A growing number of thinkers in Washington believe the strengthening of India will be one of the main features of the U.S. presence in Asia this century.

The last and perhaps the most interesting development is the real entry of the U.S. Defense Department to try to “own and guide” the India relationship in ways that were unimaginable a few years ago. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Deputy Secretary Ashton Carter have taken a decision to act on some of India’s perennial complaints about tech and weapons transfer to put real meat on the bones. Almost all key U.S. relationships are driven by the Department of Defense (DoD) because of the high element of the strategic content. The trajectory from the early 1990s when the DoD hardly had any interest in India to reach a point where it wants to be the main driver is significant.

Regional issues

This has important benefits. Plain talk is one. Senior U.S. officials have apparently conveyed to the Pakistani generals that India’s strategic interests in Afghanistan far outweigh theirs because India has greater capacity, reach and ultimately more robust goals in the region. So they had better get used to the idea. The de-hyphenation is complete. This attitudinal change is a far cry from even two years ago when the Americans were hedging their bets between the two countries. But today there is greater appreciation of India’s pain. The Americans are equally perplexed about how to deal with a country that has allowed its own slow radicalisation and despite opportunities, has failed to stem the tide.

Where will the new trends lead? There could be a mismatch of expectations and capacity. For instance, the U.S. may now be willing to see India as a key balancer in the region and in Afghanistan. New Delhi, however, may be more comfortable with a far modest role. India is unlikely to agree to be a net provider of security and its strategic outlook may be limited to ensuring that anti-India forces don’t dominate Kabul. The green-on-blue attacks against U.S. troops may have already given the Indian political class jitters about training Afghan forces.

Then there is the brute reality of India itself, which can alienate the strongest ally. The Democrats and the Republicans are united in their support for India but what about the political climate in a country with narrow horizons and where short-term obsessions manifest in “tactical” moves that can derail the country’s larger strategic goals?

(Seema Sirohi is a columnist based in Washington DC. Samir Saran, Vice-President at the Observer Research Foundation, was a part of the recent Track-2 interactions with the U.S. establishment.)

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