The September 27 Manmohan Singh-Obama meeting made some incremental moves, but the India-U.S. relationship needs more energy and stronger economies

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s White House visit September 27 was workmanlike and cordial, but the sense of barely meeting low expectations was hard to miss. The two governments put out a long list of accomplishments. They announced a few new items, notably a new defence framework statement and a preliminary contract between Westinghouse and the Indian nuclear authorities regarding construction of a nuclear power plant in Gujarat. The discussions were wide-ranging. But those who were looking for a dynamic relaunch of the relationship were destined to be disappointed. In American baseball language, they were playing “small ball” – a game of small moves and modest, hopefully steady, rewards.

Accomplishments

Papers put out by the White House chronicled the issues that had been worked out before the visit. Both the Fact Sheet and the Joint Statement underlined the positives in the India-U.S. relationship: an established strategic partnership; goods trade now close to $100 billion, up five fold in a decade and 50 per cent in three years; defence trade of $9 billion; high technology trade now $5.8 billion a year, with only 0.2 per cent of U.S. exports to India requiring export licences compared to 24 per cent in 1999. One item that may take some of the sting out of disagreements on visa issues is India’s participation in the Global Entry Trusted Traveler Network program, which speeds entry procedures at U.S. airports for select travellers. It is important to underscore these solid accomplishments, which contrast with the sour mood among U.S. officials who deal with economic relations.

Among the items announced during the visit, two stand out. The first was the preliminary contract for Westinghouse — apparently short of the Early Works Agreement that had been hoped for but nonetheless a formal milestone on the way toward constructing a nuclear plant. The second was a Joint Declaration on Defence Cooperation. It starts with a sentence acknowledging that the United States and India “share common security interests and place each other at the same level as their closest partners.” This relatively bland sentence is an important scene-setter, publicly acknowledging that this defence relationship is based on a genuine convergence of interests. The reference to “specific opportunities for cooperative and collaborative projects in advanced defense technologies and systems, within the next year” is also welcome coded language, pointing to moves toward joint development and co-production, which represent India’s principal goal in the defence relationship. An early indication of what this might mean lay in the announcement by Deputy Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter, shortly before the visit, that the U.S. had proposed co-development with India of the next version of the Javelin missile. Carter’s efforts to remove obstacles to U.S.-India security cooperation were a major factor in preparing the declaration, and demonstrate the value of having a dedicated senior-level interlocutor engaged with India over an extended period.

There were a couple of noteworthy accomplishments on the economic side. The two leaders committed themselves to a “high standards” Bilateral Investment Treaty. This has been on the bilateral agenda for years, and could help produce ground rules that the U.S. business community would be comfortable with. Also welcome is the promise of cooperation on climate change. The two leaders agreed to convene a task force on hydrofluorocarbons. Secretary of State Kerry had made a point of asking that India work with the U.S., as China is doing, on this problem.

These items are notable in part because at least some of them are specific and long-standing irritants. The economic agenda, in particular, had seen very little concrete movement in recent years.

The success story in the past five years, by contrast, has been India-U.S. dialogues on regions of great mutual interest. The East Asia dialogue is the star in this category, and another round of discussions, involving the new Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, is apparently being scheduled. The joint statement promised dialogues on the Middle East, and the leaders themselves discussed Afghanistan, where both India and the United States have major strategic interests in play, and India is deeply concerned about the impact of the U.S. drawdown on the danger of terrorism in the region.

Media coverage

The most remarkable thing about the meeting, however, was the amazingly skimpy press coverage after it was over. The two leaders held a press conference, which covered the substance of the meeting as well as some unrelated items, primarily Syria. Prime Minister Singh had a press conference on his flight home, which noted the high points of the visit but then focused mainly on Indian domestic political issues. But the major press outlets in both India and the U.S. had little or nothing to say about it. This reflected in part unlucky timing. The impending U.S. government shutdown and the Obama phone call with Iranian President Rouhani sucked all the oxygen out of the room for the U.S. press. On the Indian side, Dr. Singh’s meeting two days later with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was “the story.”

The relative press silence, however, also reflected the pattern that U.S.-India relations in the past three years have progressed in small increments, leaving their natural constituencies rather grumpy — especially in the United States, but also in India. The lacklustre economy in India has added to this phenomenon. Understandably, Dr. Singh’s remarks to a group of CEO’s he met in New York highlighted the positive points in India’s economic fundamentals and his hope for an early return to eight-nine per cent growth.

The achievements recorded in Manmohan Singh’s latest, and possibly last, official visit to Washington are positive and will move the relationship forward, but slowly and incrementally. Total gloom now is as unjustified as euphoria was on the morrow of the U.S.-India nuclear deal. But both sides badly need an infusion of energy, more consistent high level attention, and a stronger economic recovery.

(Teresita and Howard Schaffer are former U.S. ambassadors, with long years of service in South Asia. They are co-founders of southasiahand.com. Howard Schaffer teaches at Georgetown University; Teresita Schaffer is a non-resident senior fellow at Brookings Institution.)

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