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A Step Forward for the U.S. and India

by Evan A. Feigenbaum
June 13, 2010

Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

It’s been a rough seventeen months for the United States and India. I’ve written about some of the challenges here and here—and talked about them here and here.

First, there were some early missteps, not least during the President’s 2008 campaign. As a candidate, Barack Obama told TIME’s Joe Klein that he would appoint a U.S. envoy to seek peace in Kashmir. As president, he quickly backed off after strenuous Indian objections. But Indian mistrust spiked, then lingered, after his inauguration.

Second, the two sides hit something of an intellectual wall. They’ve lacked a new “big idea” to succeed the U.S.-India civil nuclear initiative. We sometimes forget just how big that idea really was. It began, in a sense, as an effort to overcome a bilateral dispute left over from the 1970s. But it quickly became a full-fledged campaign to achieve a unique international status for India.

Third, the two sides suffered from a lack of momentum. A crisis of vision (as I argued here) need not automatically have led to drift in the relationship. For instance, a package of smaller ideas could have pushed things forward. But many of the best ideas and initiatives bogged down. These included a bilateral investment treaty, expanded civil space cooperation, export control adjustments, defense procurement deals, a more ambitious bilateral agriculture initiative, and agreements on defense logistics and communications. Intelligence and law enforcement cooperation broadened, gathering momentum from an initial boost after the November 2008 Mumbai attacks. But this really didn’t provide sufficient ballast.

Still, the most important problem has been substantive. As I argued in Foreign Affairs in March, disagreements over the administration’s policies toward Afghanistan and Pakistan have been a principal obstacle to strengthened U.S.-India relations. Many in the Indian government are deeply skeptical of the administration’s approach. And if the Indian government has been skeptical, commentators, pundits, and former Indian officials have been downright frigid. For a couple of examples, read here and here.

So on June 3-4, when Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna came to Washington, the United States and India finally had a terrific week. On the margins of their inaugural strategic dialogue, the two sides got much of the political symbolism right—and perhaps began to alter some perceptions.

President Obama dropped by a reception hosted by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Less visible, but no less imperative, the administration offered a coherent and compelling explanation of its India policy in this important speech by Undersecretary of State William Burns (a key player on India policy in both the Bush and Obama administrations).

Burns bluntly tackled the major Indian critiques of U.S. policies: “We can’t afford to gloss over such questions,” he said, “or pretend that they don’t exist … that the United States seeks to ‘re-hyphenate’ relations with India … that we see India mainly through the prism of preoccupations in Afghanistan and Pakistan … that we won’t push Pakistan hard enough on terrorists who kill and threaten Indians … that we will hurry toward the exit in Afghanistan and leave India holding the strategic pieces. Some in India worry that the new Administration is tempted by visions of a ‘G-2’ world … that we’ve ‘downgraded’ India because we see Asia exclusively through the lens of an emerging China, with India’s role secondary.”

Burns offered a ringing endorsement of India’s emergence on the international canvas. The United States, he said, has an “enormous stake” in “India’s rise as a global power.”

None of this went unnoticed in India, as demonstrated by the comments here, here, and here.

But the challenge now will be to turn these positive perceptions into common (or, at least, complementary) policies. And if the two sides want to take their relationship to the next level, they’ll need to demonstrate concrete progress in time for President Obama’s November 7 arrival in India.

Here are a few areas to watch:

Civil Nuclear Cooperation: The two sides agreed in March on procedures for India to reprocess U.S.-origin spent nuclear fuel under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards—a central element of the civil nuclear deal, which they concluded six months ahead of schedule. But other steps remain, such as a liability bill that will enable India to accede to the global nuclear liability regime, including an international “insurance pool” for compensation in case of a nuclear accident, as India has long planned. But in the wake of last week’s criminal convictions related to the 1984 Bhopal disaster, this legislation has gone from controversial to politically explosive.

Afghanistan: As the U.S. assesses the results of its offensive in Marjah, does it recalibrate in ways that lead India to believe U.S. commitment to defeating the Taliban is flagging?

Pakistan: Does the U.S. credibly sustain its argument to India that, in Burns’ words, it is “continu[ing] to urge Pakistan to take decisive action against … violent extremists,” including those that launch attacks against India?

China: How will the administration respond to China’s apparent effort to expand its bilateral civil nuclear cooperation with Pakistan? For its deal with India, the U.S. (joined by Russia, France, and the United Kingdom) sought to win international consensus. They sought—and received—the unanimous approval of 35 members of the IAEA Board of Governors for a safeguards agreement and 45 members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group for an exception for India to full-scope safeguards. So with China eschewing any such effort to achieve international consensus, the administration will be asked to explain its choices, actions, or inaction.

Trade: Will a bilateral investment treaty move forward? (This has mostly been stuck in a policy review on the U.S. side). What about collaboration on non-Doha-related elements of the WTO regime? And will India raise any of its caps on foreign investment—for instance, in the insurance sector?

Defense: Does India move forward with two stalled defense agreements? How about bids for major military procurements? For example, two U.S. companies are bidding on the contract for India’s next-generation fighter aircraft.

Public-Private Partnership: In education and agriculture, especially, will the two sides achieve anything tangible beyond launching government-to-government talkshops? At the end of the day, these have to encompass private sector efforts. So will new initiatives be backed by serious government money but will they also integrate a private sector component? How? For that matter, will India ease restrictions on foreign investment in education, giving Obama an opportunity to bring a few U.S. educators to India as part of his delegation?

Export Controls: Perhaps the best candidate for a “big-ish” new idea. This marries security with economic issues—and existing U.S. policies and licensing procedures touch some raw Indian nerves. Nearly all technology flows freely, but governmental and corporate India both chafe at some of the remaining U.S. restrictions (for instance in the civil nuclear and space industries), complaining that these treat India as a pariah, not a partner. So how far will the U.S. proceed with its review of export controls announced by Defense Secretary Robert Gates? And for its part, will India join international regimes such as the Wassenaar arrangement, as the U.S. has urged?

Finally, how far and in what ways will the two sides move toward a more global partnership? In his speech, Burns announced an expanded dialogue on East Asia, and new bilateral dialogues on the Middle East and Africa. I worked to get all three of these dialogues going during the Bush administration, so I tip my hat to the Obama team for successfully pursuing a more global focus to the relationship. Greater coordination beyond South Asia nicely complements an important trend in Indian foreign policy, namely New Delhi’s expanded focus beyond India’s own neighborhood. So too would a greater focus on the global commons.

But the ultimate test will be whether Washington and New Delhi turn common interests into complementary policies around the world. The improved optic is very important indeed. But some tough work lies ahead in the run-up to Obama’s November visit.

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