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Continental and Maritime in U.S.-India Relations

by Evan A. Feigenbaum

The Indian financial newspaper, Business Standard, has published my latest “DC Diary” column.  With President Obama landing in New Delhi this week, it seemed like a good time to ask why Washington and New Delhi remain so burdened, even imprisoned, by continental preoccupations.

To Americans, India can be a real jumble of contradictions.  It is a maritime nation—strategically situated near key chokepoints—but with a continental strategic tradition.  It is a nation of illustrious mercantile traditions but for decades walled off large swaths of its economy.

Much has changed, principally because rapid economic growth has allowed India to break from the confining shackles of South Asia.  India is again an Asian player, better integrated into the East Asian economic system.  And it has a growing capacity to influence the wider Asian balance of power.

So, here’s my question:  Given all that change, why are the U.S. and India so bogged down in (and over) continental Asia?

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India-U.S.-China Strategic Triangle

by Adam Segal
Statue of Indian Elephant


After a week of meetings with Indian academics, think tank analysts, and government officials, I came away with a clear sense that there is a great deal of concern about China in Delhi these days. There was not a lot of talk about opportunities in the bilateral relationship, and I lost count of the number of times I heard the phrase “new aggressiveness”. Other popular expressions included “pushing at our borders” and “spreading influence throughout South Asia.” More people at the Ministries of External Affairs and Defence, I was told, would be spending more time on China issues.

It was also hard to escape geopolitics. Indian interests now extend from Aden to Singapore, from the Straits of Hormuz to Malacca. Delhi will economically integrate with Asia, and work closely with Hanoi and Tokyo. China, in turn, is exploiting the chaos in Afghanistan and Pakistan to extend its influence in the region and into Central Asia.
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Obama and Asia, Part Deux

by Joshua Kurlantzick
Supporters of U.S President Obama gather for party to welcome him at Fabulous Bellagio Mall in Jakarta

Crack Palinggi/courtesy Reuters

My colleague Elizabeth Economy raises some important points about my article in Newsweek, but I think that, overall, she takes a far too rosy  view of the White House’s efforts, and its rewards, in Asia. Much of the polling data showing the White House’s popularity or favorability in Asia, for example, reflects as much Asian enthusiasm for Obama, and dislike for his predecessor George W. Bush, as it does any real regional response to the Obama administration’s efforts, or lack thereof, in the region. In Indonesia specifically, the favorability rating reflects Obama’s status as a kind of “local boy,” having spent part of his childhood there; by contrast, specific elements of the mooted US-Indonesia comprehensive partnership are not necessarily popular in important segments in Indonesia, including a renewed relationship with Kopassus.

I do, as Liz notes, acknowledge when the administration has made headway. However, even some of the supposed triumphs are not necessarily so. The U.S.-South Korea free trade deal was negotiated by the previous administration, and despite Obama’s vow to move forward with it, the conditions he might attach to rethinking it may well kill it anyway, thereby both raising Seoul’s hopes and crushing them at the same time. The Trans-Pacific Partnership, meanwhile, is not an initiative launched by the Obama administration – it was started by Chile, Singapore, and New Zealand, and joined by the United States years later. The Obama administration, as even some administration officials admit in private, highlighted the TPP during the president’s visit to Asia last year exactly because the White House did not have any other good news on trade to offer, and TPP is so far from coming into reality that Washington could support it without having to face any real consequences of that support.

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A Step Forward for the U.S. and India

by Evan A. Feigenbaum

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.

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Obama’s India Problem

by Evan A. Feigenbaum

Photo Courtesy of REUTERS/Jim Young

U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner this week completed a trip to India, a country taking its place at the top table of the global economy for the first time through its membership in the Group of 20 and the Financial Stability Board. Geithner isn’t the first Treasury secretary to pursue broadened coordination with India. But his trip, in the wake of a global financial crisis from which India has emerged stronger and earlier than most other major economies, assumed a special significance. Geithner and Indian officials launched an expanded “Economic and Financial Partnership,” aimed at enhancing coordination of macroeconomic policies and increasing financing for infrastructure investment in India.

But Geithner’s passage to India–heavier on imagery and symbolism than on substance–took place on the heels of a more immediately tangible development: On March 29, the United States and India took a decisive step forward in implementing their historic civil nuclear initiative, completed in 2008. After months of negotiation, they agreed on procedures for India to reprocess U.S.-origin spent nuclear fuel under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards.

This kind of attention to India is important, not least because skeptics in both countries have argued that the U.S.-India relationship is drifting. Count me among the skeptics.

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