Current Status of US-India Relations – August 1, 2013

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During the cold war period (1945 – 1990) the United States and India were largely adversaries who had stared at each other from the other side of the fence. The US had always considered India the larger entity in the subcontinent, to be wooed and won over compared to Pakistan, but had to settle for a pliable Pakistan over non- aligned India. The propensity of India under Nehru to align his country with the Soviet Union in the bi-polar cold war standoff, also understandably raised hackles in Washington for most of the second half of the 20th century.

The fall of the Soviet Union in 1990 provided the United States the opening to resume its overtures to India. India too had around this time shed its Nehruvian Fabian socialism in favor of free enterprise capitalism. India was thus willing to respond positively to US blandishments to develop a strong political and economic relationship with the latter. President Clinton led the charge and India under Prime Minister Narasimha Rao responded.

A sea change in US policy on non-proliferation issues was to recognize India as a nuclear power despite the latter’s refusal to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (1968). This was an amazing volte face on the part of the United States. Past history attests to Great powers indulging in such tergiversations whenever it suited their purpose. Some observers quote the saying “do as we say, not as we do” as a refrain emanating from Washington in its dealings with a number of smaller and weaker countries worldwide. The big prize offered and accepted by India in 2005 was an omnibus civilian nuclear pact under which the US would share its state of the art nuclear technology with India on the proviso ( which may not be entirely easy to monitor) that India would undertake to separate its civilian nuclear program from its military component. [Comment: when Pakistan as a “major non-NATO ally” asked for a similar deal it was rebuffed by the US on the grounds that the situation in India and Pakistan was different]. The provisions of the Indo-US agreement inked in 2005 have been partially implemented. It is a jewel in the crown of a refurbished Indo-US relationship.

However there is a sense in both countries that the rhetoric of “strategic engagement” has fallen short of expectations. Indian prime ministers have visited Washington. Both George W Bush and Obama have visited India. But the feelings of bonhomiewhich such high level visits engender, dissipates sooner or later, and disagreements and doubts have continued to rise to the surface.

On the US side, in the strategic session led by John Kerry last month, Robert Blake the Assistant Secretary of State stated, “Our foremost focus will be on the economy and trade. There is a lot of concern in parts of the American business community about what they see as the increasing obstacles to trade and investment.” The US wants to take advantage of India’s rising middle class to increase its exports and also to engage in profitable investment in India. This is not happening as Blake has stated above. According to the Financial Times, western pharmaceutical companies are “outraged at what they see as a trampling over their intellectual property rights, after a series of recent Indian court rulings, revoking, denying or overriding patents on their innovative drugs.” The US Chambers of Commerce Global Intellectual Property Rights Center said India’s failure to protect intellectual property rights also extends to tolerating rampant piracy of films, music, and software.

On the Indian side as a report in The Economist has pointed out, the Indians are worried about the emergence of a future government in Afghanistan that is aligned with Pakistan. (The unspoken Indian fear is that the US may be facilitating this scenario to obtain Pakistan’s cooperation in an orderly withdrawal of US men and materiel from Afghanistan The peripatetic John Kerry is currently in Pakistan to discuss Afghanistan and violent extremism in Pakistan).This is a somewhat overblown concern as any government in Afghanistan would have to take Pakistan’s interests into account being that neighboring Pakistan has 40 million Pashtuns living in its territory. I doubt if the US can do much except to acknowledge the role of history and demography in the nexus between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The other Indian concern is the chumminess between Obama and the new Chinese leader Xi Jinping. This, according to The Economist has reminded the Indians about earlier Obama administration talk about a “G-2 between the incumbent and the rising superpower.” India is also unhappy about the US visa restrictions placed on Indian software engineers.

Perhaps it was to allay and smooth over these murmurings of discontent that Obama dispatched Vice President Biden to India for a weeklong visit in July 2013. Biden stated after a meeting with Indian businessmen “there was an honest discussion about how both governments could be productive in reducing trade barriers that have an impact on trade and commerce.”

India is a rising regional power. Currently its economy is contracting and the value of the rupee to the dollar has gone down appreciably. I believe The Economist had it just about right in its observation that “India and America are intertwined in so many different ways – military, commercial, cultural, educational and scientific – that may have outgrown a strategic dialogue where governments chart the course”. But I also feel that India while keen to enhance its relations with the US, considers itself a major power in Asia and therefore one which will not be subject to American diktat.

It is my assessment that the current Indo-US bilateral relationship points to a scaling down of expectations on both sides. India is not yet and perhaps will not be in a position in the foreseeable future, as surmised by some observers, to be a credible counterweight to China. An American adjustment to China’s rise will probably have to take precedence over US –India relations.

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