India-US: A relationship 'oversold'?

Washington: Clever and selective labels get attention but they do no justice to the reality. A narrative is emerging in Washington that the US-India relationship has been “oversold” and that it is time to shrink expectations, get real and do a revision.

Old critics are reappearing, using the current hurdles in the relationship (differences over Iran, India’s nuclear liability law, economic and tax policies, differences in WTO, climate change negotiations) to question the very idea of a strategic partnership. They say India will never be what the US wants in a partner and disappointments will continue to darken the future. So why invest so much?

George Perkovich, vice president of the Carnegie Endowment and an expert on India’s nuclear programme, leads the disappointed lot and understandably so. He never liked the foundation stone of the new, transformed relationship – the Indo-US civil-nuclear agreement of 2008. He saw the agreement as a huge breach of the international non-proliferation order because it legitimised India’s nuclear weapons programme. How could a country that developed nuclear weapons outside the permanent and unchanging club of five nuclear powers be allowed in from the back door, as it were?

A narrative is emerging in Washington that the US-India relationship has been 'oversold' and that it is time to shrink expectations, get real and do a revision. AP

At a recent event organised by a neo-conservative institute where patience for ideas to grow and deliver is especially thin, Perkovich launched his second stage of attack, this time going a little far. He claimed that India wanted to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group in order to “weaken” it or “at least keep it from being strengthened.” With respect for him and his deeply held beliefs, one has to ask if geo-politics must turn on the axis of a single idea – non-proliferation – to the exclusion of all others.

Another believer of the “oversold” theory, Walter Lohman of the Heritage Foundation, cited India’s voting record in the United Nations as a major flaw. He said it was “crazy” for President Obama to support a permanent seat for India in the UN Security Council because India tends to stand more often with Cuba than with the US. If India is going to be neutral or vote against the US, do “we really want India there,” he asked.

But with no real sign whatsoever of any expansion of the Security Council, India’s voting record is just a political weapon that gets routinely thrown for effect. It is not a real issue, just an old crib. Yes, it complicates politics on Capitol Hill but so it does on Raisina Hill. Besides, India recently voted with the US on Sri Lanka, Syria and Iran.

Another argument forwarded is that Washington doesn’t “need” India vis-à-vis China as much as India thinks it does because the US can talk to China directly. Indeed, as we all can but would talking alone ensure a “peaceful” rise and respect for international norms by a country which no one really truly understands?

The criticisms and faults in Indo-US relations – and there are many on both sides - are a narrative of short yardsticks and shorter horizons. Fortunately those who carry the actual burden of this relationship don’t buy it and that’s good. Their “innate genius” has taken over even though the top political leadership is focused elsewhere.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has invested much in the relationship, made a surprise decision to visit India this week in the same trip as China – itself a signal on where she places New Delhi in importance – to try to weave the different strands in play, re-energise and talk about the problems.

Her decision to stop in Kolkata after she visits Dhaka is with an eye to pushing better integration of India’s east with Myanmar and Bangladesh. The itinerary reflects the geographical links possible in the future by reviving old trade routes to build new geographies of integration. Why can’t the GT Road extend into Myanmar on the one hand and up to Central Asia on the other?

Clinton has largely overcome the early missteps of the Obama Administration vis-à-vis India when Democratic advisors in Washington convinced the White House to focus on China, throwing off kilter the understanding reached during the Bush Administration with India. But now a Democratic administration has reached the same conclusions and today India is an integral part of US strategic thinking on Asia despite the difficulties of demands unmet and agreements unsigned. Critics of the relationship must factor that in instead of trying to turn the clock back.

Washington and Delhi are already thinking and working together on Afghanistan, Myanmar, Iran, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and countries of East Asia, something unthinkable a decade ago when there was more hiding than seeking. There is a dialogue on China where India and the US along with Japan discuss the meaning and method of the rising giant. The three democracies are developing a common language on China and it is sober, subtle and designed for the long haul. There is no talk of “containment” but insurance. India will remain a factor in American strategy because China will, no matter which way one looks at it.

Besides, much of what is going on between India and the United States does not make headlines but is no less important. The unsexy stuff – cooperation on clean energy, education, science and technology and joint development initiatives in Africa and Afghanistan – is slowly filling the large spaces between the sexy stuff of defence sales and nuclear deals. The State Department’s India desk has grown from two officers five years ago to 12 today. The bureaucratic investment speaks to the logic of what began in 2005 with the radical Defence Cooperation Agreement, which opened the door for bigger ideas.

The logic still holds, all the hiccups notwithstanding.

Updated Date: May 08, 2012 12:07 PM

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