Kerry-Sushma meet or Parrikar-Carter visit: India-US partnership is promising and yet daunting

It is indeed rare in affairs of two countries that their foreign and defence ministers are in each other’s capital on official visit at the same time. And this is precisely what has happened in the case of India and the United States this week.

Few hours later, on the day Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar and his American counterpart Ashton Carter concluded the bilateral logistics exchange memorandum of agreement (LEMOA) in Washington DC, the US Secretary of State John Kerry and US Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker (her simultaneous visit to India with Kerry has not been highlighted strangely by our mainstream media) were meeting their Indian counterparts, Sushma Swaraj and Nirmala Sitharaman in New Delhi, in what was called the "Second India-US Strategic and Commercial Dialogue".

Though the dialogue has ended, Kerry has stayed back for two more days (till Friday); he will fly to China directly from here to join President Barack Obama. China is hosting this year’s G-20 summit, a meeting of 20 heads of government representing the developed and developing countries of the world, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

In fact, the year 2016 has been very hectic as far as the official parleys between India and the United States are concerned. If US Secretary of State, Commerce Secretary and Defence Secretary have been to India, Indian Defence Minister and Finance Minister have visited the United States (Finance Minister Jaitley was there in June). Later this month, Home Minister Rajnath Singh will be on a US tour to carry on with his counterpart (Homeland Secretary Jeh Charles Johnson) 'Indo-US Homeland Security Dialogue'.

Significantly, Prime Minister Modi has been to the United States twice this year (altogether four times in the last two and half years). In March this year, Modi was in Washington for the two-day Nuclear Security Summit where world leaders from over 50 countries shared their assessment of the threat from nuclear weapons and materials. This was essentially a multilateral summit hosted by President Obama. But Modi’s visit in June was strictly a bilateral affair. Its importance lay in the fact that this was the second state-visit by Modi during the term of the same President(Obama too has been the first American President to come to India twice, last time as the Chief Guest of our republic day function at the short-invitation of Modi).

A file photo of External Affair Minister Sushma Swaraj with US Secretary of State John Kerry. Reuters

A file photo of External Affair Minister Sushma Swaraj with US Secretary of State John Kerry. Reuters

If one adds to these official interactions, the mutual visits of the business leaders of the two countries in recent years, which include the top executives from Google, Apple, Facebook and Tesla Motors, it can be said that the present status of the Indo-US ties could be at a historic high. Let it be noted that the history of Indo-US relations has been marked otherwise by more downs than ups. So much so that a former US-diplomat, Dennis Kux, wrote a book, titled 'Estranged Democracies' (India, being largest and the United States being the most powerful).

Things started to change after the end of the Cold War. Irrespective of who has been power in Delhi and Washington since then, the two countries have been moving forward. Indo-US relations are no longer a hostage to US-Pakistani and Indo-Soviet relations. Indo-US annual trade is now worth more than $100 billion a year. There are currently closer economic ties and collaborations between the two, and that includes ambitious schemes on energy augmentations and defence collaborations. Strategically speaking, the two countries share concerns over the Islamic fundamentalism, global terror networks, unending conflict in Afghanistan and a truculent China. There is at the present increased cooperation between the two countries’ military and intelligence establishments.

Today, India-US relations cover a broad range of bilateral issues and shared objectives, including regional security, economic cooperation, defence, trade, and climate challenges etc. Obviously, these pose challenges and offer opportunities. Therefore, in January 2015, President Obama and Prime Minister Modi elevated the US-India Strategic Dialogue (starting in 2009) to the Strategic and Commercial Dialogue(S&CD), reflecting the United States and India’s shared priorities of “generating economic growth, creating jobs, improving the investment climate, and strengthening the middle class in both countries”. The inaugural S&CD took place in 21-22 September, 2015 at Washington DC. Kerry and Pritzker, thus, came here for the second S&CD.

In fact, the joint-statement of this meeting or dialogue, issued on 31 August, reflects the magnitude of the issues that were covered. It runs into as many as 63 paragraphs or points, both big and small. The issues covered ranged from "Strategic, Defence and Security" to "Regional consultations and Global issues" to “Climate, Energy and Environment” to “Commerce, Economy, and Growth” to “Innovation and Entrepreneurship” to “Ease of doing Business” to “Smart Cities Cooperation” to “Travel, Tourism, and People-to-People Ties” to “Standards Cooperation” to “Transportation Sector Cooperation” to “Trade Policy” to “Science and Technology” to “Health, Education, and People-to-People Contacts”.

India and the United States have everything to gain as close partners, if not allies, given their shared ideals of democracy, pluralistic ways of life, equality and justice. And yet if they had been estranged, it is also because of their democratic systems. Ironical as it may sound, but the fact remains that both being democracies mean that there are institutional bottlenecks, resulting in complex and slow decision-making systems. As American scholar Joseph Nye has said, “there is protectionism in all democracies. Both India and the United States face pressures from vested interests which prevent the two countries from reaching levels of the trade and investment that otherwise would be beneficial to both parties. There are various industries and economic areas where the United States and India have not always seen eye to eye”.

In other words, though one hears that sky is the limit for the two countries’ partnership whenever the leaders of the two countries meet and one comes across promising announcements and high-sounding agreements, problems arise when the stage of implementations of the agreed ideas arise. Obviously, the two governments have a lot to do for overcoming these inherent challenges, irrespective of which parties they belong to, whether in India or in the United States. In the ultimate analysis, it all boils down to how each of the two governments positions itself as a partner that is valuable enough to the other.

In fact, the writer's Indian-American friend Professor Amit Gupta, who teaches in the United States, has an interesting explanation on the direction of the Indo-US relations. According to him, "It is important to keep in mind that there are five India-US relationships: the government to government relationship; the military to military relationship; the one between Bangalore and Silicon Valley; the one between Indian students and American universities; and finally, the one between the Indian diaspora and India. Of these, the first two are the ones on which the Indian government pins the most hopes, but these are also the most problematic. The India-US relationship has improved significantly since the bad days following the 1998 nuclear tests but they have plateaued at the political and military levels. What PM Modi needs to do, therefore, is to push the development of the other three sets of relationships that are both far less complicated to foster and much more.”

I will end with a little bit explanation of Amit’s last "relationship" — the ascendancy of the Indian- Americans both in number and profile in the United States. Indian- Americans have been continuously outpacing every ethnic group socioeconomically to reach the summit of the US Census charts. They have attained the highest educational levels of all ethnic groups in the US According to Wikipedia, 71% of all Indians have a bachelor's or high degree (compared to 28 percent nationally and 44 percent average for all Asian American groups). Almost 40 percent of all Indians in the United States have a master's, doctorate or other professional degree. After all, the best and brightest students in India emigrate to America.

A study from Pew Research Centre has shown that 80 percent of Indians were holding college or advanced degrees, surpassing the previously Taiwanese average figure of 74.1%. In fact, the percentage of the number of Indian- Americans who have a master's, doctorate or other professional degree is five times the national average in America.

What all this means is that these high profiled Indian -Americans, having best professional jobs, constitute a huge constituency for India which no American government or business can ignore. But then, for better or concrete results, there has to be some systemic changes in India in its governance, something that is not easy, given the weighty presence habitual US - bashers in our political, administrative and intellectual establishments, most of whom, incidentally, also happen to be the biggest opponents of the liberalisation of the economy and governmental reforms.

Updated Date: Sep 02, 2016 18:35 PM

Also See