July 20, 2011

The Strategic Relationship Between The U.S. And India: Coming Along Nicely

Secretary of State Clinton's swing through India points again to the tremendous potential of an Indo-American strategic partnership over the long term. But it also demonstrates how tough some of the challenges will remain over the next couple of years. 

Secretary Clinton is in India at the helm of a large, high-level government delegation for the second annual Strategic Dialogue. The first round, held in Washington last year, started to pull the bilateral relationship out of its previous doldrums and set the stage for President Obama's successful visit to India last fall. This round is aimed at sustaining last year's progress and implementing the many commitments both sides took on.

That's tough to do. Many of the big policy changes on the American side have already been made -- the United States has supported Indian access to civilian nuclear technology, a change that required amending domestic law and international agreements; it modified its export controls so that India has greater access to American technology; it now supports India's membership in the four international nonproliferation regimes; and the president endorsed Indian permanent membership on the UN Security Council. There is always more to do, to be sure, but these are serious moves.

On the Indian side, most of the expected policy changes are stuck, largely due to domestic politics. The civil nuclear deal is not operational because of a flawed liability law. Key defense agreements remain incomplete. India has granted little in the way of market access, despite repeated American hectoring. And the United States bemoaned the fact that the two American companies bidding on a major fighter jet program were knocked out of the competition.  

On other issues, too, the two sides differ. America wants to draw down in Afghanistan, talk to the Taliban, and ensure that Pakistan is part of the solution there. India wants America to stay, rejects the idea of a Taliban parley, and believes that Pakistan is part of the problem there. Trade, climate change, and other areas mark gaps between the two sides.

In the Middle East, where there is vast scope for the world's two largest democracies to cooperate in support of the Arab spring, the vestiges of India's nonaligned, non-interference tradition endure. At his press conference earlier this week with Secretary Clinton, Minister of External Affairs S.M. Krishna expressed "hope for the fulfillment of the aspirations of the people of the region for an early restoration of peace and stability." This is a bit strange; it's a fair bet that the demonstrators across the Middle East have been fighting for human rights and economic opportunity, not a restoration of old-guard stability.

Yet despite all of this, there are good reasons -- very good reasons -- for optimism. First, the strategic logic is compelling. The ascent of China and the hedging this now produces across Asia helps focus the United States and India on their shared interest in an Asian balance of power. The values aspect, too, is real; a younger generation of Indian officials sees the world through less traditional eyes, and the government quite deliberately now refers to itself as the "world's largest democracy." There is bipartisan support on both sides for a close strategic relationship, and private sector support for better economic ties.

Over time, I'd bet these factors trump all of the differences, challenges, frustrations, and misunderstandings that will doubtlessly fill the days of Indian and American officials alike.  America's India policy is a rare example of true, sustained strategic thought across multiple administrations. The United States has made its major policy changes, and spoken in warm terms about the potential for close ties, not in expectation of immediate tangible payoffs but because it is building a long-term relationship. That's rare. 

That relationship will be aided by patience on Washington's part and tangible deliverables on India's part. Neither finds such moves natural. But the U.S.-India relationship is one that will take careful nurturing over a long period of time as it moves toward an uncertain future. Not satisfying in the short run, maybe, but worth it in the long.