Indo-US détente: Beyond economics?

modi-obama-meetIndia’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi described his visit to the US as “very successful and satisfactory.” From his speech at the UNGA to receiving a rock star reception at the Madison Square Garden, to his meeting with some of the world’s most powerful CEOs, Mr Modi’s trip to the US exuded a rare energy and created quite a splash.

Relations between the two largest democracies in the world have often been sour and despite having common values, the Indo-US relations have been marked by mistrust, instead of cooperation, leading to the term ‘estranged democracies’.  Recent years have seen India and the US move from the mistrust that once characterised their relations to a growing recognition that each is crucial to the other’s interests.  Yet, the relationship has not lived up to its potential, owing to a series of incidents and irritants.

Distractions like the underperformance of the Indian economy have slowed down trade and investment flows, and structural reforms.  Unresolved issues, including the stalled Trans-Pacific Partnership, WTO trade facilitation, intellectual property rights, and the failure of the civil nuclear agreement has reduced the economic content of the relationship. Key developments emerged from Mr Modi’s visit, including the US commitment to aid in the development of smart cities in India, and a pledge of $41 billion investments by the US-India Business Council.  However, while the two countries might achieve new breakthroughs in the economic sphere, the story of geopolitics is more challenging.

The Indo-US relations were strained during the Cold War, with their respective conflicting aims for hegemony and autonomy, resulting in divergent interests. For years, the contradictory positions of both states, the US on non-proliferation and India on the discriminatory NPT, continued to hamper their relations. The different power positions that India and the US occupied in the global hierarchy led them to adopt differing worldviews.

modi-obama-us3Currently, the interests of both states seem to be converging, such as the stability of Afghanistan, economic objectives, non-proliferation, Islamist fundamentalism, climate change, defence cooperation, and UN peacekeeping operations.  Perhaps, as analyst Sreeram Chaulia states, where India and the US converge more so than ever is on the issue of China, where India is viewed as “a democratic and pluralistic alternative to an authoritarian and aggressive China”. India has imported more than $10 billion of American defense equipment and it conducts more joint military exercises with the US than any other country.

Yet, despite having seemingly convergent strategic interests, owing to their distinct historical trends, both countries still continue to have divergent standpoints and methods.

The issue of Pakistan is a longstanding irritant hampering the relationship.  India’s own suffering at the hands of militant Islam for decades, coupled with its democratic nature, made it a natural ally in the post 9/11 environment.  Yet, for India, terrorism emanates mainly from Pakistan, which the US has chosen as an ally in the War on Terror.  Owing to its realpolitik relationship with Pakistan, the US has not committed to fighting terror camps in Pakistan, and while imposing sanctions on Iran, Syria and even Russia, has never done so on Pakistan.  Indeed, Mr Modi, during his visit, mentioned double standards in the fight against terrorism, with nations overlooking the issue when it emanates from allied states.  Thus, although terrorism is a key challenge for both states, both have different perspectives.

us-modi-obamaDuring his visit at the CFR, PM Modi stated, “in an inevitably interdependent world, India would come together with other countries regardless of political differences to fight terrorism”.  Yet, it has refrained from participating in the US-led international coalition against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.  In accordance with its rise in the international system, India is increasingly being expected to take a stance on international issues.  The US wants India to play a more proactive role in the world, and to that effect, supports a more muscular Indian foreign policy.  However, India differs in its position.  This is hardly based on its Nehruvian Cold War mentality of nonalignment but espouses more pragmatic considerations, including the unwillingness to partake in Western adventures unless a direct and existential threat to its security exists, and the lack of economic and military capacity to take such action.  India’s considered refusal to condemn Russian expansionism in Ukraine, and support Western sanctions, is another indicator of this.  Of course, India’s historically close relations with Russia need to be kept in mind here.

Iran is another irritant, with the US concerned about New Delhi’s closeness to Tehran.  The US has in the past compelled India to modify its policy towards Iran, but this is inimical to India’s interests.  America has its misgivings about Iran, but Iran is vital to India’s energy needs, and India has a centuries old civilizational history and deep cultural ties with Iran, including a large domestic Shia population.

As demonstrated above, in many of America’s key foreign policy challenges in the world, India differs in perspective and position.  As Professor Pant states, while India and the US might get along bilaterally, they have had issues getting along multilaterally.  Even where they converge as they do on the issue of Afghanistan, their ways differ, with India contributing over $2 billion for humanitarian assistance and infrastructure.

The pressures of globalisation and economic interdependence have generated compulsions, prospects and incentives for cooperation between states.  For the time being, economics continues to trump geopolitics and dictate the shape of the bilateral.  But whether the two countries are indeed ‘natural allies’ remains to be seen.  President Obama hasn’t paid much attention to India as his predecessor President Bush, and is preoccupied with tackling major international challenges like the Islamic State.  Mr Modi himself comes with a sense of wounded history, having been denied a US visa on account of his supposed complicity in the 2002 Gujarat riots.

modi-madison1While both leaders are charismatic and good practitioners of diplomacy, the two countries need to transcend irritants from hijacking the relationship, especially given the radically changing international landscape including an increasingly assertive and expansionist China, and the threat of Islamist fundamentalism.  The natural strengths in the relationship are evident — both countries function on the same values of openness and democratic institutions, with a focus on economics, and strong people-to-people ties.  They should capitalise on these strengths, and realise that some of India’s own foreign policy interests will collide with its goal of cultivating a strong relationship with the US and vice versa.  But the relationship can grow if both sides respect the other’s position and place, and acknowledges the other’s interests.  The US must understand the complexity and history of India’s relations with Iran, Russia, and China, and be sensitive to the fact that India’s strategic interests trump its alleged global obligations.  These strategic differences do not speak for the fundamental character of the relationship.

The most important aspect of the relationship is the American recognition that India’s success and transformation towards a more prosperous society is in America’s interest, and India’s emergence as a major and prosperous power requires a closer relationship with the US both in the security and economic realms. As Senator McCain states, “Ultimately, this strategic partnership is about India and the US placing a long-term bet on one another – a bet that each of us should be confident can offer a big return.”  The countries might have divergent perspectives, but their visions and commitment to a liberal international world order, and a rising Asia that is stable with no single power exercising disproportionate influence, do not conflict.  This should be the dominant idea taking the relationship forward, as it did during the civil nuclear agreement, after which this central story line got blurred.

(Shairee Malhotra is a Mumbai-based analyst. She has worked as a researcher at Gateway House: Indian Council on Global



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