Obama’s India visit: Beyond strategic symbolism

By Deepa M. Ollapally

Before India’s political pundits write off President Obama’s visit as nothing more than symbolic, they would do well to consider US- India relations under the Obama administration in its entirety. But in order to do that, they need to first shed their single minded focus on strategic affairs.

There is growing apprehension in India (and among some US analysts) that Indo-US relations have reached a plateau, and that no big strategic breakthroughs are on the horizon. First of all, it is unrealistic to expect strategic transformations at every summit.

Obama’s two predecessors were able to make history after the end of the Cold War by changing the course of US-India relations from one of decades-old disaffection to solid cooperation. Obama has inherited an excellent foundation for relations between the two countries, and there is little question that the US president has embraced India. Unlike Presidents Clinton and Bush, Obama is travelling to India during his first term, showing his urgency and seriousness. And unlike Clinton and Bush, Obama is not stopping over in Pakistan on the same trip, erasing any notion of hyphenation.

During Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Washington one year ago, Obama declared the partnership with India as one of the defining relationships of the 21st century. The president has repeatedly stated his support for India’s rise as a global power, echoing former national security advisor Condoleezza Rice who was one of the first to famously state America’s readiness to assist the growth of India’s global power.

Other top officials are increasingly taking the line that India’s success is in America’s national interest; it is practically becoming an American mantra regarding India’s emerging status.

This attitude towards India is based on long-term strategic and structural conditions, not passing fancy: India’s economic growth, its stable democracy in a region of troubled and precarious states, its contribution to maintaining an Asian balance of power, and its commitment to fighting extremism.

While military agreements and strategic ties may receive publicity and fanfare, we have also seen how fickle they can be if not based on a true coincidence of interests. On the other hand, economic cooperation and interdependence across key sectors tend to make relationships more durable and predictable, and can produce more palpable results. This is especially useful for democratic governments that have to deliver.

As someone presiding over the worst economic downturn in the US in 70 years, it is not surprising that Obama is coming to India with economics at the top of his agenda. As a country whose biggest priority is to reach the rank of a developed country, India should welcome this.

The US-India Business Council is leading the largest business and trade delegation in US history to any foreign country for the business and entrepreneurship summit in Mumbai, where Obama will deliver the keynote address.

Economics continues to be a bright spot in relations, but they have hardly reached full potential. China has overtaken the US as India’s largest trading partner, but if services are included with goods, the US remains at the top.

Obama can use this opportunity to make some headway by expanding the H1B visas and re-starting negotiations toward a bilateral investment treaty, for example. Indian industry leaders like to point out that today foreign direct investment by Indian companies in the US is larger than US foreign direct investment into India, creating jobs for Americans.

India is holding out the most lucrative defence purchase in the world right now, a tender for 126 advanced fighter aircraft at $10 billion. But Obama can make a double breakthrough in economic and security relations by ending once and for all the remaining anachronistic export control regulations against India embodied in the US Entities List.

Taking Indian organisations such as Indian Space Research Organisation and Defence Research and Development Organisation off this list would expand American defence and high-tech trade and provide India with cutting edge technology, a win-win situation for both countries.

Those who argue that deepening economic relations between India and the US is insufficient to sustain a global partnership do have a point. But it may be noted that even without any formal military association between them, the US now holds more military exercises with India than with any other country.

Under the Obama administration, India and the US have moved well beyond focusing on narrow bilateral issue to critical global concerns. From the G-20 summits, the newly begun dialogue on East Asia, or climate change negotiations, there is little doubt that the US recognises the need for India’s active cooperation.

It is this consistent and expanded engagement between India and the US that can ultimately cement a partnership of global proportions.

This article was first printed here in The Economic Times on Nov. 5, 2010.


About risingpowers
Sigur Center for Asian Studies Elliott School of International Affairs The George Washington University

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