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Taking the partnership global

Teresita C. Schaffer (World View) / 9 November 2010

President Barack Obama’s trip to India will have moments of theater and high drama, and undoubtedly will produce an imposing list of “deliverables.”

 But its most important message is the expanding scope of the India-US partnership. Until late 2009, the Indo-US conversation, and most of the success stories in the new relationship, was confined to bilateral issues. In the past year, the two governments have begun serious conversations about security in Asia. In the coming year, the incipient discussion on global governance will become a major feature of US-India relations. For the first time, the two countries may have the ingredients needed for the strategic partnership both want.

The biggest success stories in the past decade entail accomplishments the United States and India achieve on their own, without third parties. The most dramatic change has been the creation of a security relationship. In 2000, there was practically none; in 2010, US officials assert that the United States conducts more military exercises with India than with any other country. Major strategic interests bring the two countries together in the Indian Ocean. India’s exports to the US have doubled in that same period, and its imports from the US have grown fivefold. These are the essential building blocks for a broader relationship.

The crowning bilateral achievement was the agreement on civil nuclear cooperation. When first announced in 2005, it was a breathtaking policy departure for the United States. The agreement required the assent of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the international organisation that establishes widely shared rules for nuclear trade. After great controversy in both countries, the agreement staggered across the finish line in December 2008 – a month before US President George W. Bush left office. Both major US parties were present at the creation, and the Obama administration has made good on its pledge to implement it. The agreement on reprocessing of US-supplied fuel, which both sides had pledged to negotiate within a year was actually completed before the final deadline. There’s still plenty of bilateral work to do, but the transformation from 1990 or even 2000 is readily apparent.

To be “strategic,” the partnership must move beyond the bilateral, to carve out its proper place in the region and the world. Here, the Obama administration can take pride in having moved beyond the record it inherited. The major features of this larger regional conversation involve two problems and one major set of opportunities.

The first problem concerns Afghanistan, the major international item on the agenda of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh when he visited Washington in November 2009. The US and India have similar visions of a good outcome in Afghanistan: a reasonably responsive local government, capable of extending security and economic advancement around one of the world’s poorest countries, that will deny sanctuary to violent extremists claiming the banner of Islam and threatening neighbors like India and distant countries like the United States. The United States, however, feels trapped by Pakistan’s geographic proximity, its intense security concerns about India, and its resulting ability and motivation to block any outcome that curbs Islamabad’s influence in Kabul. On Afghanistan, the United States and India will have a good conversation, but without mutually satisfying results. The discussion on Pakistan will similarly be useful but inconclusive.

The second problem is Iran. Both India and the United States oppose Iran’s developing nuclear weapons, but disagree on what to do about it; worse, Iran has become a symbol of foreign-policy independence in Indian elite circles. Obama’s visit provides an opportunity for dialogue, but probably won’t produce a meeting of the minds.

On the other hand, East Asia presents exciting opportunities for India and the United States, and both governments are poised to capitalise on them. East Asia has been for close to a decade an area of expanding Indian political, economic and security engagement. Until recently, the United States saw India in a different pigeonhole from East Asia, but that’s changed in the past year. US officials have made a point of describing India “in an Asian context,” as one of the major fixtures of the larger Asian landscape.

Both countries want China’s and India’s rise to take place in an Asia characterised by several major powers working together peacefully. China’s increasingly assertive posture on issues ranging from visa restrictions for Indians to China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea inevitably give greater immediacy to this conversation, but it’s fundamentally an expression of common interests that do not rest on hostility toward other Asian powers.

The India-US partnership is well developed bilaterally and starting to gain traction regionally. At the global level, it’s still rudimentary at best. President Obama’s visit has a unique opportunity to start a serious discussion on what their partnerships means in the high councils of global governance.

Obama’s Asian itinerary winds up in South Korea, at the meeting of the G20. Since its emergence as a major forum for global financial coordination, the G20 has been an ideal forum for the United States and India to develop the global dimension of their relations. It’s a small group with a tradition of discretion; India is a member because of its power and standing in the global economy, not as one of the dispossessed; and India fields a “dream team” of economists at the G20, starting with the prime minister himself.

Obama’s visit to India follows by less than a month India’s election to the UN Security Council for a two-year term; indeed, one of the challenges for India will be taking a stand on a long series of issues where any position it takes will cause tensions with one or another of its friends. Obama will have the opportunity to welcome India to the council and start a much longer conversation on how India and the United States can find common ground on some of the world’s most contentious and emotional issues. India’s real goal, of course, is a permanent seat on the council. But its present seat is a start, and will begin setting the character of US-India collaboration on the global stage.

None of these accomplishments or goals make good “photo ops,” so coverage of the visit will undoubtedly focus on issues like nuclear liability, trade and investment rules, export controls and the like. But in the long term, the US-India partnership will flourish if the two countries’ leaders develop the habit of candid discussions covering both their agreements and disagreements. They are groping for a new model of partnership that can mesh with the very different foreign-policy styles of the world’s two largest democracies.

Teresita C. Schaffer is director for the South Asia Programme with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. She is the former US deputy assistant secretary of state for South Asia and former ambassador to Sri Lanka

© 2010 Yale Center for the Study of Globalisation

 
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