The recent visit to India of John Kerry, secretary of state, underscored the continuing American intention to develop a more robust partnership with India. Still, as one sage early architect of the US engagement of New Delhi put it: “The only thing more challenging in modern diplomacy than not having a relationship with India is trying to build one.”
The reality of this sentiment has played out in the up-and-down quality of relations between two of the world’s oldest and most populous democracies in the past few years. Yes, there have been important initiatives – the 2008 US-India civil nuclear agreement, American support for India’s entry into the Group of 20 leading nations and various high-profile visits of leaders to both capitals – but regardless of good intentions in both countries, the strategic relationship has not yet approached metaphorical escape velocity. It has been hampered by a degree of historical suspicion, occasional misunderstandings and a general lack of ambition. This has hindered areas of common purpose and impeded what should be a natural alignment for the 21st century.
Just why is this, and what can be done about it?
Despite best efforts of previous presidents, the modern era in relations really began during the George W Bush administration, with a grand gesture of the US inviting India into the nuclear club, acknowledging the nuclear capabilities Delhi had already demonstrated and opening the door to new areas of commercial nuclear co-operation. Ironically, some of the problems that occasionally bedevil the relationship reflect this dramatic move. American diplomats viewed it as a significant concession, requiring long-standing appreciation; Indians saw it simply as their due, a recognition of their accumulating influence in no way creating an enduring indebtedness to Washington.
Still, that opening helped create momentum in the relationship. At the turn of the century, US foreign direct investment in India was famously flat as a chapati. In 13 years it has quadrupled. The defence relationship has generally flourished and US arms sales to India are on the increase. And there has been a more regular, if somewhat mutually unsatisfactory, dialogue on Pakistan.
The relationship has really floundered on four issues: Iran, global trade, Pakistan and Afghanistan. On the first, the US has been generally unsympathetic to India’s desire to maintain friendly relations with Tehran, a country with which it has enjoyed a long history. India (working with others) also in effect scuttled the last serious American effort to design a global trade round. The two nations have never really seen eye to eye on Pakistan. Finally, Delhi is apprehensive and suspicious about the American approach to Afghanistan, and there are strong Indian concerns about a rapid US withdrawal from that beleaguered nation.
To this formidable list, add the peculiar Indian style of diplomacy. Chinese diplomats are renowned for throwing banquets for visiting Americans, providing even the most obscure visitor with a sumptuous meal and “high-level strategic dialogue”. Indians are just as likely to keep a prominent US dignitary waiting 30 minutes in a hot anteroom for a harried second secretary.
Still, despite these challenges, a rich agenda lies just over the horizon in Asia for both India and the US. The US “pivot to Asia” coincides nicely with India’s “look east” policy. In both countries, the strategic elites recognise the need to direct more effort towards aligning policies in the rising east.
Several areas of common effort are ripe for consideration. The US and India share a desire for a positive relationship with China, and a trilateral dialogue between Delhi, Washington, and Beijing would help signal a common interest in promoting harmony among the three, particularly given potential areas of rising tensions. India has already engaged in trilateral engagements with the US and Japan, and a proactive stance towards diplomatic engagement with China helps dispel misplaced worries of a containment strategy afoot – something that both the US and India view as contrary to their strategic interests.
The US and India also need a deeper dialogue on broader Asian developments – from institution-building at the East Asia Summit and the Asean Regional Forum (which brings together the Association of South East Asian Nations with the US, China and other Asian powers) to exploring specific approaches to key countries such as Myanmar, Vietnam and Indonesia.
Furthermore, the time has come to finally bring India into the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum. Indeed, accelerating this process has the potential to provide a jolt of energy that is sorely needed. While India still engages in economic practices counter to global standards, the US is better off working with it inside an established framework committed to easing the burdens of doing business and promoting common commercial practices. It is not clear that such a romantic gesture as an invitation to join Apec will transform the relationship; but, if the two countries also maintain a joint focus on Asia, it just might.
The writer is chairman and chief executive of The Asia Group and on the board of the Center for a New American Security. From 2009-13 he served as the assistant US secretary of state for east Asian and Pacific affairs