September 29, 2014

India-US ties needs fresh set of drivers to renew partnership

Shyam Saran
September 29, 2014First Published: 00:20 IST(29/9/2014)

Last Updated: 02:08 IST(29/9/2014)

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to the US has created a surge of expectations about the likely trajectory of India-US relations. 

There is a danger that this may defer a more objective reckoning of the realistic possibilities of expanding relations, recognising the considerable distance that has come to exist in the perspectives of our two countries on critical regional and global issues. 

While we share democratic values, political affinity has rarely transcended different approaches rooted in how the two countries perceive their national interests in any given context. 

India-US relations saw an ascendant phase in the first five or six years of the current millennium. This had unmistakable drivers. India had become a nuclear weapons State and the US quickly acknowledged this reality. China had clearly emerged, in the US' eyes, as a new long-term challenge, threatening its dense web of interests in Asia. 

At the same time, India had demonstrated an ability to maintain a high rate of growth and seemed likely to match China's own rise. 

There was a growing sense in the US that even without being an ally of the US, India would, in its own interests, pursue policies designed to constrain Chinese attempts to establish its strategic dominance of Asia. 

The experience of 9/11 furthermore brought the two countries closer together in counter-terrorism cooperation. And, most importantly, the rapid growth of the Indian economy offered American business and industry attractive prospects for investment and trade. 

These positivities in the relation overshadowed the continued differences between them on regional issues, such as Pakistan and Iran, and on global issues, including the Doha round of multilateral trade negotiations and climate change negotiations, respectively. 

The shared perception of strong, long-term strategic convergence reached an apogee in 2005 when the two countries declared their intention to negotiate a civil nuclear cooperation agreement. This landmark deal was the consequence of perceived strategic convergence rather than its cause. 

Over the past few years, in particular since UPA II, the key drivers of the India-US strategic partnership have lost momentum. 

The prospects of India closing the power gap with China have diminished. For China, the peer to equal and surpass is the US. The fact that China's economy today is four times that of India and still expanding makes India a less credible countervailing power than it was seen as from the vantage point of 2005. 

It is still true that if there is one power which has the latent capacities to draw level with and even surpass China it is India and this still provides leverage to the country. 

However, if the asymmetry between the two countries continues to increase, then India will figure less and less in the calculations of major powers including the US. 

The Modi visit may rekindle hope in India's potential but this will evaporate quickly if the economy does not graduate to a high and sustained growth path of not less than 8% per annum. 

And this implies a willingness to deliver the second generation reforms which are now long overdue. 

There is another reason why one needs to be cautious over prospects for a significant breakthrough in India-US relations over the foreseeable future. 

The US will perforce be compelled to put its 'pivot to Asia' on hold while dealing with the more urgent challenges in Ukraine and the dangerous rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). 

The Ukraine crisis has revived East-West tensions and pushed Russia closer to China. There may be stronger voices in Washington advocating that the US reduce its exposure in the East by accommodating Chinese pretensions to a dominant regional role. 

This would undercut the most important element driving India-US strategic convergence. And for the US, India is unlikely to adopt policies to isolate Russia. While India shares US concerns over Isis it will not participate in the coalition of the willing undertaking armed operations against this menace. 

This means that the two sides have to work harder to manage differences on other issues such as the architecture of the emerging global regimes in trade and investment and climate change. 

The US appears determined to push ahead with ambitious regional trade agreements like the Trans Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. 

These proposed agreements focus on setting new standards and rules which, from the Indian perspective, raise non-tariff barriers against its goods and services. 

India is excluded from these arrangements and at its current stage of development, is unlikely to adopt the kind of structural changes they would demand. 

American pressures on India on intellectual property issues will intensify as will disputes over Indian subsidies for social welfare. Without the strong cement of strategic convergence, these differences could neutralise the positives in the relationship. 

Despite the altered geopolitical context, there are areas where India and the US can expand their relation much beyond current levels. 

The importance of counter-terrorism cooperation will increase with the emergence of ISIS and the transition in Afghanistan. 

For India, bilateral defence cooperation will become more important as Russia moves closer to China and China's military capabilities continue to outpace India. 

And as an emerging energy exporter, the US, if it so chooses, could become a major energy partner of India. These must serve as the major pillars of the relation even as we continue to search for a fresh set of drivers for renewing the strategic partnership.

(Shyam Saran, a former foreign secretary, is currently chairman, National Security Advisory Board and RIS, and senior fellow, Centre for Policy Research. The views expressed by the author are personal.)

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