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US-India ties: The year of the drift

December 29, 2011 20:30 IST

'The current period of implementation and consolidation will put the relationship on an even sounder footing when the leaders in both capitals determine it is time to quicken the pace,' US experts tell Aziz Haniffa.

If 2010 saw euphoria vis-a-vis the envisaged United States-India strategic relationship -- with President Barack Obama's visit and his memorable address to India's Parliament where he endorsed New Delhi as a permanent United Nations Security Council member -- 2011 was at best a damp squib.

Notwithstanding the second annual US-India Strategic Dialogue in New Delhi, the US-India Education Summit in Washington and all of the other bilateral visits and professions by President Obama and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh about the strength of the relationship, there was no denying that a perceptible drift had set in US-India ties. And that while it could be argued that the relationship is now on autopilot, it has lost its oomph.

There was a clear acknowledgment that in an environment where the US was struggling with its economy and rampant unemployment and India was gripped by corruption scandals and a people's movement ignited by Gandhian Anna Hazare, simply going through the motions by itself was a net positive.

But there was certainly more to it than meets the eye.

The US business, administration and Congress frustration -- over India's nuclear liability law that placed the US-India nuclear deal in limbo, India's de-selecting of US companies from the $11 billion jet-fighter deal, and the suspension of the decision to allow foreign direct investment in the retail market -- was clear.

One of the protagonists behind the strategic partnership during the Bush administration and a catalyst in the US-India civilian nuclear deal, Ashley Tellis, writing recently in Force magazine bemoaned that 'the expectantly awaited US-Indian strategic partnership is no more. That, at least, is the view in the commentariat and among some on Capitol Hill and within the Obama administration. Even among those who do not hold this extreme position, there is an uneasy sense that the bilateral partnership is not going forward, only sideways.'

Dr Tellis added: 'India's recent decision in the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft competition and its troubled nuclear liability legislation, remain the poster children that confirm the worst fears of even India's friends that the relationship is not yielding the rewards initially imagined.'

Obviously it was this drift and an attempt for course correction that prompted Deputy Secretary of State William Burns to make a year-end trek to Delhi. But even that trip, scheduled before the FDI in retail suspension, was delivered a damper because of the retail bombshell.

Some in both the US administration and Congress are now wondering over the viability of the Manmohan Singh government in terms of getting things done or being able to push through legislation.

Indian angst that no US ambassador had been appointed since the departure of Timothy Roemer, notwithstanding the experience and expertise of charge d'affaires Peter Burleigh, sources said, was what led the President to nominate a career diplomat, Nancy Powell, to fill the breach.

The earlier thinking was to let Burleigh hold fort till after the 2012 elections. The White House didn't want to get into a battle with the Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee over the confirmation of a political nominee like Roemer, who would have had the President's ear.

Clearly, sensitive to the whispers in both capitals about this perceptible drift, Burns was on the defensive in Delhi. 'Ours is a relationship where we're not going to see every day the kind of dramatic breakthroughs or achievements that I've been privileged to be a part of in the past,' he said. 'But I think every day we can continue the hard, steady work of building on and strengthening a relationship that matters greatly to the interests of our two governments and our two peoples.'

Earlier, he made it clear that Washington was looking forward to the implementation of the US-India nuclear deal and leveling the field for foreign and domestic companies wishing to compete in India's civil nuclear market.

It was an evident manifestation of the administration and US business's frustration over the hiccup of this agreement -- that came to symbolise the transformed US-India relationship.

Lisa Curtis, senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation who heads the conservative think-tank's South Asia program said, "US-India ties experienced a bit of a course correction in 2011. It was a challenging year for the Singh government politically and for the US economy, and both issues impacted on the US-India relationship. Compared to the steady upswing in ties between the two nations over the last decade, it is not surprising that they eventually hit some roadblocks, especially given domestic concerns in each country."

Curtis, also a former policy and strategic analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency, believed that the "series of corruption scandals and the release of controversial WikiLeaks cables dealing with US-India relations have constrained Prime Minister Singh from taking the kind of bold steps with the US he has in previous years. While economic pressures in the US have led President Obama to target Indian workers in the US and to raise expectations about the economic benefits to the US of stronger ties to India, which have not really panned out."

But she said the past year had clearly signaled that India and the US "appear to be moving closer to one another in terms of their desire to hedge against Beijing's rapid rise. Their dialogue on East Asia has been robust and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been clear about the US desire to see India play a larger role in Asia to offset growing Chinese military and economic might."

"Despite the disappointment over the MMRCA decision," Curtis added, "the US-India defense relationship has come far since the signing of the defense framework agreement in 2005."

Curtis said the Pentagon's "offer to provide India with information on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter also sends a clear signal that the US considers India one of its most important future defence partners and is willing to consider co-production of some of its most sophisticated defence technology."

But India, she acknowledged, "has no interest in developing a defence alliance with the US and there will be limits to the military partnership. The two countries's long history of suspicion means that changes within India toward greater defence cooperation with the US will come more slowly than the US may have initially hoped."

Curtis said it would be imperative in 2012 "to regain some of the momentum in ties that was lost this year. Otherwise leaders in Washington may begin to view previous statements that India could be 'the most important partner for the US in the 21st century' as mere hyperbole and both sides will fail to realise the true potential of the relationship at the expense of both countries' long-term security interests."

Walter Andersen, veteran State Department official and associate director, South Asia program, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, said, "I am not a pessimist by nature and certainly not among those who claim that the US-India relationship is stressed and that India for some reason is a declining power."

Conceding that "there are real problem on both accounts," he said, "the bottom line is still robust on both." He argued that it is imperative to have some perspective in terms of where the US-India relationship was two decades ago when Delhi was considered a Soviet surrogate.

Andersen, who is on a visiting professorship at Tangji University in Shanghai, said, "Colleagues here in China tell me that the general view in this country at the time was that India was a messy democracy that was unable to harness the nation's wealth to grow the economy and thus reduce poverty. It was, as one colleague here told me, apparently racing toward international oblivion and much of its intellectual class applauding policies leading it to that situation."

Andersen argued: "Yes there are hiccups in the US-India relationship -- and no surprise there -- but the basics mean that the relationship will remain strong. As the US pulls out of Afghanistan, it is also shifting its military presence to the Asian region. But economic realities compel the US to work with friendly states in a partnership and one of those strongest partners is and will be India."

"India is not in decline -- and neither, for that matter, is the US," he declared. "The US-India relationship, similarly, is not in decline. It is constantly being recalibrated to conform to new realities. The brilliant Indian Ambassador in the US, Nirupama Rao, I am convinced, will prove to be a major force in this recalibration."

Karl F Inderfurth, former assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs and currently the Wadhwani Chair for US-India policy studies at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, echoed Andersen's optimism.

Inderfurth acknowledged that Prime Minister Singh's observation in Bali at the East Asia Summit -- that 'there are today, no irritants whatsoever in our working together on a multiplicity of areas' -- can be seen "as a bit over-the-top diplomatically."

But Inderfurth argued the contention that 2011 has been a 'year of drift' for US-India ties was hardly the correct perspective.

"Since President Obama's visit, the bilateral relationship has shifted from big initiatives and centerstage to more normal, routine interactions, albeit often at the ministerial level at State, Treasury, and Homeland Security, to list a few," Inderfurth said.

"The one initiative that could have provided the next big boost in the relationship -- India's tender for 126 new jet fighters -- did not," he added. "Arguably more troubling in 2011 was that the US and Indian private sectors, key drivers in building this relationship, also expressed frustration about India's economic prospects with widespread corruption, the lack of parliamentary action on key pieces of legislation, and concern about the shrinking opportunities for foreign direct investment, most recently evident in the government's decision to suspend plans to open India's retail market to foreign firms like Walmart."

But he reiterated "US-India ties are not adrift. They are not stalled. They are moving forward, albeit slowly, but surely. The current period of implementation and consolidation will also put the relationship on an even sounder footing when the leaders in both capitals determine it is time to quicken the pace."

Perhaps Dr Tellis described it best when he said, "The real gains in the US-Indian partnership will be manifest only over the long haul and will be realised less by what India does for the United States than by what it becomes and does for itself. Settling for a transactional approach to India now is not only mistaken but dangerous because it is certain to fail."

"The disparate levels of economic and political development between the United States and India," he added, "the power disparities between the two countries, and the fragility of the improvements in bilateral relations -- which are still contested by significant leftist and national constituencies in India -- all suggest that New Delhi will likely fall short in most significant transactional tests that could be devised for quite some time to come."

Aziz Haniffa