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India-US relations: The defining partnership of the 21st century?

On the eve of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s talks with the US President Obama in Washington on Sept. 27 articles in the media & debates on TV channels had painted a gloomy picture of India-US relations. Some felt the relationship was "oversold" and was witnessing a "drift".

The US national security adviser Susan Rice was reportedly "impatient with Indians". Microsoft and IBM which used to be strong votaries for higher H1B and L1 visas were lobbying against Indian IT companies at the Capitol Hill. Frustrated with the delay in the finalisation of "nuclear liability act", the Nuclear Lobby in the US was pressing, "don’t do anything for India" button.

Differences between the two countries on Afghanistan (US efforts to bring Taliban on board), Pakistan, and Iran persisted. The new Immigration Bill and revelation of spooning of the Indian mission in the US had increased wrinkles in the relations.

Lack of concrete progress following government’s decision to open the door for FDI in retail and Retrospective Tax laws have dented the confidence and enthusiasms of the US MNCs to enter the Indian market.

On the other hand, Ashley Tellis of Carnegie Endowment was optimistic about India-US partnership. Mr Obama and US secretary of state John Kerry continued to describe the relationship with India as "the defining partnership of the 21 century" which might transcend in to 22 century.

Former Indian foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal felt that India’s relations with the US were "decidedly better than they were a decade ago" and if some observers see them to have "plateaued". He said, "The plateau was at a high elevator today."

National security adviser to PM Shiv Shankar Menon put it more succinctly at the Aspen in Delhi in September, "our deepening partnership doesn’t mean that we won’t have differences. This is inevitable between countries in different circumstances, at different levels of development and in dissimilar geo-political situations."

The joint statements issued after Manmohan-Obama talks credits the two countries to "have developed a comprehensive global strategic partnership" and pledges to make the next decade equally transformative, "particularly in the areas of security cooperation, bilateral trade and investment, energy and environment, higher education and global architecture."

The two leaders see the defence relations as a means of "enhancing their partnership in defence technology transfer, joint research, and co-development and co-production. "Bilateral trade valued at around $100 billion and "the role & contribution of the Indian and US IT industry and IT enabled services" come in for a special mention.

Obama–Manmohan committed to conclude a high standard Bilateral Investment Treaty and establish "a joint committee on Investment in manufacturing.

Co-operation in cutting–edge scientific research and joint collaboration in science, innovation and entrepreneurship" is welcomed as is the announcement of the conclusion of a preliminary contract between US Nuclear Company Westinghouse with NPCIL for setting up a nuclear power plant in Gujrat. Establishment of "an American India-US Climate Change working group" and convening the "India-US task force on HFCs" are viewed as positive developments.

In International relations, commitment "to peace, stability and development in Afghanistan during the critical decade (2014-2024); condemnation of terrorism in all forms and commitment to "eliminate terrorists’ safe havens and infrastructure" and disrupt "terrorist network including Al Qaeda and LET" and call to Pakistan to punish the perpetrators of 26/11 Mumbai attack are on predictable lines. For pursuing US’s Asia rebalance and India’s Look East policy, partnership with Asia-pacific countries including China and Japan is underlined.

Mention of UN reforms and US support for India’s place in the reformed UNSC, and the "need for diplomacy to resolve outstanding issues with Iran’s nuclear programme" wasn’t unexpected.

Speaking at IAFA’s discussion on: "Will the Eagle and the Elephant fly?", columnist K.S. Bajpai, former ambassador to the US Meera Shankar, professor Brahma Chellaney, diplomat Vijayalakshmi, administrator Kiran Karnik and economist Subir Gokarn agreed that India-US relations have been hugely transformed in the last decade and their strategic partnership was in for a long haul in spite of serious differences on some issues in the short term.

They also agreed that Indian IT Companies and the enviable success of the Indian Americans; particularly those who help build the US Silicon Valley have changed the perception of India for better in the minds of average Americans as well as decision makers.

Mr Karnik sees an "amber light if not the red light" in India-US relations. He dismisses the view that shared values like democracy, rule of law and human rights play a major role in shaping our relations as "complete nonsense."Indian IT companies offer the US companies "great service, great quality at low costs" which helps them operate efficiently and profitably. So, we know why India has become the second largest base for head hunting for US companies. "Defence and military hard ware and civil nuclear energy could leapfrog India-US relations," Mr Karnik opines.

Prof. Chellaney disagrees with the suggestion that the US has been trying to "contain China". He feels, US-China trade, business and investment ties are so strong and so interdependent that the US will never risk them. On the contrary, the US takes note of China’s sensitivities; the US shift to term their strategy in Asia as "Asia Rebalance" instead of "Asia Pivot" is the US "course correction" keeping China in mind. But the US won’t like a China dominated Asia-Pacific hence deliberate moves to come closer to India, Asean and beyond. The US has remained neutral on alleged Chinese incursions in to Indian Territory and India-China spat regarding India-Vietnam offshore oil drilling collaboration. Similarly, bearing China in mind, the US refused to conduct India-US joint military exercises in Arunachal Pradesh! The US has, so far, been reluctant to supply offensive weapons to India though her defence exports have touched $9 billion. Transfer of technology and co-production will be the leitmotif of American intent.

It is in India’s interest to leverage cross linkages in the booming defence trade for normal trade and greater access to US markets. "India-US strategic partnership is, somewhat, lopsided and unbalanced because of India’s structural and strategic limitations," Prof. Chellaney underlines.Ms Shankar feels that Civil-Nuclear deal, though significant, can’t be the sole factor for India-US strategic partnership. Cutting edge technology, joint research and co-production in the defence field will play a major role; strengthening her defence production capabilities will be India’s prime objective.

Diplomat Shankar Bajpai sees domestic pressures in both the countries and increasing competition impacting the relationship. Recent attempts to attack Indian IT and pharmaceutical Companies and Immigration Bill in the US are result of domestic pressures. He also injected a reality check:, "If India ever got into a conflict with her neighbour, she will be all by herself; none will come to her help"! Strategic considerations will keep others out of fray.

After a few months, India will enter the election mode. Who will own the relationship to take it forward? The much maligned bureaucrats and diplomats?

Surendra Kumar is president, Indo-American Friendship Association, and a former Indian diplomat