A politically unencumbered President Barack Obama will visit India for three days beginning January 25. He is someone now playing for history rather than the remainder of his presidency. The visit itself is expected to be high on the symbolic and the ceremonial considering barely two years remain in his tenure.
Although deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes has described the visit as a “seminal moment”, those of us who follow such visits and details of US-India relations closely know that such description really does not mean much. It is time to stop describing the bilateral relations as “seminal” because seminal, which comes from semen as in seed, should have grown into something much bigger by now. It is odd that we continue to talk about the seed for as long as we have.
I have heard for at least two decades now how India and America are natural partners with enormous potential not just between them but for the rest of the world. One would think a “seminal moment” would have occurred much earlier in those two decades than now. The problem is every engagement between Washington and New Delhi gets described in various ways that essentially mean “seminal.” So much so that one has begun to wonder whether the seed has the potency needed to live up to its much touted “transformative potential.”
The “transformative potential” of US-India relations has been a recurring theme of the diplomatic intercourse between the two for as long as one remembers in the past three decades, particularly after 1991 when India began dismantling state controls over its economy which were reminiscent of the erstwhile Soviet Union.
On this particular visit by President Obama, his second to India, there are expectations that the civilian nuclear deal could come into sharper focus as part of energy cooperation. In terms of trade in goods and services the relations have strengthened significantly as evident in the rise from $18 billion in 2001 to $93 billion by 2012. Of the $93 billion total, $30 billion was attributed to services. There is a much stronger presence of US corporations in India than ever before and it is heartening to note that a lot of it is in research and development.
There are, of course, specific deliverables that the Obama visit is built around in the areas of defense cooperation, energy, climate change and economics. The US-India defense framework agreement, signed in 2005, is up for renewal after its 10-year period.
In specific terms, the defense framework agreement as part of the new US Strategic Military Guidance announced in January 2012 by President Obama put greater emphasis on the Pacific region and referred to India as a ‘Strategic Partner’. The common interests highlighted as part of were:
- Maintaining security and stability.
- Defeating violent religious extremism and terrorism.
- Disaster relief.
- Preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction and associated materials, data, and technologies.
- Protecting the free flow of commerce and resources through the vital sea lanes of Indian Ocean.
During the last visit of then Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh in September 2013, a Joint Declaration on Defense Cooperation was made that focused on the following general principles
- The United States and India share common security interests and place each other at the same level as their closest partners. This principle will apply with respect to defense technology transfer, trade, research,co-development and co-production for defense articles and services,including the most advanced and sophisticated technology. They will work to improve licensing processes, and, where applicable, follow expedited license approval processes to facilitate this cooperation. The United States and India are also committed to protecting each other’s sensitive technology and information.
- The United States continues to fully support India’s full membership in the four international export control regimes, which would further facilitate technology sharing.
- The two sides will continue their efforts to strengthen mutual understanding of their respective procurement systems and approval processes, and to address process-related difficulties in defense trade, technology transfer and collaboration.
It would be useful to find out how many of these stated objectives have been achieved.
I have occasionally written about US-India relations, particularly pegged on important visits by US officials. For instance, on July 23, 2013 I wrote about Secretary of State John Kerry’s maiden visit in that capacity to New Delhi. One of the points I made with comedic exaggeration was this: “Kerry will notice that there is discernible jadedness in the bilateral intercourse. To put it in purely sexual terms, he will likely discover that the foreplay, that happened before his time, was more exciting than the coitus. But then that is not such a bad thing as relations between countries go.” That was because the term of Prime Minister Singh was coming to an end and there was uncertainty about who might form the next government in 2014. I also wrote the following about the relations in July last year after Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office.
A year has passed since and there is a new government in place in New Delhi under a prime minister against whom Washington had a sort of restraining order for close to ten years barring him from coming within a few miles of the American shores. (Comedic exaggeration). Now that Narendra Modi is firmly ensconced in New Delhi and President Barack Obama is rapidly approaching his lame duck period, one can only wonder what it is that the two countries can do to live up to the frequently claimed promise as a “defining relationship of the 21st century”. In my judgment, not much. America and India are like that covetous couple who are eminently satisfied in the flirtatious phase of their relationship because they are both apprehensive about what unpleasant surprises taking it to the next level might spring up.
In a speech that was supposed to set the stage for his visit to New Delhi starting tomorrow, Kerry said at the Center for American Progress there is a “potentially transformative moment” in the bilateral relations. It is funny how there is always a potentially transformative moment between the two countries that never really rises to its potential to truly transform. The new narrative, which is quite like the old narrative, has it that India and America are “indispensable partners of the 21st century.”
That is the basis on which Secretary Kerry is expected to try and build a strategic relationship. Of course, being a top American diplomat Kerry has to remember that the U.S. business interests are as important as strategic ones when it comes to any country, particularly India which still remains a highly exploitable market for U.S. corporations. Hence this series of caveats, “If India’s government delivers on its plans to support greater space for private initiative, if it creates greater openness to capital flows, it if limits subsidies and strive for competition, and provides strong intellectual property rights, believe me even more American companies will come to India.”
The primary purpose of the visit is for Kerry to co-chair the fifth US-India Strategic Dialogue on July 31 with his India vis-à-vis Sushma Swaraj. The visit is also expected to lay the groundwork for the upcoming summit meeting between Prime Minister Modi and President Obama in September.
During Kerry’s last visit to India in the waning days of the Manmohan Singh government the strategic partnership between India and the United States had appeared much less grand than what was promised in 2009. It is not clear what it is that this strategic convergence between the two can actually mean in specific terms. I say that because while there is a broad, high-level meeting of strategic minds on both sides, it is in specifics such as Afghanistan, Iran, China, Russia, nuclear proliferation, trade and commerce issues and suchlike that the two find considerable divergence. They both know that diplomacy cannot be monogamous and is intrinsically promiscuous because countries have to balance so many complex global equations. India’s dealings with Iran is a case in point. I have written about that earlier. Another example that comes to mind is the way New Delhi voted in favor of a strongly-worded resolution on Israel by the United Nations Human Rights Council contrary to expectations in some quarters that the Modi dispensation might take a more pro-Israel stand over the Gaza conflict.
Rather than forever waxing eloquent about the transformative potential of US-India relations the two should peg it down and work on little less ambitious partnerships that make a quantifiable difference in a diversity of global issues. It is not for me to give a list of what those could be because no one pays me to do that. I could if I had to and was paid to do so. One that comes to my mind off the cuff is about how India and America can together transform the world’s health sector drawing on their well-known strengths.