Time to Reset U.S.-India Relations

How can India and the United States build on warming bilateral relations?

July 20, 2009

How can India and the United States build on warming bilateral relations?

Hillary Clinton’s first visit to India as U.S. Secretary of State, within the first six months of the Obama Administration, is significant for several reasons.

First, it is the clearest indication that the new U.S. administration is committed to building and expanding on the relationship established by the previous administrations, especially that of George W. Bush.

Second, given Clinton's own political gravitas in the United States — especially her historic presidential run and her reputation as an avid supporter and friend of India — this messenger is more important than the message she will bring.

Even her itinerary, which deliberately (if somewhat inconveniently and artificially) leaves out Pakistan, is perhaps reflective of the efforts being made to "de-hyphenate" the India-Pakistan relationship and focus on India alone. Clearly, this administration is determined to “reset” U.S.-India relations at a higher plane.

The significance of the Clinton visit notwithstanding, she is not the first senior member of the Obama Administration to visit India. In fact, she is also not the second. Leon Panetta made history of sorts when he became the first CIA chief to visit India in his first outing in March. This visit was clearly prompted by the terrorist events in Mumbai last November and the realization in Washington that the atrocities that were committed in India could be exported to the United States.

The visit led to an unprecedented level of intelligence cooperation. Similarly, the visit by National Security Adviser General Jim Jones in late June and his discussions on Iran, energy and defense ties was another indication of the growing strategic ties between the world's oldest and largest democracies.

The Clinton visit will undoubtedly continue this promising trend in Indo-U.S. ties, which is being built on the initiatives taken during the eight previous years of the Bush Administration. Indeed, the crowning glory of the bilateral strategic partnership was the controversial India-U.S. civilian nuclear cooperation agreement — which succeeded despite the fact that it nearly brought down the previous government in New Delhi and remains unpopular in many corners of Washington, D.C.

Unlike the Bush Administration, which was ideologically driven and dominated by neo-conservatives, the Obama Administration will not rebuild fences where they already exist. But it will probably give them a fresh coat of paint.

Even before the Clinton visit, it was apparent that the new pragmatism in Washington will not “reset” the Indo-U.S. relations to a pre-Bush era.

For instance, Phil Gordon of the Brookings Institution and a nominee for a senior State Department position notes: "In an ideal world, rejection of the nuclear deal would preserve the sanctity of the nuclear non-proliferation regime… In the world we live in, however, it would do little to prevent non-proliferation and significantly harm India, the United States and their ability to do good things together."

Similarly, Richard Holbrooke, the special envoy for South Asia, has at the insistence of New Delhi dropped the Kashmir issue from his portfolio. Although this might be to the detriment of India in the long run, he is now solely focused on Afghanistan and Pakistan.

This pragmatism notwithstanding, there is a need to reset some aspects of the Indo-U.S. relationship so that the world's two biggest democracies can do good things together. First, the relationship should go beyond just the nuclear agreement — otherwise there is a real concern that it may become uni-dimensional.

This could be done by looking for greater cooperation on new security issues such as cyber-security (given the vulnerability of the Indian software industry to cyber attacks), climate change (akin to the green partnership being considered between China and the United States) and maritime security (especially protecting the trade routes against piracy).

On cyber-security, India and the United States could work closely with each other, and perhaps Russia and China as well. The nations need to develop at least some basic norms and a common lexicon to ensure the presence of clear red lines — so as to avoid an inadvertent lapse into cyber-warfare.

Similarly, climate change has the potential to become a divisive issue if not addressed cooperatively. This is certainly the Chinese perspective, which has led them to work with the United States on building a “green partnership.”

In addition, although India and the United States have had some maritime cooperation (evident in the joint tsunami rescue operations), there is potential for greater cooperation — especially in anti-piracy operations.

Finally, perhaps for the first time, Washington and New Delhi share the same deep anxiety about counter-terrorism, Pakistan and Afghanistan. They should explore the possibility of positive engagement in these spheres of mutual concern.

In the counter-terrorism sphere, India and the United States should build on the cooperation between the Indian intelligence agencies and the CIA. After all, this led to the first-ever public admission by Pakistan of the role of their nationals in one of the most dramatic incidents on Indian soil. In a similar vein, India should also seek greater coordination and cooperation of its role in Afghanistan in the context of U.S.-led operations.

This does not necessarily mean military cooperation (although it might be in India's interest to work closely with the United States and NATO-led International Security Assistance Force), but it could mean integrating New Delhi's impressive Afghanistan assistance program with that of other key countries operating in Afghanistan.

The Indian model of development assistance in Afghanistan has been widely praised and should be promoted as new initiatives are launched in Afghanistan.

The Clinton visit provides a promising opportunity to widen and deepen the strategic Indo-U.S. relations. However, unless the new Congress-led government in New Delhi is more pragmatic and imaginative, it could be that Indo-U.S. relations will wear the same old coat of paint.

More on this topic

Takeaways

The visit by National Security Adviser General Jim Jones in late June was an indication of the growing strategic ties between the world's oldest and largest democracies.

The Clinton visit will undoubtedly continue the promising trend in Indo-U.S. ties, which is being built on the initiatives taken during the eight previous years of the Bush Administration.

The Obama Administration will not rebuild fences where they already exist. But it will probably give them a fresh coat of paint.