Charting a New Path for India-U.S. Relations

“The two leaders have dramatically changed the atmosphere between the two governments from discontent to hopeful possibility,” writes Marshall Bouton of the Asia Society Policy Institute.

January 22, 2015

Marshall M. Bouton is Senior Fellow for India at the Asia Society Policy Institute. He is also President Emeritus of The Chicago Council on Global Affairs and Senior Fellow at the Center for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania.

Marshall Bouton

President Obama’s unprecedented visit to India on January 25-27 as Republic Day chief guest is a powerful symbol of the new energy he and Prime Minister Modi have brought to India-U.S. relations. Only eight months after Narendra Modi’s historic rise to power, the two leaders have dramatically changed the atmosphere between the two governments from discontent to hopeful possibility.

The challenge for the two leaders now is to match the symbolism with substance and the possibility with action. Over the last six years the bilateral relationship has drifted between important achievements, such as much improved defense cooperation, and failed expectations, particularly around economic issues. Domestic distractions on both sides have not helped. Most importantly the India-U.S. relationship has lacked the vision and larger purpose to carry it through the inevitable ups and downs of interaction between two complex societies.

The greatest opportunity for the Modi-Obama meeting is therefore to reset the India-U.S. relationship in a truly strategic framework, one that endows the partnership with the long-term purpose made possible by broadly shared values and interests. Both countries are committed to open, pluralistic societies and a liberal world order. Both face the international challenges of countering terrorism and maintaining a stable balance of power in Asia. Both will benefit from greater economic cooperation. What is needed is a vision from the two leaders on how to realize the potential for the relationship. It is far from clear, however, that the two governments have been inclined or able to shape such an outcome in the short time since the last Modi-Obama meeting in September.

Renewing and deepening bilateral economic cooperation is an essential, even urgent requirement for progress. On both sides and particularly in the U.S. private sector, confidence in India’s economic future has waned in recent years. Yet expanding trade and investment are the ballast in the ship of India-U.S. relations that keep it moving forward even in periods of official differences. Modi and Obama should endorse objectives such as the long-stalled bilateral investment treaty or India’s membership in APEC that will signal their commitment to greater economic interaction.

Increasing India-U.S. cooperation on defense and homeland security has been an area of significant progress right through the recent downturn in relations and will almost certainly be a focus of the Modi-Obama meeting. They will formalize the renewal and probable expansion of the ten-year Defense Framework Agreement. Hopefully they will also announce agreement on the first major defense co-production projects under the India-U.S. Defense Trade and Technology Initiative, projects stalled for almost two years. And in the aftermath of the Paris terrorist tragedy, they might well give their blessing to new joint counterterrorism activities.

Energy and climate change will certainly be on the agenda as well. While the steep decline of petroleum prices has afforded the Modi government some immediate relief on the energy front, India’s long-term energy needs and import dependence remain unchanged. Mr. Modi will seek access to U.S. shale oil and gas exports. The two leaders may also announce an increase in already advanced joint research and development of clean energy, especially solar. Obama will press Modi for support of his climate change proposals at the Paris conference in November, but it is not clear that Modi will have much room to maneuver given the country’s long-term dependence on coal.

Given the U.S. rebalance toward Asia and India’s active engagement with East Asia, the two leaders will likely express in broad terms their support for U.S.-India cooperation in ensuring peace, prosperity, and stability in Asia, while avoiding any suggestion of an alliance. Obama will applaud Modi’s outreach to India’s South Asian neighbors and perhaps gently urge continued dialogue between India and Pakistan to reduce tensions along the increasingly tense Line of Control in Kashmir.

No U.S. relationship with a major nation anywhere in the world was transformed as profoundly as was the U.S.-India relationship between 1999 and 2008. The years that followed have been at best a holding action. Hopefully the 2015 Republic Day meeting will mark the beginning of a new period of dynamism in the ties between India and the United States.

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