Guest post by Manish Thakur
In terms of symbolism, the President has done a splendid job when it comes to India. His first state dinner was for the Indian Prime Minister. And now, his longest overseas trip to date is to India. So why then does India feel slighted? Simple: after the heady days of Clinton and Bush, the substance of the relationship has stalled. Early naievite by the Administration on Beijing’s good intentions left India (and much of Free Asia) feeling abandoned. More problematic is our our “alliance” with Pakistan, something that is bound to raise concerns in Delhi. Indians like to explain all the downsides of our working with Pakistan. The problem is not that we don’t already know this, but that we don’t have a choice but to placate Pakistan while our troops are still fighting a war in Afghanistan. As long as we are reliant on Pakistan, we will have to expect suspicions about our intentions in Delhi.
For its part, India is also a tough party to deal with. Its obsession with strategic autonomy makes it too difficult to fit into the usual U.S. “ally” relationship, even though that may be in its interests. Furthermore, there is still an anti-U.S. reflexiveness in part of the Indian establishment. The U.S. tore apart global rules to allow India to engage in nuclear trade with the world, and yet it looks like U.S. companies will lose out to French and Russian firms in the fierce race for nuclear trade. The same may happen in India’s choice of defense purchases, where Europe and Russia still are formidable competitors. None of this will engender warm feelings in Washington. India wants U.S. support for a permanent seat on the Security Council, but ignores the fact that it has voted with the U.S. only 30% of the time, hardly giving Washington confidence to support its bid.
Longer term, however, India’s rising economy, common democratic system of government and the general popularity of the U.S. in India will see the two countries through. Also, the threat from China and jihadi terrorism will pull them ever closer, even though quite what that means is still unclear. Even on Pakistan, the U.S. can improve joint intelligence cooperation, and put pressure on Pakistan’s Generals to act against the terror groups that they themselves created.
India and the U.S. are natural partners in Asia, and the relationship certainly has the potential to become one of the defining ones of the 21st Century. I don’t know whether India will be able to join a U.S.-led Asia-Pacific NATO, something that I’ve been advocating for a while. In fact, India has begun its own security dialog with such U.S. allies as Japan and South Korea, making it a possible lynch-pin in a regional security partnership (but its absence is not a reason not to go forward). As the focus of world economic activity and military rivalry moves to the Western Pacific-Indian Ocean region, India will become increasingly central to America’s global security interests. It behooves us, therefore, to afford this relationship the importance it deserves, and not just engage in symbolism.
(This post originally appeared in www.dailyexception.com)