Obama’s visit to India is a sign of the symbolism that characterizes a strategic relationship.
People are missing the point.
It doesn’t require the U.S. president to come all the way to India to sell military equipment, make a case for reforming the UN security council, remove hurdles for high-technology co-operation, or indeed, as White House officials tried to project last week, encourage Indian companies to create jobs in the United States.
Such issues are negotiated by the minions, need bureaucratic and political consensus on both sides and are settled at their own pace. Official visits and summits between heads of state at best impose artificial deadlines and can be used to inject urgency into the negotiating machines. We saw it a few years ago when the India-US nuclear deal was pushed through in time for a Bush-Manmohan Singh summit.
Those who measure the significance and success of Barack Obama’s upcoming visit to India through the prism of deals signed and statements made miss the fact that the India-US relationship is strategic, not transactional. Ironically, the strategic nature of the relationship was sealed by a transaction—the nuclear deal—leading many to expect more of the same. Now, there are good reasons for the Indian government to purchase U.S. military aircraft, but not doing so isn’t about to wreck the bilateral relationship. Similarly, there are good reasons for Mr Obama to declare support for India’s place in a reformed UN Security Council, but other than disappointing his hosts, he won’t do much damage if he skips this topic.
For the first time in more than 50 years, the interests of the United States and India are converging geopolitically, geo-economically and, to coin a phrase, geo-democratically. As K Subrahmanyam points out succinctly, the United States needs India to counter China’s rising power. Likewise, India needs a strong United States, not to ally with, but for its own reasons of swing. This is as true from the economic perspective as it is from a political one. [Also see this CNAS report] Most importantly, India and the United States are mutually popular—the bottom-up factor is a powerful driver of closer bilateral relations.
It’s very hard to measure the extent of strategic relationships. Signing of business or arms deals are poor proxies. That’s where symbolism comes in. Obama has no real business to do in India. Yet he is coming. Sure, he’ll do some business when he’s here, but none that absolutely requires his presence. It’s symbolic and it counts.
For that reason Barack Obama will have a very successful trip to India next week. He just has to turn up.