Passage to India

What Washington Can Do to Revive Relations With New Delhi

Obama and Modi at the White House, September 2014. (Larry Downing / Courtesy Reuters)

In the century ahead, U.S. strategic interests will align more closely with India’s than they will with those of any other continental power in Asia. The United States and India both seek to spread democracy, expand trade and investment, counter terrorism, and, above all, keep the region peaceful by balancing China’s growing military power. As Washington expands its presence in Asia as part of the so-called pivot, New Delhi will be a critical partner. In the Asia-Pacific region, especially, India joins Australia, Japan, South Korea, and others in a U.S.-led coalition of democratic allies. And as the most powerful state in South Asia, India will exert a positive influence on a troubled Afghanistan, as well as on Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka.

The Obama administration should therefore use its remaining two years to make India a greater priority, especially since the country has not yet figured prominently in the rebalancing of U.S. attention and resources to Asia. In President Barack Obama’s first term, many Indians complain, the United States devoted less attention to India than to its rivals China and Pakistan, pursuing economic links with the former and counterterrorism ties with the latter. That appearance of neglect, however fair or unfair, has rankled Indian officials and eroded some of their trust in Washington.

With the election of a new government in New Delhi, the Obama administration has a chance to repair the relationship. In May, Indians voted into office Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist from the western state of Gujarat who has signaled that he wants to build a more ambitious partnership with the United States. That will happen only if Obama pushes India to the top of his foreign policy agenda and Modi implements a series of reforms to enable stronger economic and political ties between the two governments. The leaders are scheduled to hold their first meeting in Washington this September, and before they do, both should begin thinking about rebuilding the U.S.-Indian relationship in five key ways: by expanding bilateral trade, strengthening military cooperation, collaborating to combat threats to homeland security, stabilizing a post-American Afghanistan, and, especially, finding greater common ground on transnational challenges such as climate change. It is an ambitious agenda, but pursuing it would put India where it belongs: at the center of U.S. strategy in the region.

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