Courtesy Reuters

The End of the Affair?

Washington's Cooling Passion for New Delhi

One of the signature features, and generally acknowledged successes, of the George W. Bush administration's foreign policy was the close relationship forged between the United States and India. For decades, due to Cold War politics and mutual antagonism over India's quest for nuclear weapons, the U.S.-Indian relationship had languished. The Bush administration, however, identified India as a potential strategic partner early on and chose to build on the goodwill the Clinton administration had garnered with New Delhi in its closing days. The capstone of Bush's efforts was the U.S.-Indian nuclear deal, which gave India access to technology and material for its civilian nuclear program in spite of its refusal to sign the Nonproliferation Treaty. By the time Bush left office, U.S. relations with India were the best they had ever been.

By contrast, during its first months in office, the Obama administration has essentially ignored India. Until this week, the only senior administration official to make a significant India-related policy speech has been Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg. In its dealings with Asia, the administration has focused instead on China, Afghanistan, and Pakistan -- going so far in its attempt to woo the latter as to float the idea of mediating the Kashmir dispute (something long sought by Islamabad but anathema to New Delhi).

This behavior has not gone unnoticed. India's strategic elites recognize that no other U.S. president is likely to match Bush's personal commitment to strengthening Indo-U.S. ties, but they worry that Barack Obama's apparent lack of interest could do real harm to the relationship and squander recent hard-won gains.
 
Were this indeed to occur, it would be a major blunder. India and the United States share important interests on some of today's most pressing strategic issues, including the struggle against Islamist terrorism, the stabilization and de-Talibanization of Afghanistan, the cautious engagement of a rising China, and the pursuit of improved bilateral economic ties. To advance those common interests, however, Washington and New Delhi need to cooperate closely.

The United States fully woke to the dangers of Islamist terrorism only after September 11, 2001. India, by contrast, began battling Islamist militants in Kashmir during the late 1980s. Since 9/11, the United States has avoided further attacks on its soil, while India has suffered numerous terrorist incidents, including an assault on its parliament and a multiple, coordinated strikes in Mumbai. The response to the Mumbai attacks revealed significant shortcomings in India's anti-terrorism capabilities. Nonetheless, India can provide valuable analytical, logistical, and intelligence support to U.S. anti-terrorism efforts. What is more, India truly cares about the issue -- something that cannot always be said about other supposed U.S. allies in the war on terror, including Pakistan.

The Obama administration has made the stabilization of Afghanistan one of its top priorities, meanwhile, relying heavily on Pakistani cooperation to defeat radical Islamist militants there and across the Pakistani border. Yet Pakistani support for this project has been lukewarm, and many in the Pakistani military and intelligence services still see the militants not as enemies to be defeated but as once and future allies.

India has taken a different approach to the Afghan problem from its subcontinental neighbor's, spending approximately $750 million in recent years (and pledging $1.6 billion more) to help rebuild the country and spur development. This makes India Afghanistan's sixth largest bilateral aid donor. Projects funded by New Delhi include the rebuilding of the Afghan national airline; the construction of telecommunications, power, and transportation networks; and improved sanitation facilities. Indian policymakers believe that these efforts will help to stabilize the country, thereby lowering the odds of a Taliban resurgence, curtailing Pakistan's regional influence, and facilitating Indian ties with energy-rich Central Asia. Such goals are clearly rooted in national self-interest, but the point is that Indian and U.S. interests converge here. Washington should thus support and expand Indian involvement in Afghanistan, rather than relying exclusively or even primarily on Pakistan's help.

When it comes to the rise of China, India -- like the United States -- is watching closely. One of New Delhi's greatest concerns is its unresolved Himalayan border dispute with Beijing. This triggered a bloody war between the two countries in 1962, in which the Indians were thoroughly trounced. The two sides have made only glacial progress in resolving the disagreement since then, and it has remained a source of recurring tension. Energy issues also dog the Sino-Indian relationship, as both rising giants have begun competing actively for access to oil from Africa to Asia. India thus shares the U.S. interest in ensuring that China does not emerge as an Asia-Pacific hegemon. No Indian regime will participate in any outright American attempt to contain China, but many Indian policymakers and strategists would be prepared to work with the United States in pursuing a hedging strategy against potential Chinese revisionism.

The Congress Party's recent electoral victory, finally, should allow the Indian government to move forward on a number of long-delayed reforms designed to maintain and increase economic growth. Given growing U.S.-Indian economic ties, as well as the need to pull both the American and Indian economies out of a slump, such efforts can only benefit both nations. The United States should gently prod New Delhi to tackle reforms in such nettlesome areas as labor law, land acquisition legislation, and the power sector.

Given the two countries' numerous and important common interests, the Obama administration's neglect of India is puzzling. Perhaps senior decision-makers have worried that paying too much attention to India will derail efforts to nurture Sino-U.S. ties, or get in the way of cooperation with Pakistan. Perhaps the Obama team has been irked by India's continued refusal to join the nuclear nonproliferation regime. Or perhaps the administration has simply wanted to distinguish itself from its predecessor. Whatever the reason, a clear signal is being sent and received -- as a previous Bush might have put it, "Message: I don't care."

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is expected to give a major policy speech on India this week. She and the administration could begin to engage India by taking its concerns about Pakistan-supported terror in Kashmir and elsewhere seriously, by eschewing any temptation to mediate the Kashmir dispute, by working more closely with New Delhi on stabilizing Afghanistan, and by stepping up the pace on bilateral discussions about renewable energy technology cooperation. Progress on the last item would be particularly sensible, since it would advance two agendas simultaneously -- helping India to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (a looming source of contention) and enabling U.S. firms to develop and sell green technologies.

In recent months, some deft negotiation has eased bilateral disputes over end-user agreements on U.S. weapons sales to India. Similar pragmatism in other areas, along with some solicitous gestures from the Obama team, can make sure the relationship continues to warm rather than cooling down.

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