Indo-US relations: pomp over substance

Indo-US relations: pomp over substance

You know that one of the purportedly most important bilateral relationships in the world—between India and the US—is in danger of becoming adrift when the menu and the guest list of a state dinner gets more press coverage than the substantial issues discussed.

Indeed, since the end of the first state visit of the Barack Obama administration, which hosted Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the antics of Michaele and Tareq Salahi, two social climbers who publicly gatecrashed the state dinner, have attracted more attention than even the main protagonists of the event. While there is no doubt that the state dinner, the interlopers notwithstanding, is of symbolic significance, it cannot be a substitute for the importance, or lack of it, of the India-US relationship. And based on substance alone, the future path of India-US relations is likely to be uneven at best for a number of reasons.

First, and this is probably the only really good news, the relationship is becoming increasingly privatized or commercialized. This was apparent when The New York Times, the so-called paper of record, made no mention of the visit prior to or even on the day of the arrival of the first state guest but carried two full-page advertisements two days in a row paid for by the Confederation of Indian Industry.

Also Read W Pal Sidhu’s earlier columns

The outsourcing of the relationship was also evident in the dinner guest list, which read like a who’s who of the Indian private sector, as well as the import of the India-US CEOs Forum in identifying new direction to the relationship. The growing economic and commercial partnership is largely driven by India’s impressive economic growth during this time of global recession and India’s presence and role in the Group of 20 nations is indicative of this importance. The fact that India not only attracted nearly $15 billion (Rs69,750 crore) in foreign direct investment (FDI) in the last quarter but that it has a projected outbound FDI target of $14 billion for 2009-10 is of particular importance to the struggling US economy. While the former makes India an attractive investment, the latter, which is reflected in the recent purchase of Minnesota Steel by Essar, makes India an important investor and job creator. Thus, while the US economy is not beholden to India (as it is to China), it is likely to become increasingly intertwined with the Indian industry.

Second, apart from the economy, the other areas of common interest are clearly Afghanistan and counterterrorism. However, while both nations have similar goals, their approaches are divergent and might prevent effective cooperation. On Afghanistan, for instance, while both India and the US are keen on seeing a multi-ethnic, independent and stable Afghanistan at peace with itself and its neighbours, Washington, while preferring a shorter-term engagement and a clear exit policy, is also inclined to promote democracy. In contrast, New Delhi, which prefers to practice democracy but is not as keen to export it, has a long-term perspective that goes beyond just hunting down Osama bin-Laden.

On counterterrorism, the signing of the Counterterrorism Cooperation Initiative on the eve of the first anniversary of the Mumbai attacks is not only symbolic but also indicative of the level of cooperation that exists and is likely to grow in the coming years. However, even this crucial cooperation is not likely to be smooth, as is evident in the ongoing debate as to whether Indian law enforcement agencies will eventually get to interrogate alleged Lashkar-e-Taiba operatives David Coleman Headley and Tahawwur Hussain Rana, who are in US custody. The inability of the two sides to work out a way on such issues can affect future cooperation.

Third, the apparent slight perceived in New Delhi by the throwaway sentence in the joint US-China statement that the “two sides are ready to strengthen communication, dialogue and cooperation on issues related to South Asia and work together to promote peace, stability and development in that region" following Obama’s visit to Beijing also appears to have been amicably addressed by the Obama-Singh summit.

Although some analysts argued that this was an indication that the US wants to build China up to put India down, it is simply not borne out by the present state of Sino-US relations, especially after the visit, which was deemed to be a failure by most. Ironically, one of the other key sticking points between Washington and New Delhi on carbon dioxide emission caps also appears to have been resolved following Beijing’s declaration that they would accept caps on their emissions. The Chinese caps are now being cited as a model for India to follow.

In addition to these specific hurdles, the first Obama-Singh summit has also revealed the limits of New Delhi’s abilities to use its burgeoning strategic partnership with Washington to establish great power exceptionalism. An important lesson coming out of this summit would be the need for India to devote at least some time, if not much, to create a rule-based global system. It remains to be seen if New Delhi is able to learn.

W. Pal Sidhu is vice-president of programmes at the EastWest Institute, New York. He writes on strategic affairs every fortnight. Your comments are welcome at