The year was filled with missed opportunities but also promising developments in U.S.-India relations. 2012 is shaping up to be the same.
President Obama’s state visit to India in early November 2010 appeared to impart new dynamism to a bilateral relationship that had been listless since his inauguration. The trip offered an effective tonic for Indian concerns that he had forsaken New Delhi in pursuit of G-2 collaboration with Beijing. The president spoke of India as “an indispensable partner of the 21st century” and dramatically endorsed its long-standing bid for permanent membership on the United Nations Security Council. Reporting on his giddily-received address to a joint session of the Indian Parliament, the Times of India noted that the “audience lapped it up, with no less than 25 rounds of applause in a barely 45-minute speech. The cherry on the cake, of course, was the ‘Jai Hind’ [Hail India] with which he concluded.”
But the promise of re-energized partnership quickly dissolved as leadership capacity in Washington and New Delhi dramatically frayed. In retrospect, the trip’s maladroit timing and messaging should have been a tip-off. That the president’s Democratic Party received an electoral “shellacking” just days earlier meant that he arrived in India a much diminished political figure – a condition that became increasingly evident as time progressed. The White House also put out the word that the trip was essentially a jobs-hunting mission rather than one connected to grand strategy, telegraphing how domestic economic anxieties would continue to take attention away from the foreign policy agenda.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh also was about to undergo his own political dimunition. A week after the state visit, the multi-billion dollar 2G telecommunications scandal exploded, igniting a crisis of governance and corruption that continues to engulf Mr. Singh’s administration. For the past year, Singh has been forced to deny that he is a lame duck even as his Congress Party colleagues openly pine for his replacement by Rahul Gandhi and his coalition partners – especially Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress – feel increasingly free to defy him. As 2011 unfolded, it became more and more clear that Singh’s government was adrift and ineffectual.
The leadership void has contributed to the “Delhi disillusionment” that is now a staple of Washington’s foreign policy conversation as well as the transactional approach some advocate vis-à-vis India. Experts now debate just how steadfast this “indispensable partner” really is. Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns even felt it necessary to make a rhetorical nod to this discussion with this title to a recent address: “Is There a Future for the U.S.-India Partnership?”
Whatever its technical merits, New Delhi’s rejection of Boeing and Lockheed Martin’s bids in its lucrative fighter aircraft competition – an issue on the Obama administration lobbied aggressively – was handled so ineptly that it reportedly hastened Ambassador Timothy Roemer’s departure from New Delhi. Indeed, many discerned a deliberate snub of Washington. Ditto for the stringent nuclear liability law that is so divergent from international norms that it effectively locks out U.S. participation in India’s nuclear power sector – something that the nuclear cooperation agreement was suppose to bring about. Last week’s debacle on retail sector liberalization underscored U.S. concerns that New Delhi has permitted domestic political concerns to impede closer economic interactions, while the WikiLeaks revelations about the Indian debate over the nuclear accord further undermined confidence in New Delhi’s credibility as a serious strategic partner.
All of these episodes only sharpened questions in Washington about whether New Delhi is as compelling a geopolitical collaborator as the Bush administration had envisioned. They also help explain why the Obama administration took six months to nominate Roemer’s successor.
To be sure, the Indians have valid reasons to complain about the paucity of American leadership. President Obama’s announcement of an accelerated disengagement from Afghanistan – a decision driven more by the exigencies of domestic politics than by a careful assessment of U.S. security objectives in South and Central Asia – affects India’s security interests in unpalatable ways. Looking towards the exits, Washington does not seem overly concerned about the exact details of a possible political endgame while New Delhi is all too focused on how the strategic terrain in its neighborhood is shifting to its detriment. This lack of solicitude explains why, according to one analysis, “few tears are being shed in the top levels of the Indian establishment over the state of ties with the US.”
Yet beyond the top-level ructions, the past year also witnessed the growing density of bilateral affairs, especially the accelerating pace of economic interactions. Even with the global economy in the doldrums, 2010 was a banner year for the trade relationship, with two-way goods exports surging nearly 30 percent to $48.8 billion. Merchandise exports were also up significantly in the first half of 2011 compared to the same period last year. All told, India is now America’s 12th largest goods trading partner and one of the fastest-growing destinations for U.S. exports. This is a welcome trend, as increased private-sector linkages are key to limiting the risks that today’s political and diplomatic frictions could escalate and disrupt the overall partnership.
Notwithstanding the disappointments over the fighter competition, the United States has also become a critical player in the ambitious military buildup India is undertaking. New Delhi was the third largest buyer of U.S. weapons this year, with purchases amounting to $4.5 billion – a level ahead of such long-time American allies as Australia, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Japan. Indeed, over the past year or so the Indian government has either purchased or taken possession of a number of key weapons systems: the AH-64D Apache attack helicopter, the C-130J Super Hercules transport aircraft, and the C-17 Globemaster III strategic transport aircraft.
Finally, as the constant parade of Cabinet officers and senior officials between the two capitals attests, bilateral relations have acquired a scope and depth that were unimaginable less than a decade ago. Among other things, Washington and New Delhi now hold regular consultations on policy vis-à-vis China, Deputy Secretary Burns has just concluded talks in New Delhi about strategic and economic cooperation, and a trilateral U.S.-India-Japan security dialogue will meet for the first time next week. Indian foreign policy elites are growing more comfortable with the notion of strategic intimacy with the United States. And the expansion of Chinese strength will undoubtedly push New Delhi to tighten its security relations with Washington in the years ahead, though the process will neither be as smooth nor as speedy as many Americans would like.
All of these factors are contributing to the steady accumulation of bilateral bonds. The key question for the approaching year is whether Washington and New Delhi will exhibit the constancy of leadership needed to capitalize on these favorable developments. Alas, the prospects do not appear promising. With 2012 shaping up to be one filled with turbulent politics in both countries, the focus of President Obama and Prime Minister Singh will continue to remain inward.
(An earlier version of this post appeared at http://www.usinpac.com)