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Are U.S.-India relations oversold?

Are U.S.-India relations oversold?

The biggest disappointment of President Barack Obama’s Asia trip was his failure to strike an agreement on the Korea-United States Free Trade Agreement in Seoul. His biggest success was his embrace of a transformative partnership with India. The president can now claim ownership of a relationship that has been on the rocks since he took office, and he deserves considerable credit for arguing that India’s rise and success as a future democratic superpower is a core interest of the United States.

The president’s vision of a far-reaching partnership with India — to manage global diplomatic and security challenges, tie the two countries together in a mutually beneficial economic embrace, and promote freedom and rule of law in Asia and beyond — was bracing. Obama’s warm reception by the Indian parliament, commentariat, and public bodes well for future ties between the world’s oldest and the world’s largest democracies.

In New Delhi, Obama made a strong case for strengthening Indo-U.S. ties — and to create an "indispensable" partnership that would help define the course of the 21st century:

Now, India is not the only emerging power in the world. But the relationship between our countries is unique. For we are two strong democracies whose constitutions begin with the same revolutionary words — the same revolutionary words — "We the people." We are two great republics dedicated to the liberty and justice and equality of all people. And we are two free market economies where people have the freedom to pursue ideas and innovation that can change the world. And that’s why I believe that India and America are indispensable partners in meeting the challenges of our time… The United States not only welcomes India as a rising global power, we fervently support it, and we have worked to help make it a reality… [P]romoting shared prosperity, preserving peace and security, strengthening democratic governance and human rights — these are the responsibilities of leadership. And as global partners, this is the leadership that the United States and India can offer in the 21st century.

Obama’s expressed ambitions for Indo-U.S. ties came just in time to check a growing chorus in Washington of pessimism toward the relationship. Most prominent among the skeptics is George Perkovich, the esteemed vice president for studies of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, whose foundational book on India’s development of nuclear weapons was an inspiration for this author, and many others, to embrace the study of India. Dr. Perkovich was an India expert long before it was popular, so his arguments carry great weight. That is why his recent Carnegie report arguing that India cannot be the partner the United States wants it to be — and that ambitions of the kind Obama expressed for the relationship are actually harmful to it — deserves attention.

In brief, Perkovich argues for a more "realistic" Indo-U.S. relationship that treats India in many ways as the impoverished, non-aligned, defensive, and even hostile country it once was. India does not want to be an Asian balancer, the report maintains; alleged U.S. efforts to maneuver India into position as a counterweight to China will only create discord between Asia’s giants and upset China’s peaceful rise. Indian and U.S. interests diverge on a host of important issues, from climate change to Iran. The best thing India can do for the world is not partner with the United States to fuel its rise and shape an international system tilted toward freedom, but instead to make its own economy an example for other developing powers. The United States’ embrace of India is actually detrimental (for instance, by alienating China and Pakistan, or by upending the established global nuclear order) or only marginally useful. By this logic, both countries therefore should scale back their visions for global partnership, and Washington should invest more in relations with Beijing and other emerging powers rather than lavish such policy attention on India. At the end of the day, India will set its own course, often in ways that do not align with U.S. interests — and Americans will need to live with that.

Eminent Indian strategist C. Raja Mohan implicitly takes on this argument in an important new paper for the German Marshall Fund. Rather than being only a peripheral or even harmful influence on India’s great power future, Mohan argues that the nature of U.S. engagement with India will decisively shape its ability to lead the subcontinent to peace and prosperity; contribute to stability and balance in Asia; develop a framework for use of force abroad; participate constructively in the making of a new international order; and recast its own international identity. Mohan convincingly argues that India’s embrace of the enlightenment tradition in its domestic politics, and the country’s geopolitical interests and ambitions, align it with the Western-led global community of democracies — not with its Third World and anti-Western fellow travelers of yesteryear, and not with the BRICS — as China is emerging as India’s global competitor. In light of this shift in Indian power, identity, and aspirations, Mohan provocatively maintains that India may be considered a "Western" power rather than an Asian one — and that intensive U.S. engagement will fundamentally impact India’s own diplomatic, developmental, and strategic choices.

Renowned India expert Ashley Tellis also weighs in on this debate with a superb report for the Carnegie Endowment making a grand strategic case for an Indo-U.S. partnership that shapes an Asian balance conducive to the interests of both countries, anchors an international system that is peaceful and pluralistic rather than hierarchic and conflict-ridden, promotes prosperity and an open international economy, and catalyzes the dynamism and prosperity of Indian and American societies in mutually reinforcing ways. Tellis cites a National Intelligence Council estimate that India will be the world’s third most powerful state by 2026 to argue convincingly that smart American engagement with New Delhi is necessary now to frame a partnership with a country whose impact on the international system is already dramatic. (As Obama put it, India is not just rising — it has risen.) And rather than diverging, Indian and U.S. interests across the spectrum — from defeating terrorism to maintaining equilibrium in Asia to securing the freedom of the global commons to strengthening a liberal international economic and political order — are strikingly convergent, and will only become more so as India’s capabilities and strategic horizons expand.

But it is Senator John McCain who said it best:

India and the United States share common values… It is for this reason that we are confident that the ongoing rise of democratic India as a great power — whether tomorrow or 25 years from now — will be peaceful, and thus can advance critical U.S. national interests. Furthermore, it is because of our shared values that we view the rise of India as inherently good in itself. At a time when many have become enamored with an authoritarian model of state capitalism and its ability to generate wealth and power, there can be no greater demonstration that political pluralism, free markets, and the rule of law are a morally and materially superior way to organize diverse societies than the success of democratic India. Who can believe in "Asian values" or doubt the universality of democratic capitalism in a world where India exists? Therefore, contrary to the old dictates of realpolitik, we seek not to limit or diminish India’s rise, but to bolster and catalyze it — economically, geopolitically, and yes, militarily. In short, the United States has a compelling stake in the success of India.