The South Asia Channel

Sustaining Ambition in the U.S.-India Relationship

Sustaining Ambition in the U.S.-India Relationship

President Barack Obama’s visit to India for Republic Day may mark an inflection point in U.S.-India relations. The symbolism of the invitation alone was unmistakable: in one bold gesture, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi swept aside the cautious, zero-sum politics of the last decade and openly embraced closer ties with the United States. With “strategic partnership” now a generic descriptor of cordial bilateral ties, President Obama laid down a marker of his own, resolving that America can become India’s “best partner” in achieving its great power aspirations. To show this was not mere rhetoric, both sides delivered substance as well, most notably a workaround to liability problems that had beleaguered the 2005 civil nuclear deal, agreement on a new ten-year defense framework and projects for defense cooperation, and deepened engagement in the Asia-Pacific.

There is, of course, a risk that the skeptics will be right, that U.S.-India relations will settle into the slow rhythm of a cricket match in which moments of high drama are followed by seemingly interminable inactivity. To sustain the energy generated by this summit, Washington must focus now on implementation—aggressively following through on the many commitments it made in New Delhi. But it would be a mistake to stop there. The United States should continue pressing an ambitious agenda over the next two years by seeking out ways to bolster India’s role in meeting global challenges, building a capable defense industrial base, and taking leadership in the Asia-Pacific. This is not about setting an agenda for New Delhi, but rather, achieving practical cooperation in areas of shared common interests and goals.

The first of these is India’s role in addressing global challenges. India is a rising power, and its elites believe it is an exceptional actor on the world stage for which the ordinary rules sometimes apply in extraordinary ways. The United States already has recognized India’s unique role in the global order—first with the civil nuclear deal, and again by supporting India’s bid for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Likewise, given India’s particular stage of development, any climate deal it inks later this year will by necessity look different from the one that the United States struck with China.

The United States can and should continue to help to broker India’s distinct global role, even as it presses New Delhi to resolve difficult issues such as intellectual property rights, foreign direct investment (FDI) caps, and trade restrictions that might limit India’s own economic ambitions over the long-run. Similarly, Washington should recognize that the vestiges of India’s non-alignment policy afford it a rare ability to bridge between Russia, the Middle East, and the West, a position that could give it quiet influence in the global campaigns to deal with Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the rise of the Islamic State.

Second, the United States should encourage India’s efforts to build a capable defense industrial base. An analysis of elite narratives in the Indian media undertaken by Monitor 360 reveals that influential Indians still presume that America is an unreliable partner. At the same time, Modi has made a virtue of indigenization with his Make in India initiative. Ironically, the surest way for Washington to demonstrate its reliability over the long-term is to embrace the Make in India mantra and continue to press for creative co-production and co-development projects that begin to integrate India into the global defense supply chain.

This effort has already begun under the Defense Technology and Trade Initiative, but it will take patience. As both sides work to prove the value of the four “pathfinder” projects that were announced in New Delhi, they should set their sights higher and look to joint development on technologies that represent shared priorities, are regionally stabilizing, and spur sustainable cooperation between the respective private sectors. While it is neither helpful nor proper for Washington to press openly for changes to Indian procurement and FDI policies, New Delhi may well recognize that it has more work to do in creating an enabling environment for its defense trade and production ambitions.

Third, the United States should look for ways to promote India’s deeper engagement in Asian regional architecture. This too is resonant with the narratives of Indian elites, who increasingly suggest that India must embrace its Asian identity and play an active role in regional institutions. There is much that can be done to build upon the remarkable Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region issued in New Delhi. Both the United States and India are increasingly vocalizing their concerns about Chinese behavior in Asia regarding maritime disputes, and should more closely consult with East Asian partners about how to promote a rules-based order. The U.S. statement that it “welcomes India’s interest in joining” the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum was also an incremental step forward, and should be followed by more detailed discussions about India’s role in both existing and emerging Asian economic institutions.

Respecting India’s history of non-alignment, the United States can look for ways to deepen both the economic and defense elements of the burgeoning U.S.-India-Japan relationship, and—in other trilateral and “mini-lateral” formats—formalize cooperation on defense and counterterrorism issues alongside common partners in Asia. Supporting India’s “Act East” policy, the United States should continue to offer its support in facilitating trade and infrastructure between India and Southeast Asia. It is important to find common ground looking West as well. Without in any way re-hyphenating Washington’s relationships with India and Pakistan, the United States should work with New Delhi to find ways to reduce Indo-Pakistani tensions, support mutual goals in Afghanistan, jointly counter violent extremist threats, and minimize the risk of conflict between the two nuclear-armed states.

President Obama and Prime Minister Modi have plainly forged a relationship that is both personal and strategic. Inevitably, there will continue to be areas of contention between the two countries that even strong leadership cannot quickly overcome. There are, however, many areas in which India’s narrative about itself—and its changing place in the world—aligns closely with American aspirations for India’s engagement beyond its borders. For too long, the relationship has been constrained by American inattention and Indian apprehension. That now has changed. Even as the bureaucratic focus shifts to implementation, this is a moment to sustain ambition and to demonstrate that the U.S.-India relationship is indeed on a path to becoming a defining partnership for the twenty-first century.


Peter R. Lavoy is a Partner at Monitor 360, and formerly served in senior positions in the Defense Department and the National Intelligence Council.

Joshua T. White is a Senior Associate and Co-Director for South Asia at the Stimson Center.


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