FPI Analysis: President Obama's Trip to India

November 5, 2010

View in PDF format

As President Obama visits India, he is building upon improved ties between the United States and India that represent one of the great bipartisan U.S. foreign policy success stories of the past decade. Originally undertaken by President Clinton in 2000, engagement with India was a top priority for President George W. Bush, fueled by the belief that the two countries, bound together by shared convictions and ideals, would be essential partners in the 21st century. In 2006, President Bush noted: “Our two great democracies are now united by opportunities that can lift our people, and by threats that can bring down all our progress. The United States and India, separated by half the globe, are closer than ever before, and the partnership between our free nations has the power to transform the world.” Similarly, in 2009, President Obama declared that the U.S. – India partnership will be “one of the defining relationships” of the 21st century.

Yet despite such optimistic rhetoric, prominent voices in both countries now worry that the progress of this once budding relationship is being neglected by an Obama administration distracted by other domestic and international challenges. According to a recent report from the Center for a New American Security, “Many prominent Indians and Americans [fear] this rapid expansion of ties has stalled. Past projects remain incomplete, few new ideas have been embraced by both sides, and the forward momentum that characterized recent cooperation has subsided.”

President Obama’s trip is an opportunity to reverse this course by expanding economic ties between the two countries. With a middle class surpassing 300 million people, India is an enormous potential market for U.S. exports and private sector investment. And while U.S. exports to India have quadrupled to $17 billion over the past seven years, further expansion is attainable in the short-term. President Obama should seek to build upon this growth by encouraging India to relax foreign investment rules and continue various defense acquisition reforms.

Furthermore, the success of the landmark U.S.-India Civilian Nuclear Agreement, the symbolic cornerstone of this new phase in U.S. – India relations, remains in the balance because of recent actions by the Indian Parliament. Failing to fully implement the accord would severely damage this important relationship, a message President Obama should reinforce with his Indian interlocutors.

The White House must also allay fears of increased protectionism targeting Indian outsourcing companies.  Earlier this year, the president gained no favor in India with his silence and eventual support of increased fees on temporary worker visa holders. While the move had little impact on the recent U.S. midterm elections, it created a firestorm in India - seen as directly attacking Indian technology service companies. Americans can all agree on the need to explore all economic options to help bolster the American economy, but the president’s actions exemplified shortsighted diplomacy and poor economics.

Perhaps the greatest success story of U.S. – Indian relations lies in defense cooperation. Today, the United States holds more military to military exercises with India than any other country, and the United States and India are pressing forward with initiatives aimed at improving interoperability. The growth of India’s military represents not only an increased ability to respond to the shifting global balance of power, but the ability to respond quickly to regional issues throughout Asia. Nowhere was this cooperation more evident than the response to the December 2004 tsunami that ravaged Sri Lanka, Indonesia and the Maldives. Furthermore, as the United States faces growing geopolitical challenges in the Indian Ocean, India’s rapidly improving navy will play an expanding and important role in protecting the shipping lanes that support the world economy.

India, like the United States, faces the continued threat of Islamic extremism. President Obama should therefore further build upon the important counterterrorism measures implemented in the wake of the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. This includes increased access to important American threat intelligence, and expanded cooperation with other allies in Southeast Asia.

Finally, President Obama should use his visit to India to make clear America’s commitment to victory in Afghanistan. The president’s 2011 withdrawal date sent shock waves throughout the government in New Delhi, spurring concerns about the return of the Taliban, Islamic fundamentalism, and the threat of jihadist fundamentalism to Afghanistan. It is paramount for the president to make clear that America is committed to defeating Al Qaeda and the Taliban. It would also behoove the president to seek India’s further cooperation in rebuilding Afghanistan’s nonmilitary institutions and economy. To date the Obama administration has failed to see India as a strategic partner in this endeavor.

The success or failure of the U.S.-India relationship does not solely lie in President Obama’s hands.  India is beset by its own domestic challenges that have at times limited its ability to become the strategic partner many in the United States wish it to become.  For the relationship to truly flourish, Indian leaders will need to be willing to emerge from the suspicion that often still lingers regarding U.S. foreign policy and be willing to take stands on tough issues in the international arena, whether it be preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons, or promoting democracy and human rights worldwide, including in India’s own neighborhood.

The days of Cold War-era distrust between the United States and India are being replaced by growing economic and cultural ties that will provide the foundation for a robust and mutually beneficial relationship.  President Bush correctly noted: “India in the 21st century is a natural partner of the United States because we are brothers in the cause of human liberty.” It is in America’s interest to see a strong, vibrant, and democratic India in Asia – working together with a free and prosperous United States. It is now up to President Obama to follow the direction of his two predecessors, and allow the natural friendship between the world’s oldest and largest democracies to be fully realized.

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
Read More