From Drift To Renaissance ~ sreeram chaulia
US Secretary of State John Kerry&’s visit to India for the fourth annual Strategic Dialogue is an opportunity to revive a sagging bilateral relationship that is weighed down by excess expectations, domestic and regional compulsions. The Dialogue is a crucial means to fulfil the rhetoric about the two countries according “highest priority” to each other and forging a “defining partnership” of the 21st century.
The fact that the Barack Obama administration has tried to forward ties with India which blossomed during the presidency of George W Bush signifies that there is an institutionalisation of the relationship despite changes in governments and political leaders. In the dual-party American political system, there is bipartisan appreciation of India&’s achievements and global value. In our multi-party system too, barring the extreme Left, a fruitful friendship with America is sought by all actors who matter because of the concrete economic and security benefits that accrue to India. Public opinion in both nations is also highly favourable to engaging more intensely and harnessing mutual comparative advantages.
Yet, as frank exchanges during the Strategic Dialogues reveal, there is also a degree of frustration in Washington and New Delhi about the absence of convergence on critical geo-strategic and economic fronts. India and America enjoy greater commonality of interest towards the former&’s eastern territorial and maritime horizons compared to its westward extended neighbourhood.
The cantankerousness underlying US-China security competition in the whole of East Asia and the manner in which China has sought to exclude India from becoming a robust power in that region offer strong rationale for Washington and New Delhi to coordinate and cooperate.
During the George W Bush era, it was much more obvious, but Obama is no less committed to India&’s rightful desire to preclude an Asia that is locked under Chinese suzerainty. The debate within the American strategic elites is not about whether or not India matters, but rather how it would help in forwarding the goals of a declining US in East Asia.
An ‘offshore balancing’ model envisages sharp American retrenchment from most parts of the world due to budgetary constraints and exertion of influence via regional powers like India. But the US National Defence University&’s concept of ‘forward partnering’ foresees a more proactive form of militarily enabling regional actors to take the lead in their own neighbourhoods to police and maintain order, and to perform their own counter-balancing manoeuvres. In either of these two models, the onus will be on regional powers to have greater autonomy in calibrating their respective security doctrines and deciding their own priorities as per the diplomatic flux.
What this means is that America under Obama will remain on the path of “leading from behind” or not leading at all, while building capacities of partners across the globe. Defence sales and co-production of advanced military equipment are always key components of US-India Strategic Dialogues. They will gain in traction as the ‘forward partnering’ arrangements for Asia take off in the coming years.       
But trouble is the keyword in the US-India equation for the region that lies west of India&’s borders. Will the Taliban-US talks in Qatar involve quid pro quos that would try to marginalise New Delhi&’s legitimate presence and power projection in Afghanistan after the US withdrawal? The participation of the rabidly anti-Indian Haqqani network, a Pakistani terrorist proxy, at the negotiations in Qatar adds to fears that America may agree to dislodge India from Afghanistan as the price for an honourable military exit in 2014. Kerry has to provide categorical assurances to New Delhi that India is not a card that could be traded with the Taliban and their Pakistani godfathers.
As for Pakistan itself, the US has provided military aid worth over $17 billion to this country during the so-called ‘global war on terrorism’. Will the American drawdown from Afghanistan cause a shift away from boosting Pakistan&’s conventional military capabilities that are aimed at India? India will seek answers as to how the US plans to reduce and eventually eliminate gratuitous military assistance to Pakistan, which has added to the pressure on our national security. Is the US still engaged in an absurd attempt to balance India by arming Pakistan? One hopes not and Kerry must guarantee that the military largesse showered on Pakistan will be wound up in a time-bound fashion.  
Further west of Afghanistan, in Iran and Syria, India does not see merit in the American ploys to boost Sunni jihadists. Anger in American right-wing circles that India still imports oil from Iran and hopes that India will forsake its regional collaboration with Iran to please Washington are symptoms of a deeper divergence. The Strategic Dialogue must narrow the differences between Washington and New Delhi on the entire swathe of instability from Pakistan to Syria. The Americans must take note of India&’s views as to how this volatile stretch can be normalised and rendered more peaceful. If nothing India says or holds can even marginally alter America&’s course in this region, the purpose of a Dialogue or exchange of views is defeated.
On the economic agenda, American corporations are pushing Kerry hard to convey displeasure at weak intellectual property protection, caps on foreign direct investment and other obstacles they face in the Indian market. India has its own list of grievances, especially on restrictions on immigration of skilled personnel to the US. The lobbying heft of parties in both countries which are keen on getting a larger share of the bilateral pie is driving this discord. Kerry&’s call for India and the US to achieve their “full potential” in business is valid, but the unrealised targets reflect the protectionist waves lashing these two countries whose economies are on the downswing.
For a while now, observers have been exhorting a realistic tone to inform the US-India duet. Instead of chasing more big-bang ‘deliverables’ like the civil nuclear agreement of 2009, sorting out differences in geopolitical and economic spheres would be a prudent agenda. After the honeymoon and the thrilling romance phase come the harder compatibility challenges of a midlife relationship. If we iron out some of the rough edges, India and the US can move from drift to renaissance and enter, hands held, into a multipolar world.
The writer is Professor and Dean at the Jindal School of International Affairs