While US Articulates a Defined Role for India in Asia, the Reverse Is Not True

President Barack Obama’s visit to India shows the importance he places on that relationship, but New Delhi has yet to spell out where the US fits into its plans, says Bharath Gopalaswamy, a South Asia analyst at the Atlantic Council.

“I don’t think we have seen a clear Indian articulation of how they conceptualize the world and where America fits into their conceptualization,” said Gopalaswamy, acting director of the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center.

Obama will be the guest of honor at India’s Republic Day celebrations in New Delhi on January 26. It will be the first time that a US president has been given that invitation, and Obama will become the first president to visit India twice while in office. Obama traveled to India in 2010.

Obama sees India as a vital part of his administration’s “rebalance toward Asia.” Many of the president’s foreign policy priorities—including climate change, clean energy, and public health—intersect with the US-India agenda, according to White House officials.

But the US-India relationship has bogged down over differences on trade; intellectual property rights; technology transfers; India’s nuclear liability law; and foreign direct investment in defense, retail, and insurance.

The Obama administration is hopeful that at least some of these differences can be overcome, in part because Prime Minister Narendra Modi has shown a willingness to invest in the US-India relationship.

Obama sees his visit to India as “a potentially transitional, if not transformational, moment for the relationship, because we have a very strong and clear indication from India’s leadership that they want to elevate our bilateral cooperation and our global cooperation,” Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor for strategic communications, recently told reporters.

The visit is a success just by virtue of the fact that Obama will be in New Delhi for the second time in his presidency, says Gopalaswamy.

“That endorses the commitment to this relationship from the highest level,” he said.

Gopalaswamy spoke in an interview with New Atlanticist’s Ashish Kumar Sen. Here are excerpts:

Q: Besides the immense symbolism of President Obama’s visit to India what deliverables can we expect?

Gopalaswamy: It is symbolic and a celebration of India’s democratic achievements as a state and a society. We need to see some progress in defense deals and civil nuclear cooperation. Beyond the symbolism what can we realistically achieve? I don’t know if things will be much different from when both heads of state met [in Washington] in September, but I think this visit provides the continuity in moving things forward.

Q: What should Obama do to make this a successful visit?

Gopalaswamy: Obama is doing the right thing. He has visited India twice in his presidential term. That endorses the commitment to this relationship from the highest level, so it is already a successful visit. When Bill Clinton visited India [in 2000] it was 20 years since Jimmy Carter’s visit in the late 1970s. Obama has increased the momentum in the relationship.

Q: Where does the United States fit into India’s plan?

Gopalaswamy: I don’t think we have seen a clear Indian articulation of how they conceptualize the world and where America fits into their conceptualization. Modi has reached out to all the regional neighbors. He has reached out to Japan, Australia, China, and has also reached out to the United States.

Q: Where does India fit into the US rebalance toward Asia?

Gopalaswamy: The US is courting democracies — a so-called concert of democracies strategy — Australia, Japan, and India as part of its rebalance strategy toward Asia. It will take the cooperation of all these democracies to balance China’s rise in Asia. The irony here is almost all the countries in Asia have China as their largest trading partner and view China as the engine for their growth. So you have competition on geopolitical and military terms, but you’re also deeply economically dependent on China as well. This is going to be a very tricky situation going forward.

From the US point of view it would be catastrophic not to include India for its own security interests. And from the Indian point of view, there is no denial that the American presence in Asia guarantees security and stability. Americans and Indians share deep democratic values as well as their conceptualization of what stability means in Asia.

Q: Can both sides bridge the gap on the civil nuclear liability issue?

Gopalaswamy: Besides the liability issue, another stumbling block has emerged this week — if recent news reports are true — with the Americans wanting to track nuclear materials that they supply to India.

Q: So is the gulf becoming wider?

Gopalaswamy: I wouldn’t say it is getting wider. The differences are presenting themselves as both sides move forward in this process.

Q: Much has been made of the chemistry between Obama and Modi. Is that enough to take this US-India relationship to the next level?

Gopalaswamy: No. There is chemistry at the highest level, but ties have to be built at a number of other levels, including at the people-to-people level, at a mid-ranking official level, at the low-level official level, as well as business-to-business ties.

On the American side, businesses are not fully convinced about India’s ability to deliver on some of the promises. On the India side they are still skeptical of the American way of doing business.

Q: Relations between India and Pakistan have become strained over the past few months with a cancellation of secretary-level talks and incidents of cross-border firing. How important is it for Obama that the two South Asian neighbors mend ties, especially given that the president wants to draw down US troops in Afghanistan?

Gopalaswamy: I do not think the Indians will want to make the India-Pakistan relationship the focus of Obama’s visit. India has a bilateral relationship with the US and they want to discuss how to move forward with that relationship.

Afghanistan will be an issue that is deeply concerning to the Indians as well as the Americans. I am sure that will come up in the discussion.

Ashish Kumar Sen is an editor with the Atlantic Council.

Related Experts: Ashish Kumar Sen and Bharath Gopalaswamy