A full menu for India and the United States
BERLIN -- Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh arrives at the White House this week with the political momentum to push India deeper into the American camp. Despite being President Barack Obama's first official state dinner guest, he comes at a time when many Indians fear that Obama will focus more on China and less on India than did previous American administrations.
The relationship between the world's richest democracy and the world's largest one has improved dramatically over the last ten years after decades of a troubled bilateral history. The centerpiece of this paradigm shift in relations was the completion of the civil nuclear deal last fall, an historic agreement that, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton acknowledged, has "helped us get over our defining disagreement," even if it is not yet completely implemented.
Both the United States and India share the fundamental objective of preserving an Asia that is peaceful, prosperous, and free. India's growth is a positive development for the balance of power in Asia. But India will continue to grow only if its economic and institutional reforms are successful, and the success of those reforms requires a peaceful geopolitical environment in which India's security and autonomy are not threatened by any outside power, especially by its rivals Pakistan and China. Indian leaders are concerned that China's rise and the incipient changes in the global distribution of power could have serious consequences for peace and stability in Asia in the long run. Consequently, the character of U.S.-Chinese relations has a critical and immediate impact on Indian security. Given the current conditions of Indian-Chinese interdependence, any sort of American containment of China or American hostility toward China would seriously undermine Indian interests. Above all, India seeks an assurance that U.S.-Chinese relations will not become a geostrategic condominium -- a G2 -- whether out of choice, necessity, or inevitability. This is why the strength of the other -- both the American economic recovery and India's growth -- is of profound mutual self-interest to both the United States and India.
The India-Pakistan rivalry casts a long shadow over the region and complicates U.S. diplomacy. These days mark the one-year anniversary of the horrific attacks by Pakistani terrorists in Mumbai that killed 163 people. The terrorists were members of the banned Pakistani extremist group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LET), which has longstanding ties to the Pakistani military and intelligence services. India accuses Pakistan of supporting terrorists in Kashmir, Pakistan accuses India of supporting secessionists in Baluchistan, and both view the other's intentions in Afghanistan with suspicion. The United States and India differ significantly in their perception of Pakistan and the struggle against terrorism. By some standards, Pakistan is a state sponsor of terrorism because the army and the intelligence services -- as organs of the Pakistani government -- continue to actively support terrorist groups that attack civilians in Afghanistan and India.
But Islamabad is also Washington's partner in the fight against terrorism, and therein lies the U.S. policy dilemma. Pakistan is part of both the problem and the solution to terrorism, which leads to a much more indulgent U.S. policy toward Pakistan than many Indians are willing to accept. On the other hand, LET links to al-Qaeda show that U.S. and Indian security are threatened by the same Islamist terror groups. This fact, as well as the convergence of U.S. and Indian interests in Afghanistan, will build confidence and increase intelligence-sharing between Washington and New Delhi. It is therefore expected that Obama and Singh will agree to deeper cooperation on counterterrorism and defense issues.
National security will remain for some time the central topic in U.S.-India relations. But the common U.S.-India policy agenda already covers an immense and expanding canvas. Indians have by far the largest share of foreign students in the United States. The United States is the biggest investor in India. More than that, though, India has started moving toward a civil society model based on the United States to address education shortfalls and other lagging public goods. Private organizations are filling the gaps the Indian state has left bare, much like American NGOs and charities have done. This potential for cooperation and information-sharing should not be overlooked among the security and economics issues being addressed this week.
Whether the other issues are liberalizing world trade, building a more stable global financial architecture, reducing global warming, or reining in nuclear proliferation, Obama will meet an Indian prime minister who firmly believes that India must be a responsible global stakeholder. When the two leaders sit down for meetings, and also for dinner, they should not run out of topics to discuss.
Jörg Himmelreich is a senior non-resident fellow at the German Marshall Fund.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.