The Desi Factor in U.S.-India Relations

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit last month to the San Francisco area highlighted a signal immigration story: The great prominence of Indian-born entrepreneurs and executives in Silicon Valley and the key role they play in America’s technological dynamism.  But an equally important, if under-noticed, tale was also at play: How the increasing stature of Indians in U.S. society has changed the way all Americans think about India and the resulting impact on U.S. foreign policy.

Read the full essay at Foreign Policy‘s website.

This piece is cross-posted at Chanakya’s Notebook, my blog on South Asian affairs.  I invite you to connect with me via Facebook and Twitter.

U.S.-India Relations: Observations on the Khobragade Saga

The Devyani Khobragade affair keeps getting curiouser and curiouser.  Ms. Khobragade, a diplomat posted at India’s consulate general in New York was arrested the other week by U.S. authorities on charges of visa fraud and labor law violations relating to her employment of a nanny/housekeeper who accompanied her to the United States.  The manner of her brief detention has sparked widespread outrage in India, riling U.S. relations with New Delhi in the process.  As more details come to light – including revelations of U.S. actions to “evacuate” the nanny’s family from India as well as growing speculation that the nanny was a CIA mole – it’s clear that what at first appeared to be a relatively straightforward matter is anything but.  (See here and here for a detailed chronology of events as they are currently known).  Still, though they may require revision as more information emerges, at this point it’s worth making three observations about the unfolding saga. Continue reading

Time for Some Realism in U.S.-India Relations

In a piece on Foreign Policy’s website the other week, Tim Roemer, the immediate past U.S. ambassador in New Delhi, urged Washington officials to pay closer attention to India as a geopolitical and economic partner.  In his view, the country needs to be at the center of the U.S. strategic pivot to Asia and both capitals must, among other things, start work on a free trade agreement.  India’s success, Roemer emphasizes, is “a linchpin in America’s success in the 21st century.”

Roemer’s bottom line is correct but it’s still an odd exhortation to make given the recent visits to New Delhi by senior Obama administration officials – Secretary of State John F. Kerry last June and Vice President Joe Biden a month later – as well as the September summit meeting between President Obama and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in Washington.  Strange, too, in light of the Obama administration’s efforts to craft a long-term strategic partnership, one that features greater Indian access to the latest U.S. military technology and a defense trade relationship that goes beyond a focus on one-off transactions to include joint research and co-production efforts. Indeed, this proposal was conveyed by then-Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta during a trip to New Delhi in June 2012, during which he made clear that Washington sees India as a “linchpin” in the pivot strategy.  Mr. Kerry also used similar language during his own visit.

It’s true that the Obama administration in its first year displayed little interest in pursuing high-level engagement with India, a development abraded sensitivities in New Delhi, where elites had grown accustomed to the pride of place their country enjoyed in America’s strategic calculus during the George W. Bush years.  But since then, the Obama team has harkened back to the Bush administration’s emphasis of building up India’s strategic potential as a check against the rise of Chinese power.

So, the problem now is not U.S. indifference but Indian ambivalence. Continue reading

U.S.-India Relations: The Overshadowed Summit

The U.S.-India relationship is enveloped these days by grand rhetoric.  But for a reality check on the state of bilateral affairs, look no further than the summit meeting between President Obama and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh two weeks ago.  The get-together was designed to inject new energy into a partnership that just a few years ago looked so promising but which is now roundly seen as going flat.  Yet even before Mr. Singh journeyed to Washington, the trip promised to be a ho-hum visit at best.

Noticeably gone was the excitement and pomp of Singh’s state visit four years ago, when President Obama put on an extravagant state dinner on the White House South Lawn honoring him.  It was the hottest ticket in town, attracting party crashers to boot, and even the rainy weather did not dim an event theWashington Post likened to a Hollywood production.  Back then, both leaders were fresh off impressive electoral victories and, with expectations raised by the recently-codified civilian nuclear agreement, they spoke augustly about a “future that beckons all of us.”

Their latest meeting, however, was in sharp contrast. Continue reading

Missing the Real Story about Miss America

I have a commentary piece in yesterday’s San Jose Mercury News that argues:

Much of the focus since Nina Davuluri’s crowning as this year’s Miss America has been on the racist attacks on social media directed at this impressive woman who is the pageant’s first winner of Indian heritage.  But the real story here is the increasing stature of Indians in U.S. society and how that has changed the way all Americans think about India.

The piece is based on a more detailed post from earlier this year about how large-scale Indian migration has altered American perceptions about the country.  According to a recent Gallup survey, more than two-thirds of the U.S. public has a positive impression of India, a score that even edges out Israel’s traditionally high favorability rating.  Compare that to a 1983 opinion poll in which Americans ranked India at the bottom of a list of 22 countries on the basis of perceived importance to U.S. vital interests.

Two updates are worth noting since my post first appeared.  The first is a new publication by the Migration Policy Institute that finds:

As a group, immigrants from India are better educated, more likely to have strong English language skills and arrive on employment-based visas, and are less likely to live below the federal poverty line than the overall foreign-born population. They are also more concentrated in the working ages than immigrants overall….

The second update is the just-released data from the Census Bureau showing that much of the nation’s population growth is fueled by newcomers from Asia rather than Hispanic immigrants.  Indian immigrants (over 110,000 in 2012)account for a full third of last year’s increase in the nation’s foreign-born Asia population.

This commentary is cross-posted on Chanakya’s Notebook, my blog on South Asia.  I invite you to connect with me via Facebook and Twitter.

 

India and the United States: Can the Elephant Pivot?

Joe Biden is in India this week, the latest effort in the Obama administration’s three-year effort to enlist New Delhi in a closer strategic partnership aimed at hedging against a rising China.   Indeed before departing Washington, Biden declared that the United States welcomes New Delhi’s emergence as “a force for security and growth in Southeast Asia and beyond,” underscoring what has become a central theme in U.S. policy towards India.

New Delhi has certainly not been passive in its dealings with East Asia, thoughquestions remain about its capacity to affect the regional balance of power.  But it has also been wary of signing up to the Obama administration’s much-ballyhooed strategic pivot (here and here) to Asia.  Consider, for example, the divergent signals that were registered in Washington and New Delhi in early 2012.  The White House was busy rolling out the pivot project to great fanfare, including releasing a Pentagon policy document that skipped over long-standing Asian allies like Japan, South Korea and Australia to give singular mention of India as “a strategic partner.”  At the same time in New Delhi, however, prominent members of the Indian foreign policy establishment were issuing their own report, titled “Nonalignment 2.0.” Seeking to chart out a set of basic principles to guide national security policy over the next decade, the report emphasized that strategic independence remains “the core of India’s global engagements even today.”

The policy lines drawn in Nonalignment 2.0 are a matter of vigorous debate in New Delhi, and it’s gotten pushback from Indian government officials.  It’s also striking that the document had much more to say about China than about the United States, including warning that India cannot “entirely dismiss the possibility of a major military offensive” along its contested Himalayan border with the People’s Republic.  Yet there was no mistaking the official ambivalence that greeted the proposal for a closer military relationship U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta tendered during his trip to New Delhi last summer.  Indeed, some observers called the Indian reaction a “snub.”

One year on, will Mr. Biden find an audience in New Delhi any more receptive? Continue reading

U.S. and India: The So-So Strategic Dialogue

This year’s session of the annual U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue, which brought Secretary of State John Kerry to New Delhi two weeks ago, produced few headlines.  The gathering was preceded by low expectations as well as talk (here and here) about how bilateral affairs have plateaued in the years since the nuclear cooperation agreement between President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.  Nonetheless, there are some things going in the relationship that are worthy of note.  Here is a rundown. Continue reading