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

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