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January 31, 2015

A complex relationship

Opinion

January 31, 2015

Anyone wont to drawing analogies will relish comparing the United States and India. They are two of the world’s largest democracies, multiethnic societies, stable polities, nuclear powers and mega market economies. Both are key players on the multilateral trade scene having the power to break, if not make, a deal. One is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), while the other aspires to be in the coveted club. One has been a world power for decades, while the other has the ambition to have that status.
When two nations have so much in common, they are either arch rivals – China and the former USSR, or 19th century France and Germany for instance – or strategic partners. In the case of India and the US, the relationship is one of strategic partnership. Whereas the US has been uneasy, if not apprehensive, over the rise of China, that of India is being supported by it. The recent visit of the US president to India is another confirmation of this proposition.
The visit made Barack Obama the first American president to visit India twice. On his part, Prime Minister Modi went out of the way to receive the American president in person as he disembarked from the aircraft. Not only that, Obama was given the honour, first for an American president, to attend the Republic Day parade in New Delhi.
When he visited India some five years ago, Obama had described the Indo-US relationship as one of the 21st century’s ‘defining partnerships’. In an interview with an Indian paper before leaving for New Delhi, Obama reiterated that compliment. The thaw in the bilateral relations is one of the most significant developments of the post-cold war era during which India was clearly on the side of America’s erstwhile rival – the USSR. Not surprisingly, out of the six presidential visits from the US to India since 1947, when the latter got independence, four have been made during the last two decades.
Two factors have contributed to

strengthening of India-US ties over the years: one, the rise of China to a world power status rivalling that of the US; two the enormous size and potential of the Indian market together with a shift from a command to a liberal economy.
The rise of China, arguably the most significant development on the world stage since the fall of the USSR, has been a mixed bag for the US. On one hand, Beijing poses a most potent challenge to the Washington-dominated global order in terms both political and economic. On the other, China, as the world’s largest market and the fastest growing economy, creates enormous opportunities for US-based multinational enterprises. China is also the single largest financer of America’s huge trade deficit.
The result is a complex relationship that includes on the one hand enormous growth of commercial relations and on the other attempts to check the expansion of each other’s sphere of influence – or encircle the other. The latter has forced Washington to look for regional strategic partners who on their part are wary of Beijing’s growing might. In East Asia, one such partner is Tokyo; in South Asia New Delhi, given its aforementioned characteristics, is best suited to play this role.
Hence, propping up India’s stature is an important component of America’s strategy for the Asia-Pacific region. Washington has fully backed New Delhi’s attempts to get a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. By striking a civilian nuclear cooperation deal with India in 2008, the US accepted that country as a legitimate nuclear power, making it the only such nuclear power that has not signed the non-proliferation treaty (NPT).
During the current Obama visit, the two countries agreed to scrap obstacles to the implementation of the nuclear cooperation deal thus enabling American firms to do business with India. Washington also put its weight behind New Delhi’s attempts to enter the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) that controls civilian nuclear trade prompting Beijing to question the aspirant’s eligibility to be in the club. Again, if admitted, India would be the first non-NPT member of the NSG.
Both Modi and Obama also called for freedom of navigation and overflight in the disputed South China Sea (SCS). Part of the Pacific Ocean, the SCS is an important maritime route on which several countries including China stake claim. Beijing, in particular, doesn’t approve of the outsiders’ call to have the dispute thrashed out.
India-US economic and commercial relations are growing. Merchandise trade between the two countries has gone up from $35 billion in 2009 to $63 billion in 2013 including $22 billion exports from the US and $41 billion exports from India. This gives India a trade surplus of $19 billion – the country’s largest trade surplus with any country. For India, the US is the single largest export market and the 5th largest source of imports. The US would like to push up its exports and investment in India and take a larger pie of the enormous Indian market. With a business-friendly Modi at the helm in New Delhi, the two-way trade and investment inflows are likely to get a big boost.
India of course has substantial economic relations with China as well. China is India’s largest trading partner, though the trade balance remains heavily in favour of the former. India is part of China’s two major initiatives: one, to set up an alternative system of global economic governance; two, to put in place the maritime silk road providing a conduit for China’s access to the Indian Ocean, which links China to the energy rich Middle East and West Asia and beyond that to Europe.
New Delhi therefore is walking on a tight rope as it attempts to even out its ties with Beijing and Washington. But the crucial difference is that, whereas China is at once a partner and a rival of India, the US is only a partner. That is why the US’ attempts to bolster India’s stature don’t go down well with China. Beijing is arguably the only major power that does not back New Delhi’s UNSC campaign.
Obama’s visit to India coincided with that of Pakistan’s army chief, the man who has the last word on the nation’s security and foreign affairs, to China. The visit provided an opportunity to Beijing to reiterate that Islamabad was its ‘irreplaceable, all-weather friend’. The message was meant as much for Pakistan as for India – two estranged neighbours each of which perceives the other’s gain as its loss.
Despite all their differences, Pakistan, China, the US and India have a common enemy in militancy. Since the country has been an epicentre of global terrorism, an unstable Pakistan will put regional security and economic initiatives at risk. Therefore, while it may be important to keep reminding Pakistan to do more in the war against terror, at the same time it is vital to help build its capability to defeat terrorism.
The writer is a freelance contributor. Email: [email protected]

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