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U.S.-India Relations – Three Questions for Stephen Tankel

Stephen Tankel

President Barack Obama’s recent trip to India was an unprecedented second visit by a serving U.S. president and an opportunity to further revive relations between the world's two largest democracies. We asked Assistant Professor Stephen Tankel, an expert on political and military affairs in South Asia, for some insights into the U.S.-India relationship:

Q: Why did President Obama visit India, and what was the significance of the visit? 

A: President Obama attended India’s Republic Day celebrations as the chief guest of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This is the first time India has invited an American president to be chief guest at its Republic Day. It is also the first time that an American president visited India twice while in office. Those facts alone speak to the importance both governments place on building the bilateral relationship. In the United States, there is bipartisan support for building the relationship with India, which is viewed as a possible net security provider in South Asia and the wider Indian Ocean Region, a potential balance against China, an attractive economic market, and a natural partner given that it is the world’s largest democracy. 

Q: Why has Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made improved U.S.-Indian relations a priority since his landslide election victory last May? 

A: Prime Minister Modi has stressed, since before he was elected, that he believes India and the United States have a fundamental stake in one another’s success. Strong bilateral relations are beneficial to India in various ways, and I’d note several of them here.  

First, Modi has made revitalizing the Indian economy the centerpiece of his administration, and that requires boosting investment and manufacturing in India. The United States is an important partner in this regard.  

Second, the conventional wisdom is that India does not view security through a realist lens, but that may be changing under Modi, who is more hawkish on China than his predecessor and appears to view strengthening U.S. relations as a critical component of his foreign policy.  

Third, and related to the first observations, India views the defense relationship with the United States as a way to procure technology that India lacks. That’s necessary both from a defense perspective, and as a way to build the Indian economy, which helps explain why New Delhi is so insistent that the United States agrees to technology transfers as part of defense trade agreements. 

Q: What did the United States accomplish with this trip, and what are some of the constraints on greater cooperation?  

A: It is impossible to separate entirely the symbolism from the substance. In some respects, the visit itself was the biggest deliverable for both sides, as it helped Washington and New Delhi reinforce their shared commitment to the relationship. The two countries issued a joint statement, which contained a laundry list of past and promised future accomplishments. The devil will be in the details, however, and there’s been a history on both sides of raising expectations, only to examine the details of agreements and find them wanting.  

That speaks to some of the constraints on cooperation, and I’d highlight a few here. To begin with, both countries want a strong relationship and want to show progress in building it, but neither side has been able to define precisely what it is seeking from the relationship. There is a fundamental disconnect in that, whereas the United States pursues alliances, India eschews them, since an alliance implies dependence. Instead, India seeks strategic partnerships. Especially frustrating for U.S. policymakers is that India has not articulated how its “strategic partnership” with the United States differs from its myriad other strategic partnerships. 

There are organizational constraints as well. Indian ministries and U.S. cabinet agencies do not always align smoothly. Moreover, the Indian bureaucracy is slower moving and even more risk averse than the U.S. bureaucracy, which can make formulating substantive agreements difficult, especially on tight timelines (such as in advance of a POTUS-level visit for example). There are other constraints on cooperation as well, but all these need to be kept in context. Both sides are playing the long game. Obama’s attendance at Republic Day suggests that, for all the constraints that exist, the relationship is on the right track and growing stronger. 

Follow Dr. Tankel on Twitter at @StephenTankel. For media requests, please call Paul Johnson at 202-885-5943.