In so many ways, India has burst the boundaries of South Asia. It is an Asian power and a global player. Its footprint extends west to the Persian Gulf, south to Africa, and especially east to Pacific Asia. India has enlarged its seat at the top tables of international relations, including the G20 and the Financial Stability Board. And with its new voting power in the World Bank, India’s share now exceeds that of Russia, Canada, Australia, Italy, and Saudi Arabia.
So, why is America’s dialogue with India less global in scope than with any major power, even China? As US President Barack Obama prepares to visit India next month, the two sides would do well to define the parameters of a more global, and thus more strategic, US-India partnership.
Doing so would nicely complement an important trend in India’s foreign policy — New Delhi’s expanded focus beyond India’s own neighbourhood, especially in East Asia.
The two sides have established some new dialogues in recent months, including a timely and important exchange on East Asia and China. But the ultimate test won’t be how many meetings the two governments hold but whether they turn common interests into complementary policies around the world.
And the record, unfortunately, is mixed.
The good news is that the principal obstacles that long precluded closer relations have already been cleared away: the Cold War; a long stagnant trade and investment relationship and disagreement over India’s nuclear programme which was largely removed by the civil nuclear deal. The US and India have had some good years together. And the Obama administration appears to have recovered from some of its early missteps.
For its part, the US has developed a growing stake in a confident and reforming India — one that contributes to global growth, promotes market-based economic policies, helps maintain the global commons, and assures a mutually favourable balance of power in Asia.
Rapid economic expansion has given India the capacity to act on issues of primary strategic and economic concern to the US. This also includes issues of global scope, not least restoring the international economy to a path of sustained and balanced growth.
The US has begun to recognise this. Take a speech in June by Under Secretary of State William Burns: He offered a ringing endorsement of India’s emergence on the international canvas. The US, he said, has an “enormous stake” in “India’s rise as a global power”.
And Indian choices will matter equally.
Domestically, will India’s choices facilitate an economically open, globally integrated India shrink its wealth divide, expand its middle class, and strengthen its physical infrastructure? And can India’s economy provide a foundation for strategic clout?
Externally, what will replace nonalignment as the basis of Indian foreign policy? Will India leverage its growth, not to mention its seat at the new top table of international relations — the G20 — into political influence and leverage?
Bilaterally, can the US and India sustain past momentum? And can they manage differences on crucial regional and global issues?
A more powerful India, economically integrated with other major economies, is an India whose self-interest will, most likely, overlap with the self-interest of the US and other G20 countries. But leveraging its seat at some of the world’s top tables challenges at least some long-standing Indian approaches. And India has often ducked America’s company, especially in multilateral settings.
For its part, the US will need to seek, but also be prepared to, compromise on global issues on which it has disagreed with India in the past. These include climate change, non-proliferation, the international trade regime, and possibly some arms control treaties.
One way forward would be to agree on innovative bilateral initiatives — an expanded US-India renewable energy partnership, for instance — to provide ballast if the US and India continue to disagree on multilateral climate arrangements. Similarly with trade: US-India disagreements about the Doha Round receive endless media ink; but if Washington and New Delhi find multilateral negotiations a hard slog, a bilateral treaty with new investor protections would at least help enhance trade. Also, with issues of the commons: cooperation on maritime security and cyber-security, for example, would give the US-India partnership a more tangible role in assuring and sustaining public goods.
In these ways, the two countries would work jointly, but on issues, and in support of agendas, with greater global impact.
And that is their central challenge: The US and India share important interests, from restoring global growth to ensuring a balance of power in Asia. But increasingly, those shared interests burst beyond the confining strategic geography of South Asia.
For Obama and his Indian hosts, the test in November won’t be how many protocols they sign or dialogues they initiate. The real test will be whether the US and India turn common interests into complementary policies around the world.
The author is head, Asia practice group, at Eurasia Group, and is also adjunct senior fellow for Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, Washington, DC