Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Stronger Indo-U.S. ties: The need of the hour

Devendra Kothari PhD
Population and Development Analyst
Forum for Population Action

“The United States is our natural global partner.”
Prime Minister Narendra Modi

“India’s rise as a global actor can benefit the U.S.”
Senator John McCain

While India is the most populous democracy, the United States of America is the mightiest democracy in the world. It is in the interest of both to have strong ties where ever feasible. In fact, both need each other’s strategic partnership for the benefit of both their citizens and the world.    For this both countries have to think afresh keeping history behind.  And this post aims in this direction.

In last couple of months, America's Interim Ambassador Kathleen Stephens’s life in New Delhi was dominated by high profile visits from U.S. First one was of Senator John McCain, then John Kerry (Secretary of State), Penny Pritzker (Secretary of Commerce) and Chuck Hagel (Secretary of Defense). One  may say that U.S. wants to do some business deal with the new government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and that is why it has been  showing so much interest in India and not out of any change of heart but out of necessity of US interests, especially helping American businesses.

But I think differently.  Some real changes are taking place in the American foreign policy. About two years ago, the then Secretary of State and potential presidential contenderHillary Clinton said emphatically:  “21st century belongs to Asia”. (Refer: ANI – Sat 12 Nov, 2011). “It is becoming increasingly clear that the world's strategic and economic centre of gravity will be the Asia-Pacific, from the Indian subcontinent to western shores of the Americas", noted Clinton.   Recently, Secretary of State  John Kerry reiterated the same in a policy speech delivered at the East-West Center, Honolulu on August 6, 2014. His speech focused on the next steps in the United States’ Asia-Pacific strategy.  

It appears U.S. is ready or prepared to concentrate on Asia.  In a policy statement on September 3, 2014, President Barak Obama said a major projection of US power is: “a ‘pivot’ to Asia”. According to him, close ties between the U.S. and Asia-Pacific countries are crucial for global security and economic growth. Obama's statement indicates that the western hemisphere's influence in the world is rapidly waning, and the U.S. must shift its focus from Europe to Asia to insure the “American Dream”, not “Unmaking the American Dream”, as argued by Dinesh D’Souza.[1] 

Let’s talk about the “Asia pivot”. I think Obama has learnt a lot about the changing geo-political situation in the World during his stay in the White House. The most important change in the world over the last 30 years has been rise of China. Within a few years, China’s economy will overtake America’s in size. Its armed forces, though still dwarfed by those of the United States, are growing fast in strength; in any war in East Asia, they would have home advantage. As such, an increased U.S. military presence in this part of the world will not ease or exacerbate tensions with China. As such, it is really not going to be a formidable move or option to safe guard the interest of U.S. Some experts have concluded, as noted by The Economist (August 23, 2014) that: the American “diplomacy’s task in the coming years will to find reliable partners” (p9).   I think the more formidable move could be an alliance with India.

PM Narendra Modi, in a piece for the Wall Street Journal, has laid out his agenda for the landmark five-day trip to the United States moments before he landed in New York on Friday- the September 26, 2014. He writes: “India and the U.S. have a fundamental stake in each other's success—for the sake of our values and our many shared interests. That is also the imperative of our partnership. And it will be of great value in advancing peace, security and stability in the Asia and Pacific regions; in the unfinished and urgent task of combating terrorism and extremism; and in securing our seas, cyber space and outer space, all of which now have a profound influence on our daily lives”.

India is embroiled in territorial disputes with China. The country views the growing economic and military heft of its neighbor with apprehension. And it is looking for ways to enhance its security. So when India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi and U.S. President Barak Obama gave each other a bear hug in the White House, it was tempting to read into the gesture something more than just a warm personal chemistry. Many saw it also as a strategic embrace, one aimed at promoting partnership for the benefit of both countries and the world.

Washington sees rising India as a democratic counterweight to the region’s other emerging power - china. However, only an economically strong and stable India could help America in its long-term plan. No doubt, India has the potential to become the best, even many times more than emerging economies. In a richly symbolic event, India put a spacecraft into orbit around Marrs before Modi landed in U.S., beating Japan and China in the race and doing it at a fraction of what it cost NASA. 

Still, solving the economic and social problems of a country as populous and complex as India is not easy, and what is important is that the nation finally has a leader who is willing to take on the challenge. Modi may have a tough road ahead but his disciplined style of governing and clarity of purpose could enable him to succeed. He recognizes importance of U.S. in revising the Indian economy. Since the end of the Second World War, American support/assistance has been the basis of Asian prosperity. It enabled Japan to rise from the ashes. Indeed, China’s race to prosperity could not have happened without it. Even Vietnam, America’s old foe, is clearer than ever that it wants America’s support as a resource.

During U.S. trip, PM Modi’s most important outreach was to American business. This is easy to understand given Modi's emphasis on reviving the economy. It was a message occupying front and centre when he met both Japan's Shinzo Abe and China's Xi Jinping just before the U.S. trip. This is part of his "Make in India" drive, which he lunched in a high-profile event a day before he embarked on his U.S. trip. He wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “Make in India is our commitment—and an invitation to all—to turn India into a new global manufacturing hub. We will do what it takes to make it a reality.” Here, India can certainly benefit from America’s financial resources and state of the art industrial/technological expertise to modernize its business landscape and national infrastructure; and at the same time U.S. investors can profit handsomely in the world’s most vibrant emerging market with the right foundation in place.

However, there is lot of issues to be sorted out on the ground to attract the investment. And these will be discussed in the next post to be titled:  Making “Make in India” a reality! At the same time, America has to help India to give technical support to sort out the pressing issues including developing human resources. So far the United States exercises its foreign policy through economic aid. Now time has come to follow proverb in its true sense: “Give a man a fish; you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish; and you have fed him for a lifetime". 

I vividly remember the observation made by Myron Weiner, an American political scientist and renowned scholar on India at MIT, during one of the seminars at  the Harvard-MIT Joint Seminar on Political Development  (JOSPOD) in the early seventies; he said that  the America missed the bus  in developing close ties with India after independence   when it   was interested in the American  technical  knowledge and skill required to develop its economy especially agriculture and industries; but U.S. was keen to  export its goods. And that forced the then Prime Minister Nehru   towards USSR. Everyone including me was impressed from his frank and realistic assessment (I was one of his students). I am sure America will learn from the history.

PM Modi’s U.S. visit is successful & very enchanting. But he should not forget that Russia is our close ally. Hopefully India and USA, in becoming closer, will provide a balance in Asia, but without the adversarial approach that often accompanies such arrangements. What is not needed is an Asian arms race.

[1]For details, see:  Dinesh D’Souza’s book Obama’s America: Unmaking the American Dream, Regnery Publishing Inc., 2012.