And now, India’s turn

Obama visit recognised long term convergence of interests. India will need to reciprocate.

Written by Ashutosh Varshney | Published:January 28, 2015 12:38 am
Barack Obama, Narendra Modi, Barack Obama india visit, Barack Obama Modi meeting, India US ties Obama’s visit had many transactions as well, ranging from profitable investments in India’s renewable energy mission to co-production of weaponry to the general pull of India’s markets. (AP Photo)

Over the last several years, a conceptual distinction has acquired the status of an analytic trope in policy circles, especially among the analysts of US-India relations. It is the distinction between the strategic and the transactional.   The strategic dimension of a relationship focuses on the long run, weaving into its fold consequences for the international system as well. The transactional part covers the here and now — what India will do tomorrow in return for US concessions today. Implicit in the distinction is also the claim that India might be strategically useful, even salient, to the US in the coming years, even if the Indians are unable to provide reciprocal benefits in the short run.   The distinction has been the intellectual centrepiece of many analytic tracts, especially by Ashley Tellis, though several others have also made the point in different ways.

The distinction, in some ways, resembles the difference between the tactical and the strategic, a staple of Marxist thought. But Marxists could never quite come to terms with the value of the symbolic and focused far too much on the materialistic dimension of politics. The truth is that if you take away the symbolism of the Narendra Modi-Barack Obama interaction, which my colleagues at Brown University and in Cambridge, Massachusetts, are calling a veritable diplomatic romance, or political bonding, much of the meaning of what happened in the last few days would be tragically lost. Bill Clinton habitually hugged and embraced; that was his style. Obama is known for oratorical brilliance and for moving people, sometimes to tears, with his rhetorical flourishes and powerfully evocative prose, but expressions of physical ease or closeness are notably missing in his public conduct. If anything, a professorial and cerebral distance, even while feeling political affection, marks his style.

Why did Obama change his style so dramatically in India? A deeper reflection on India’s place in his global vision can be the only hypothesis. He intensely desires India, and not because India’s politics and diplomacy generate unmixed admiration. He does so because India and the US are heading towards a long-term convergence of interests, and the sooner this is understood and made operationally relevant, the better it is for the US. Symbols are an inescapable part of a transformative visit, as this one appears to have been. Imagine hanging on for two hours or more to watch the Republic Day parade, when every minute of a US President’s time counts. It is a parade which, despite its brilliant colours, taxes the patience of a lot of Indians. But its iconic significance is undeniable.  Fundamentally, it celebrates India’s Constitution-bound democracy and pluralism. It is a celebration Jawaharlal Nehru inaugurated and Modi is now continuing. The display of military prowess is a side show.

If my argument is right, I should identify what long-term and systemic interest India serves for the US today, for which the US might be willing to make short-term sacrifices. Over the last 10 years, the rise of China has been the single most important change in the international political system. More of America’s resources today might be directed towards handling the Islamist threat, but the Islamic world is too politically fragmented to challenge American supremacy centrally, a point Samuel Huntington made many years back. China’s rise is not simply military but also economic. That is precisely the combination which potentially gives China the wherewithal to alter the international system. The Islamist threat, serious though it is, lacks economic muscle.

That is why a key strategic part of the joint India-US statement is the geographic enlargement of the defence and economic partnership between the two countries to include the “Asia Pacific”. Cooperation on maritime security and rule-based conduct in Southeast Asia and the South China Sea is one part of this vision, and including India in the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum is another. Even the civil nuclear deal, very substantially, is aimed at integrating India into the nuclear mainstream of the international system.

In some circles, this is being viewed as containment of China — to be equated with the way the US used to contain the Soviet Union in an earlier period — a project India was not, and cannot be, part of. This mode of analysis is terribly imprecise. The Soviet Union had virtually no economic relationship with the US after World War II. In contrast, China and the US are deeply enmeshed economically. Among other things, China’s trade with the US constitutes as much as 12-13 per cent of overall US trade, and vice versa. These are very large single-country magnitudes. (Trade with India, incidentally, forms a mere 2 per cent of overall US trade with the world and 1.5 per cent of China’s). Soviet-style containment, if practised, would economically hurt the US. A divergence has emerged between the security and economic dimensions of US interests. No such clash marked America’s relationship with the former USSR.

It is only a rebalancing of power equations that the US can practically seek, not old-style containment. Indeed, an underlying China anxiety marks both Indian and American intellectual and policy circles today, and that is inescapable. When deep-rooted power balances change in the international system, nations seek insurance against radical and unwelcome disruptions. They may not succeed but they try. The fact that the People’s Liberation Army crossed the border in Ladakh while President Xi Jinping was on a state visit to India can only suggest that, even as India seeks greater Chinese economic involvement, it will have to buy insurance against the greater might of China. That is realism, not an invitation to conflict.

To be sure, Obama’s visit had many transactions as well, ranging from profitable investments in India’s renewable energy mission to coproduction of weaponry to the general pull of India’s markets, to be freed further by a predictable regulatory and tax regime making it easier to do business. The road to unshackling the civil nuclear deal can also be read in a transactional way. But the civil nuclear deal is, first and foremost, strategic. We don’t know for sure whether US companies will find it commercially worthwhile to invest, though that may well happen. But mainstreaming India’s nuclear commerce will continue to allow it many significant gains, regardless of whether US companies derive benefits.

The key question now is, what will India do in return? Transactions have an overt give-and-take in them. But even strategic interactions require some form of reciprocity. What can India offer that is systemic in nature, which will benefit India as well as the US, and privileges the long run over the short run?

It is hard to believe that Modi can now avoid providing something concrete on the climate negotiations. Given India’s high dependence on coal for electricity and its enormous power requirements, what form this reciprocity will take has to be among the most intellectually intriguing aspects of the evolution of the India-US relationship in the coming months.

The writer is Sol Goldman Professor of International Studies and the Social Sciences at Brown University, where he also directs the India Initiative at the Watson Institute. He is a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’

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  1. A
    Ashok .
    Jan 28, 2015 at 7:44 am
    Since long most Indians want to work closely with Americans as natural allies. Modi has recognised this and so is his counterpart in USA. Now its the dream of the two leaders to bring the two countries closer where ever it can be made possible. Modi is more open on give and take as compared to Congress's leadership. Modi also doesn't have the domestic compulsions to please Muslim vote bank which is traditionally considered anti-american. India should be thankful to China for brining India and USA together on equal footing.
    1. A
      Jan 28, 2015 at 1:50 pm
      I think what the US is seeking in terms of climate change is easy to do. India's coal dependence and resulting pollution can be offset by introduction of nuclear power. As nuclear power takes over the dependence on coal power will decline with its resultant pollution
      1. G
        Jan 28, 2015 at 11:41 am
        I am not sure what the author is saying. Is he saying that India must provide some climate change actions in return for what USA is doing for India. A rather strange argument.
        1. H
          Harihar Mani
          Jan 28, 2015 at 3:45 pm
          The fear in an ,Australia and USA about China are legitimate.Only time will tell,how China reacts to Indo/US colabaration.As far as I'm concerned,if Modi will be able to change deep mistrust of India has of USA.There is saying in USA,no free lunch,nothing is free,Indians by nature at best fence sitters if not out right moochers always looking for free lunch,that is main reason China is major economic power house,and India perinial under achiever.What was India doing when Dang changed China in 1979?Did it join USA?No.It was hoping against hope USSR collepse is all hype of USA.We always took the wrong fork on the road.Tell me if I'm wrong,we still cling to Socialism which even Cuba dumped.We are beyond help,a pathetic nation who can not get our act right.What are we doing after such a uplifting trip by Obama,taking one minor uttering of the President(need harmony to progress) to beat BJP and Modi with.I give up.No use.We will never do what Chinese did.They walked out of USSR camp joined capitalist Nixon,can Indians change course,do not bet on it.Brooklyn Bridge is for .H.Mani,USA
          1. H
            Harish Kumar
            Jan 28, 2015 at 8:56 am
            Therein lies the rub, Ashok. While the Americans are seen, for obvious reasons, as our natural friend and fellow-traveller (and that is because the average Joe in India is more ‘aware’ than his American couterpart) we do not want to antagonise the Chinese. But the Chinese behaviour is seen as puzzling, to say the least. For several decadesnow, it is the Sunzi Perspective that is the dominant discourse (with valid examples) than the Confucian-Mencian paradigm resulting in a sort of uneasy networking and co-ordination amongst its contiguous as well as littoral neighbours. This again reinforces the negative and offencive atude of the opinion makers in China. The cycle thus continues… As far as India is concerned, now is the time for China to make peace with 'Mercantile' Modi's India than ever.
            1. A
              Aditya Ayachit
              Jan 30, 2015 at 7:25 am
              Absolutely agree with you. Unnecessary use of convoluted language makes it difficult to understand the real point this Gentleman is making!
              1. K
                Kuldeep Saxena
                Jan 28, 2015 at 10:36 am
                Excellent write up on the subject exploring the study on the recent visit of President Obama, for over the years there has been silence on the economic growth as well exchange with various nations round the Globe. For some moment India lost its image globally and the financial ratings were constantly down. Under the leadership of Mr. Modi various countries of the globe has reposed their confidence in us.Under the leadership of Mr. Modi , Mr. Obama visited India a the Guest of honor on our Republic Day. It is clear that there is some understanding reasched on Nuclear deal issue as well the President Obama extended the US hand for mutual co-operation in various fields and the conditions of bilateral agreements the things work out for the times to come. US ready to ist India in various field like Power generation , environment, sharing of technologies in the defense segment both in development as well manufacturing, environment as well istance on river along with extending support to Indian services sectors as well opportunities for Indian business community to grow in US market as well the Indian manufacturers look forward for better times ahead. No doubt that Mr. Modi has emerged as a global leader and the Global powers recognize this. India would definitely emerge as a global power in near future if the millions of Indians join hands with Mr. Modi on his way to 'Make in India'
                1. A
                  Jan 28, 2015 at 6:41 am
                  A shared concern / wariness, hopefully not hostility, in relation to China could be regarded as the strategic component of the relationship. The scope for increasing trade, services and investment flows is the not insubstantial transactional aspect, and that could grow enormously if India attains its true potential, which we often feel is preordained. Difficult to see India doing something as substantial as changing its approach to its responsibilities re climate change simply to show its graude. 2. Hopefully, the India - US entente will induce some introspection amongst the Chinese as well. Why do nations - an, Australia - that have enormous economic relationships with it now feel deeply disturbed and threatened by its rise ? Are the Chinese negating with their aggression the gains that their economic attainments are placing in their lap ? Some would argue that this aspect of their foreign policy is actually harming, not furthering, their national interest.
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