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The just-released Republican and Democratic party platforms affirm there is broad agreement on the importance of India-US ties

Published: September 11, 2012 3:49:06 am

The just-released Republican and Democratic party platforms affirm there is broad agreement on the importance of India-US ties
Frank Wisner

The party platforms released by both the Republican and Democratic parties at their respective national conventions over the past two weeks indicate that there is little debate over India’s significance in American foreign policy,agreement on which seems to cut across party lines. The Republican Party Platform,released in Tampa,Florida,called India a “geopolitical ally and a strategic trading partner”. The Democratic Party Platform stated that the United States would “continue to invest in a long-term strategic partnership with India”.

This dovetails with President Obama’s interview to the Press Trust of India earlier this year on July 15,when he summarised succinctly his administration’s view of our policy towards India. The president asserted that he and the US remain committed to the strongest possible relationship between our two countries. He expressed hope for a resumption of rapid economic growth in India and stated that,in his view,another round of reforms will be needed. Making it clear that the US remains committed to working with India to achieve peace in the region,he voiced strong support for efforts underway to improve ties between India and Pakistan. He also stressed that “it is not the place of any nation,including the US to try to impose solutions in south Asia,including in Kashmir.”

Americans (and both presidential candidates) know India faces and will continue to be buffeted by strong head winds at home,in the region and internationally. The news of north India’s massive power blackout brought home the immediacy of India’s problems. This came on the heels of reports of bad weather,a slowing rate of GDP growth,declining business confidence and a political stalemate in New Delhi. Many questions on the Indian-American agenda — nuclear power,retail marketing,insurance reform and defense sales — continue to languish.

Bad news at home does not tell the whole story. Across the border,Pakistan is foundering in a debilitating rivalry among its leaders,violence,terror and a deeply troubled economy. The war in Afghanistan grinds on with no end in sight; the American combat role will end in 2014 with consequences for all of South Asia. Further afield,tensions between China and its neighbours are on the rise,especially in the South China Sea. China is undergoing a change in leadership,the effects of which cannot be forecast. To India’s west,the revolutionary surge in the Arab world has not abated,but it is now clear a return to stability there will take years. Tensions over Iran’s nuclear holdings continue and with them risks of war.

There are no easy answers to any of these questions. Only India can decide what is good for it. But the US has a stake in the choices India will make; they will affect our vital interests.

India must wrestle first and foremost with its economy. Leadership from the Centre is a sine qua non for a strategy that manages India’s ballooning deficits and at the same time reignites domestic economic growth. India’s needs in infrastructure,education and health must be addressed as matters of priority and forceful fiscal and monetary policy decisions are required to revive business confidence,including international interest in India’s economy. With state and national elections on the horizon and a period of great uncertainty thereafter,no one assumes the task of economic policymaking will be an easy one.

As India looks for strategies,the time is right to put the Indian-American relationship to work to deal with our current economic and security needs,no matter which party occupies the White House. The relationship addresses key Indian requirements.

First,the economic relationship. Close trade and investment relations between India and the US affect demand for India’s goods and services. America is a huge market,despite our current recession. The US is also an important source of capital,technology and expertise. This said,economic cooperation is a two-way street. Both sides must play and make comparable sacrifices. American business has deep interests in the opening of India’s markets,in the relaxation of foreign investment rules,in a stable and predictable Indian regulatory environment. The government,in its search for foreign investment,must resolve current ambiguities surrounding retroactive taxation. India’s legislature should tackle the much-debated insurance and nuclear liability laws and the government ought to address multi-brand retailing.

In return,India should expect the US to keep markets open and do nothing to impede American access to India’s sophisticated,cost-effective service industries. Freer movement of persons should be high on India’s list of American “must dos”. Each of these steps will benefit both countries and our laggard economies. They will result in new jobs and wealth; they can mitigate the effects of the worst global economic downturn in decades.

Second,the security relationship. Security,the US deputy secretary of defence remarked on his return from India,is like oxygen. When you have enough,you pay no heed. When your oxygen supply is insufficient,you react immediately. India’s national security is best preserved when there is a balance of power in Asia. Respect for sovereignty and the peaceful resolution of disputes are key. India requires assured access to Asia’s markets. Freedom of navigation in the Indian Ocean and along the Pacific littoral is vital. Each of these objectives requires a balanced policy of deterrence and cooperation with China. Keeping terrorists at bay and making sure Afghanistan’s chaos does not threaten India are among India’s highest security priorities. Forging a framework of peace,stability and cooperation with Pakistan is another concern. Similarly important is stability in the Middle East.

India can pursue these objectives successfully if it has a strong political and security relationship with the US. The US has equities in each area of interest to India,is willing to share them and needs Indian support. The building blocks of close ties are regular political and defence consultations,frequent intelligence exchanges,military exercises,and cooperation flowing from the equipment purchases India makes in the course of its defence modernisation. A strong India is good for the US,just as a strong America plays to India’s advantage. India and the US are weaker if we fail to give our political and security cooperation a high priority and take the steps required to enhance it.

When looking at today’s challenges,some in this country and in India may argue that our hands are too full to deal with international priorities. Such a conclusion is wrong. Obviously,we are preoccupied with immediate problems. But,to achieve prosperity for our citizens and peace and security for our nations,we will do well to work together. American and Indian interests are similar and we seek common objectives. No nation offers India benefits the US does,and India’s importance to the US grows daily,as the party platforms of both the Democratic and Republican parties acknowledge. We can improve the odds of success if we plan our relationship carefully and act on its imperatives together.

The writer was US ambassador to India from 1994-97

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