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’