Shashank Joshi is a doctoral student at Harvard University's Department of Government and a Research Fellow of the Royal United Services Institute, London.
When Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Washington last week for the first time in four years, the mood was distinctly subdued. India's once-stratospheric growth rate is stubbornly depressed. The Indian government is low on political capital and stuck in risk-averse mode until next year's general elections, with a huge question mark over Singh's personal future.
Most Indians anyway focussed on Singh's New York meeting with his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif — underwhelming, as it turned out, and marred by a perceived slur — rather than his meetings with President Obama. More generally, the promise of US-India relations remains far below the levels anticipated only a few years ago.
Why the stasis?
There are any number of reasons. Indian journalist Indrani Bagchi suggests that 'there remains a strong lobby within this government starting with [ruling Congress Party chairwoman] Sonia Gandhi and [Defence Minister] AK Antony downwards, which retains an instinctive aversion to America'.
That same government's slow rate of economic reform irks American companies who want to invest in India. In particular, a strict nuclear liability law limits those companies' ability to exploit a landmark civil nuclear cooperation agreement initiated by the Bush administration in 2005.
Also, India's byzantine procurement rules madden the American defence companies eager to sell into what is one of the few growing arms markets in the world.
A sense prevails that the low-hanging fruit in the bilateral relationship was picked some years ago. But one less-noticed problem is that the limited bandwidth of US foreign policy is presently occupied by issues in which India is either wary of US policy or simply apathetic.
The Middle East
In his speech to the United Nations General Assembly on 24 September, President Obama noted that 'in the near term, America's diplomatic efforts will focus on two particular issues: Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons and the Arab-Israeli conflict'. India has much to gain from a rapprochement between Iran and the United States, not least the ability to once again freely import Iranian oil. India was circumventing international sanctions by paying for a diminished flow of Iranian oil in rupees, but the new Iranian government is insisting that India can only pay for half this way. India is a bystander rather than active participant in the broader dispute, watching from the sidelines as the P5-1 bloc, which includes Russia and China, participates in negotiations.
On Syria, India is sympathetic to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. It views the issue through the lens of the Afghan jihad in the 1980s, which Indians see as indelibly associated with the subsequent uprising in Kashmir and the growth of anti-Indian militancy. When the Indian Government summoned the Syrian Ambassador in Delhi last month, it was not because of Syrian policies but because the ambassador had alleged that Indian jihadists were fighting with the rebels. The ambassador stated, tellingly, that 'he was always deeply appreciative of India's position on Syria'.
India unsurprisingly opposes efforts to arm the Syrian rebels, tends to see the armed opposition as irredeemably compromised by jihadists and reflexively opposes US proposals for military action, particularly outside the ambit of the UN Security Council. India has already had to abandon several oil fields in Syria and, in September 2013, India's foreign secretary even referred to an existing Indian line of credit to the Syrian government. Yet, despite these equities, India has no leverage over the parties to the conflict. In May, an Iranian suggestion of greater Indian involvement went nowhere. There is little that Singh would usefully have been able to say to Obama on the subject.
At a broader level, the more the Middle East distracts from US attention to Asia-Pacific — including the so-called 'pivot' of American military forces eastwards — the less high-level attention India receives in Washington. India was not mentioned once in Obama's UN address (to compare: China was mentioned once, Iran 26 times, and Syria 20).
India's attitude to US policy in Afghanistan is even more conflicted.
India is ostensibly supportive of US policy, and has formally signed on to an Afghan-led peace process. But Indian officials and strategists scarcely disguise their discomfort towards what they see as undue American haste in withdrawing troops, an over-eagerness to accommodate the Taliban as part of political reconciliation, and a continued indulgence of Pakistan despite its support for Afghan insurgents.
India felt that its views were vindicated by the June debacle over the opening of a Taliban office in Doha, which deviated from the agreed protocol, handed a propaganda victory to the Taliban, and angered the Afghan government. Indian national security reporter Praveen Swami summed up many Indians' views in complaining that the US was 'subcontracting the task of keeping the peace in Afghanistan to the ISI', Pakistan's premier intelligence service. In recent months, Indians have taken offence at statements by James Dobbins, the US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, echoing earlier Indian anger at the late Richard Holbrooke, and have chafed at what they see as a Western equivalence between Indian and Pakistani policy in Afghanistan.
For their part, US and British officials have grown increasingly frustrated with India's approach to the issue, arguing that India offers no plausible alternative to the policy of reconciliation given the long-term weakness of the Afghan state. Yet it is in Obama's interests to assuage Indian concerns, emphasise that reconciliation with the Taliban will be constrained by the established 'red lines', that the US will not abandon counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan after 2014, and that India's role in Afghanistan is not only welcome, but also necessary to the strengthening of the Afghan state.
India rebuffed Afghan President Hamid Karzai's request for arms earlier this year, wary of provoking Pakistan. But one area that deserves more discussion is greater direct cooperation between India and the NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan to train and equip Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). According to one report, Obama asked Singh last week for an 'increased effort' in Afghanistan, although it's unclear whether this included an implied or explicit training dimension. India, entirely reasonably, sees a potential eastward flow of militants from Afghanistan and Pakistan as a major security threat, particularly with violent trends in Kashmir worsening this year. India would therefore be particularly receptive to a US commitment to monitor and disrupt militant movement in the years after 2014.
In truth, it will be difficult to make progress on these issues until Washington settles its own internal debates over what its posture in Afghanistan will be after 2014 (for example, how many (if any) troops will remain in a training capacity?), which in turn will depend on the peace process itself, President Karzai's domestic political calculations in the face of presidential elections next year, the integrity of that election, and trends in Afghanistan.
The level of US-India tension should not be exaggerated.
It is telling that recent revelations over US intelligence collection against Indian diplomatic targets have, unlike in the case of Brazil, had negligible impact on the relationship. Indian officials chose to brush the issue under the carpet, presumably hoping that the issue had little domestic salience and perhaps even tacitly acknowledging that the NSA's activities against Indian internet traffic were indirectly beneficial to Indian policy objectives. Twenty years ago, the Indian response may have been very different. It is these changes in tone that convey strategic shifts as much as any large policy initiative.
And although the two countries differ on the contentious big-picture issues outlined above, this has not prevented the relationship from advancing on other tracks.
In September, US Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter visited India to push ahead with the bilateral Defence Trade Initiative (DTI), which Carter co-chairs with India's National Security Advisor, Shivshankar Menon. Carter reiterated his suggestion, dating from last year, that US and Indian firms cooperate to produce military equipment — including helicopters, next-generation anti-tank missiles, mine systems, and naval guns — for both countries' use. India has been bafflingly slow and reticent to respond to these overtures, despite the possibility of much-needed technology transfer to Indian industry (though many analysts are sceptical as to its capacity for technology absorption). The negotiations nevertheless reflect the US perception that the defence strand of its relationship with India are a priority.
The road ahead is rocky. Over the next eighteen months, the US-India relationship will be severely buffeted by US policy towards Afghanistan. As the American drawdown accelerates, one possibility is that the US intensifies diplomatic efforts to peel away moderate factions within the Afghan Taliban, Whether that amounts to anything or not (and few are optimistic) the process is certain to involve at least a period of deeper US-Pakistan consultations, at the expense of India. Later this month, for instance, a fourth Afghanistan-Pakistan-UK trilateral summit will take place in London. India has quietly seethed at the previous three, viewing them as a coordinated effort to reduce Indian influence.
Yet, for the United States at least, the centre of gravity of the US-India relationship is not Afghanistan, but China.
The Middle East's fast-moving and highly visible crises have briefly distracted from a slow-moving background trend: the political and economic rise of China. Yet this remains where Indian and American strategic interests are most collectively at stake, if not necessarily congruent.
Following India's most recent crisis with China, involving deep Chinese incursions into disputed territory a few months ago, New Delhi's instinctive response was not to make a prominent feint towards Washington — something that might have been the natural response of other states eager to balance against Beijing — but to engage China more intensively, including on the border dispute itself. Indeed, Singh will make a trip to Beijing next month, with indications that he may sign an upgraded border agreement.
Nothing better underscores how India's internal debate over the desired scope of its relationship with the United States is unsettled, on-going, and erratic. More generally, much of India's press and strategic community have accepted the popular narrative that American leadership, as well as American power, is in decline, and that US reliability is therefore in question. These issues are unlikely to be settled within the tenures of either Obama or Singh, leaving a lingering note of ambivalence in the US-India relationship even as it deepens outside of the high politics.