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Beyond minor irritants

india Updated: Jan 22, 2012 22:32 IST
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What does the New Year portend for US-India ties? The spectre of a relationship adrift or even unraveling is being bandied about. Towards the end of the 2011, several articles appeared with ominous titles such as: 'Neglected India: why is Washington ignoring the world's largest democracy?' and 'Ebb and Tide: Has the US-Indian strategic partnership bombed?'

More to the point, where might there be opportunities in 2012 to advance US-India ties, even as both capitals are suffering from various degrees of policy paralysis and moving into full campaign mode, with the presidential election in the US and a series state polls in India. To answer that question, here are three resolutions and five recommendations for consideration by both countries.

First, deepen existing initiatives. The focus should be on consolidating and implementing initiatives that have already been agreed to. The two countries have some 21 working groups established, covering every aspect of possible cooperation.

Second, don't mistake "not now" for never. High hopes were raised, and then dashed, by the decision by the Indian government to shelve - for now - plans to open the domestic multi-brand retail market to foreign companies. But arguments about protecting small shopkeepers and businesses from the giants have also been fought out in the US and are being resolved. Over time, that may also prove to be the case in India.

Third, look beyond capital 'beltways'. Since both governments are preoccupied at the federal level, there is increasing space for more State-level and business-level interaction. Recent examples include successful trade missions led by Maryland and Virginia governors. Recently, Andhra Pradesh sent a delegation to the US. More will be welcomed.

Five Recommendations: First, negotiations should be accelerated on a bilateral investment treaty. This is one area where both countries could strengthen the business-to-business level of our relationship by encouraging more two-way investment, joint ventures and sharing of technology.

Second, get moving on infrastructure. India's five-year plan to spend $1 trillion on infrastructure has clearly caught the eye of the new US commerce secretary, John Bryson. Recently, his department announced that India would be the destination for the secretary's first overseas trade mission, in March, with a focus on infrastructure opportunities.

Third, accelerate India's social and economic development. In a speech at Yale University, India's ambassador to the US, Nirupama Rao, said: "India regards the US as the most important partner in its quest for social and economic development." In this regard, both governments have identified cooperation in the field of education as a key priority, including an initiative to create a community college system in India.

Fourth, strengthen the strategic partnership. The third US-India Strategic Dialogue will be held later this year. As 2012 unfolds, and as the US military withdrawal from Afghanistan accelerates, intensifying consultations with India on Afghanistan will take on even greater significance, as will coordination on other areas of common strategic interest, including West Asia, the Indo-Pacific region, and building on the recent, encouraging developments in Myanmar.

Fifth, reinforce the narrative. At the East Asia Summit in Bali last November, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh offered this assessment of the current state of Indo-US ties to President Obama: "I am very happy to report to you that there are, today, no irritants whatsoever in our working together on a multiplicity of areas."

While this gracious observation by India's PM can be seen as a bit of a diplomatic overstatement - all countries have some 'irritants' - it is also true that US-India ties are not adrift. They are moving forward, albeit slowly, but surely.However, reinforcing the narrative of a US-India relationship that has been transformed over the past decade and is moving forward - with strong bipartisan support in both countries - will require continuing, high-level attention in both Washington and New Delhi. Meanwhile, a focus in 2012 on 'consolidation' and 'implementation' of existing initiatives will put the relationship on an even sounder footing when the leaders in both capitals determine it is time to quicken the pace.

Karl F Inderfurth holds the Wadwani Chair for US-India Policy Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC. The views expressed by the author are personal.