The four-day visit of US vice-president Joe Biden is all about trying to show that the Indo-US relationship is not in as bad a shape as it seems. But Biden himself symbolises how the partnership is under strain, because of both geopolitical differences and economic friction.
As a senator, Biden was among the strongest supporters of the Indo-US nuclear deal. As a vice-president, he is equally fervent about withdrawing from Afghanistan — even if it means enthroning the Taliban in Kabul. The former policy took Indo-US relations to dizzy heights while the latter is bringing it down to earth with a bump.
Senior Indian officials feel the two democracies are headed for a strategic divorce over Afghanistan. Biden is among the loudest advocates in the Obama administration for a complete US withdrawal underpinned by an Islamabad-brokered peace deal with the Taliban. New Delhi wants the US to give Kabul the wherewithal to resist the Taliban — and, therefore, the Pakistani influence.
Biden is among those in the administration who believe that the US needs to get out of its west Asian wars and focus on Asia. Though he struggled to define the common ground between India and the US in Afghanistan in statements before he came to India, he did underline how the two nations are working together.
The US’s “pivot to Asia” is a mix of economics, diplomacy and military positioning. In theory, India could be at the heart of this policy. In practice, it is only a potential player.
The first reason is India’s flagging economy and the growing problems US investors are having with New Delhi’s policies on taxes, intellectual property and overall economic reforms. The second is India’s unwillingness to allow the bilateral defence cooperation agreement to go beyond a certain point.
Indian officials cite the US waffling stance on China as well as the bilateral Kabul gap as to why the relationship’s geopolitical foundations are so shaky.
The lack of political will at the top means the bureaucracies on both sides have returned to their bickering ways.
Biden will receive some positive spin on civil nuclear liability and the purchase of US reactors but it remains uncertain if this will be resolved by the time Manmohan Singh meets Obama probably in September.