Monday, November 28, 2011

Obstacles to closer India–US relations

During her last visit to India in July, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged India to play a bigger role in Asia.

While this predates Clinton’s more recent suggestion that India, China and the US should work more closely together, it is still widely believed that heightened India–US cooperation is aimed at encircling China. And it appears the symbolic element of official India–US interactions is often mistaken for a sustainable strategic relationship. But in both countries there are domestic obstacles to a closer relationship which are unlikely to disappear in the foreseeable future and which warrant closer scrutiny. I will focus on groups within India — the religious right, the sentimentalists, the sinocentrics and the pragmatists — that often impede this bilateral relationship.

First in this list is the religious right. The Islamic religious right has ‘obvious’ reasons to impede closer India–US relations. The anti-US camp within the Hindu religious right can be divided into two groups. One group argues that the US, as leader of the Christian West, is hell-bent on destroying Hinduism in India through the work of aid organisations and NGOs — which ostensibly serve as a cover for proselytising Westerners. This group also accuses US Baptist churches of financing terrorist organisations in India’s northeast. The other group argues that India is paying a heavy price for the Israel–US policy on Palestine, which has destabilised the Islamic world.

The second obstacle to closer India–US relations are the sentimentalists. This group stresses the impossibility of an equal relationship between the world’s two largest democracies. A variety of grievances — including the patting down of Indians at US airports to the US’ failure to support India in obscure international fora — are treated as insults, and as confirming the impossibility of an equal India–US relationship.

Third are the sinocentrics. There are three types: doctrinaire and naïve sinophiles, and sinophobes. The doctrinaire sinophiles — which include Maoist extremists and some in the mainstream leftist parties — still vaguely believe China is a communist or non-capitalist country committed to the emancipation of the third world from the neo-colonial West. And they blindly oppose any move that brings India and the US closer. There are two groups of naïve sinophiles: those still trapped in slogans like Hindi-Chini bhai bhai (Indians and Chinese march on as brothers) and the faddists. The former think that India and China can together redefine the existing world order in favour of the suffering masses across the world. But India still has a long way to go before its ties with China are strengthened to this extent; and closer ties with the US are undesirable insofar as they impede this necessary rapprochement with China. On the other hand, the faddists feel that India should imitate and befriend China and shun the company of a ‘declining’ US. Finally, the sinophobes argue that closer ties with the US will annoy China — and an already overstretched US will not intervene if China escalates tensions along the international border in the Himalayas.

The final and, in fact, the most important obstacle to closer India–US relations are the pragmatists. The pragmatists argue that forging too close a relationship with the US — which is incomparably superior to India — could be counterproductive insofar as it would require India to neglect its own core interests. And the interests of India and the US are often mutually incompatible on issues such as climate change adaptation, outsourcing, nuclear energy, genetically modified food, opening-up of services, agriculture, and retail-market sectors, Palestinian statehood, denuclearization of Iran, and sanctions against autocratic regimes. The pragmatists further argue that even if the leaders iron out differences, as in case of the nuclear deal, the elephantine bureaucracies and divisive domestic politics come in the way of timely implementation of agreements. According to the pragmatists, then, there is no reason to abandon strategic autonomy so as to align with the US — for potentially uncertain gains. A close association with the US could also expose India to international hostility, particularly in West Asia. More importantly, at a time when India is beginning to attract global attention, forging a closer — but essentially subordinate — relationship with a declining superpower is not seen as a reasonable strategy.

Given the opposition in India, a closer India–US relationship is unlikely in the near future. But some of the factors that push India’s pragmatists to steer clear of embracing the US are not country-specific. Similar factors must be compelling other like-minded rising powers to resist closer relations with the US. In the short run, US policy makers cannot change perceptions about its decline. But they can address concerns about bureaucratic delays and abstain from adopting policies on issues like business-process outsourcing, which negatively affect their own interests and the vital interests of their prospective partners in emerging economies. Author: Vikas Kumar, Azim Premji University courtesy East Asia Forum
Vikas Kumar is Assistant Professor of Economics at Azim Premji University, Bangalore.

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