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Expectations Modest Ahead of Obama-Singh Talks

  • Aru Pande

U.S. President Barack Obama is received by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as he arrives for bilateral talks. Nov. 8 2010.

U.S. President Barack Obama is received by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as he arrives for bilateral talks. Nov. 8 2010.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh travels to Washington on Friday for a working visit with U.S. President Barack Obama, capping a year full of high-profile exchanges between two of the world's largest democracies. However, while there have been a great many pledges made, some say the U.S.-Indian relationship has seen few breakthroughs since a landmark nuclear deal was approved in 2008.

While briefing reporters in New Delhi last week, Indian Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh cited an incredible 55 official bilateral exchanges or visits when noting the momentum the U.S-India relationship has gained so far this year. The foreign secretary said Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s upcoming talks with President Barack Obama will reaffirm the political commitment both sides have in deepening ties.

“A visit such as this is focused not merely on deliverables but also on establishing and reaffirming the strategic benefits that each side derives from the relationship,” said the foreign secretary.

U.S Secretary of State John Kerry and Vice President Joe Biden expressed similar sentiment during their trips to New Delhi this year, but political analysts in India and abroad say the rhetoric has not translated into reality since 2005, when then-U.S. President George W. Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh brokered a deal allowing India access to civilian nuclear technology after decades of isolation over the country’s nuclear weapons program.

Referring to the 2005 breakthrough, Rory Medcalf of the Sydney-based Lowy Institute for International Policy said, “it removed the biggest obstacle of discrimination and mistrust in the global political systems between the two countries, but now the hard work has begun. The follow-through to the nuclear deal has been pretty messy and disappointing. U.S. industry is not happy with Indian nuclear liability laws. There are trade barriers or societal barriers on both sides.”

Medcalf also points to Indian concerns about changes to American visa rules that would make it harder for Indian IT workers to operate in the United States. Medcalf adds that India is also not quite ready to commit to a close alignment with the U.S. on issues like Iran.

Bharat Karnad, a professor at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research, questions the need for India to align itself so closely with U.S. policy. Karnad says that under the Singh administration, the U.S.-India relationship has become increasingly one-sided, with India being asked to minimize its historic relationship with nations like Iran.

“On Iran, we have to absolutely stand our ground and say ‘no, you can do what you want - you are on the other side of the globe, but Iran is right here, it gives us access and all these other things and therefore we are going to be dealing with Iran the best we know how. And if that upsets you guys, go, upset,’” said Karnad.

Karnad says India must have a clear view of its national interests, whether in Afghanistan or East Asia, and that any relationship with the United States should not be “transactional.”

During Friday’s working visit, Prime Minister Singh and President Obama are expected to discuss bilateral cooperation on energy, security, trade and regional issues.

Analyst Rory Medcalf says both sides should go into the talks with measured expectations and patience; it may take years before U.S.-India ties can reach their full potential.

“India will play a constructive role in Afghanistan and has done so, India will be a very important voice in the Asian strategic order, such as the East Asia summit, and the management of tensions in Asia. But I don’t think at this stage India will be the kind of game-changing power that the Bush administration was hoping it would be when it began this strategic partnership,” said Medcalf.

For now, the Indian prime minister and U.S. president have their own problems to focus on, such as boosting their respective countries’ struggling economies.