Economic cooperation was a major topic during the recent visit of President Bush to India, with the United States agreeing to an ambitious three-year target for doubling trade. A delegation of top American business executives also accompanied the president, keen to explore investment opportunities in one of the world's fastest-growing economies.
As the president visited India, U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman accepted a challenge from his Indian counterpart (Trade Minister Kamal Nath) to push bilateral trade to $50 billion in three instead of five years, as earlier targeted. Bilateral trade stood at over $28 billion last year.
The optimism is based on the growing interest among American businesses in India's vibrant economy.
The head of the financial services company JP Morgan Chase, William Harrison, co-chairs a forum of 20 major American and Indian companies that is outlining a plan to boost commercial collaboration.
Harrison says U.S.-based multinationals see India as an important destination as it catches up with the other booming economy in the region - China. "You can't be a global CEO (Chief Executive Officer) today, doing your job and not really focusing on how you can do business in India. You just can't be. And, by the way, a lot of people love to compare China and India. It is not an 'either-or.' I think for most big multinational companies, you have got to be looking at both of them because they are both right at the top of the list of where you have got to be to do business in the future," he said.
Dozens of U.S. businesses already have a foothold in India. Technology companies Microsoft and Cisco have invested billions of dollars developing research centers in India to use its pool of skilled talent.
Other multinationals are targeting India's 300 million middle-class consumers, who buy Levis jeans, aspire to own a Ford car, and frequent McDonalds and Pizza Hut outlets.
And the American defense industry wants to sell warplanes and high-tech weapons to India as the political relationship between the two nations enters a new phase.
Indian Finance Minister P. Chidambaram told the visiting business executives the country wants more U.S. investment, especially to revamp its overburdened infrastructure. "For the U.S. side it means a great opportunity, an opportunity to invest in India, in our roads, our rail network, or airports and seaports, to use your acknowledged strengths in the financial sector and invest in our insurance sector and banking sector," he said.
But American businesses say India has to liberalize more rapidly, especially in fast-growing services such as banking, insurance and retail, if U.S. investment there is to reach its potential.
JP Morgan Chase Chairman Harrison identifies other factors that intimidate American businesses thinking of increasing their stake in India. "It is infrastructure first, lack of infrastructure, and secondly the perception, real or not, of the bureaucracy, of doing business here; whether that is getting permits to do business, or getting licenses; whether it is the delay in the court system to settle contract disputes or whatever it is, there is a perception there that we think [all this] could be facilitated [speeded up]," he said.
The Indian-American business forum has several recommendations for removing obstacles to cooperation. These include speeding up infrastructure development in India, making Bombay a regional hub for the financial operations of U.S. companies, and increasing cooperation between top technical institutes.