Divergent interests test U.S.-India ties

By Lee Hamilton
Nov 15 2009

 Next week, President Barack Obama will welcome India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Washington for the first state dinner of his presidency. Many observers will focus on the glitz and glam, but the geopolitical implications are far more significant.

Until recently, relations between the world's richest and largest democracies had a troubled history. India was a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement throughout the Cold War and even signed a Treaty of Cooperation with the Soviet Union in 1971. More recently, the U.S. sanctioned India after nuclear weapons tests that threatened South Asia's stability in 1998.

The fulcrum of this renewed relationship is the civilian nuclear cooperation deal, negotiated during the Bush administration and approved by both governments last year, though not yet fully implemented.

Ties between the countries, however, extend far beyond nuclear energy.

The United States is the world's largest investor in India, and from 2004 to 2007 two-way trade nearly tripled. American universities educate more Indian students than those from any other foreign country. There are 2.2 million Americans of Indian origin who are a natural bridge between countries. And India has a growing presence in American culture, literature, film, and music.

The relationship will not revert to the alternating hostility and apathy of the past, but its trajectory is far from certain.

With all the discussion of India's emergence as a great power, it is easy to forget the internal challenges it confronts.

India is home to more than 1 billion people. Its health care and education systems require major improvement, as does its energy, financial, transportation and sanitation infrastructure.

Its 15 official languages and vast differences of caste, ethnicity and religion — a Hindu majority with a sizable Muslim minority, in addition to Christians and Sikhs — often correlate with economic inequality. Sixty million children are malnourished. One in four Indians lives in absolute poverty (260 million people). The flashy skylines of Bangalore and Mumbai are a stark contrast to nearby slums, not to mention impoverished rural villages.

India's greatest challenge, by far, is to sustain its rate of economic growth, which drives its pursuit of access to natural resources and foreign markets.

This month marks the one-year anniversary of the horrific attacks by Pakistani terrorists in Mumbai that killed 163 people. The terrorists were members of the banned Pakistani extremist group Lashkar-e-Taiba, which has long-standing ties to the Pakistani military and intelligence services.

The India-Pakistan rivalry casts a long shadow over the region and complicates U.S. diplomacy. India accuses Pakistan of supporting terrorists in Kashmir, Pakistan accuses India of supporting secessionists in Baluchistan, and both view the other's intentions in Afghanistan with suspicion. Their nuclear arsenals only amplify the risks of confrontation.

These are just some of the challenges for Indian democracy in the years ahead. But the Congress Party and its allies' victory in May's elections leave the Singh government well positioned to advance a reform agenda.

An important task for the United States and other great powers is integrating India into the leadership structures of international institutions. But that also means recognizing India's interests, for it will not simply accede to Western demands.

On climate change, India's environment minister has said that a limited target for carbon emissions is inconceivable in 2009, impeding efforts to achieve a global climate change policy.

India's commitment to agricultural subsidies has complicated concluding the Doha Round of World Trade Organization talks. Shared democratic values will not alleviate all the pressures of divergent national interests.

The United States surely perceives India as a friend and partner, but reaching the tremendous potential of the U.S.-India relationship will require both countries to better understand each other, and their challenges, interests and priorities at home and abroad.

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University and Director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)