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My Piece On The Future of U.S.-India Relations

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With the U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue concluding earlier this month, what does the future look like for the relationship between the world’s two largest democracies? I consider this question in a piece for World Politics Review. I’ve pasted it below.

The Future of U.S.-India Relations

PRASHANTH PARAMESWARAN

Judging by the atmospherics on display during last week’s inaugural U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue, the bilateral relationship between the two countries appears to be on solid footing. U.S. Under Secretary for Public Affairs William Burns called the relationship “one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century,” while U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke of a joint responsibility to “determine the course of the world.” U.S. President Barack Obama even made a surprise visit at the dialogue’s reception, and announced that he would visit New Delhi in November.

Yet this flowery rhetoric masks the complex realities of what has been and continues to be a testy relationship between Washington and New Delhi. Even today, Indians worry that the United States is cozying up to Pakistan and China at their expense, while some in Washington charge that India is too caught up with its “neighborhood” concerns to assert its influence on the world stage. If the two countries hope to forge a stronger partnership in the 21st century, they will have to navigate past sharp disagreements and bridge wide perception gaps.

Divergent interests kept India and the United States estranged during the Cold War. India’s policy of “moral nonalignment” in the 1950s was viewed in Washington as immoral, while the U.S. arming of Pakistan after 1954 as part of a global containment policy engendered much mistrust in New Delhi. Estrangement continued through the 1970s and 1980s, as India drifted toward the Soviet camp, while the U.S. pursued rapprochement with China and armed Pakistan to undermine the USSR. While the end of the Cold War did lead to some bilateral cooperation, including joint military exercises in the 1990s, India’s nuclear test in 1998 — which it viewed as retaliation for Pakistan’s nuclear tests — drew Washington’s ire. It was only with the signing of the civilian nuclear deal under the Bush administration in 2008 that the relationship began to really take off.

Both sides now realize that there are manifold areas in which to pursue functional cooperation. Economically, India’s blistering growth rates and role in the G-20 means that it is unquestionably a global economic power, with room for expanding bilateral trade, investment, as well as educational linkages. Strategically, Washington views India as a counterbalance to Chinese hegemony in Asia, even if New Delhi is itself at times reluctant to play this role. Both the United States and India are among the world’s top-five greenhouse gas emitters and have been victims of extremism, and are thus vital to solutions on climate change and terrorism. India’s geographic proximity to the Indian Ocean and status as the world’s fifth-largest navy also means that opportunities exist for further cooperation in the maritime domain, from disaster relief to anti-piracy operations and joint patrols. Beyond these interests, both are also large, vibrant democracies.

Yet discord continues to persist. The two countries often lock horns on trade and climate issues, and there is still bad blood surrounding both the collapse of the Doha Round of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2008 and the Copenhagen Climate Conference of 2009, where New Delhi is said to have colluded with China to obstruct any meaningful outcome. More recently, Indians have hissed at the Obama administration for interfering in the “internal” Kashmir issue, carelessly signing off on a joint U.S.-China role in South Asia (which India considers its neighborhood), and turning a blind eye on Pakistan-sponsored terrorism and nuclear activities in exchange for Islamabad’s cooperation in Afghanistan. The United States, for its part, laments India’s more-conciliatory position on Iran and its inability to even pass the requisite legislation for civil nuclear cooperation to begin.

As Jasmeet Ahuja, a staff member for the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, told a conference at the American Enterprise Institute recently, “India needs to think strategically about how to engage. . . . If India does not want to, there isn’t much more that the U.S. can do.”

Forging a strategic partnership will require both sides to find a way to compromise on these issues and address their respective concerns, while also managing perception gaps. While India sees the world from the prism of “strategic autonomy” and views itself as a great power and civilization, the United States is used to relationships where it has the dominant voice. Despite the vast asymmetry in terms of material capabilities, both nations engage in preachy moralism, and neither is used to adopting a deferent attitude. Learning to deal with each other amid vibrant media communities and noisy democracies is a challenge in and of itself. The United States must understand and at times accommodate India’s perception of its “inherent greatness,” as India scholar Stephen Cohen once put it. But India similarly needs to comprehend that it is only one of many priorities on the U.S. agenda, and that other interests may at times take precedence.

Washington is often critical of New Delhi’s unwillingness to assume — or ambivalence about — a global role, or to think strategically beyond its immediate neighborhood. At a Brookings Institution event last week, Indian journalist Gautham Adhikari plainly admitted that “India does not have a strategic view of the world,” and urged New Delhi to formulate a comprehensive vision for its foreign policy. At the same time, Washington must grasp the fact that India is still grappling with a complex set of domestic challenges, from poverty that affects a third of its population to a growing Maoist insurgent threat, and external challenges that include a terrorism threat from Pakistan and unresolved border issues with China. Such a full plate understandably weighs New Delhi down and restricts its ability to assert a global presence.

A strong basis for cooperation exists between the United States and India, both in principle and on specific issues. But solidifying a strategic partnership in the 21st century will require compromise, vision and deftness from both sides. For, as Mr. Burns himself has noted, “progress in U.S.-Indian partnership is not automatic,” no matter what the atmospherics may suggest.

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Is Obama Expecting Too Much From China?

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Maybe, hints John Pomfret in yesterday’s Washington Post.

He recounts a May 24 U.S.-China meeting at a state guesthouse in Beijing, where Rear Adm. Guan Youfei of the People’s Liberation Army, went on the following tirade:

Everything, Guan said, that is going right in U.S. relations with China is because of China. Everything, he continued, that is going wrong is the fault of the United States. Guan accused the United States of being a “hegemon” and of plotting to encircle China with strategic alliances. The official saved the bulk of his bile for U.S. arms sales to China’s nemesis, Taiwan — Guan said these prove that the United States views China as an enemy.

The Obama administration, which some say has already spent too much time reassuring the Chinese — from postponing Mr. Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama to downplaying human rights concerns — with little gain on issues like North Korea or climate change,  has dismissed Mr. Guan’s remarks as an outlier:

U.S. officials have since depicted Guan’s three-minute jeremiad as an anomaly. A senior U.S. official traveling on Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s plane back to the United States dismissed it, saying it was “out of step” with the rest of the two-day Strategic and Economic Dialogue. And last week in Singapore, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates sought to portray not just Guan, but the whole of the People’s Liberation Army, as an outlier intent on blocking better ties with Washington while the rest of China’s government moves ahead.

That doesn’t seem to be Mr. Pomfret’s reading:

But interviews in China with a wide range of experts, Chinese officials and military officers indicate that Guan’s rant — for all its discomfiting bluster — actually represents the mainstream views of the Chinese Communist Party, and that perhaps the real outliers might be those in China’s government who want to side with the United States. More broadly, many Chinese security experts and officials view the Obama administration’s policy of encouraging Chinese participation in solving the world’s problems — including climate change, the global financial crisis and the security challenges in Iran and North Korea — not as attempts to elevate China into the ranks of global leadership but rather as a scheme to enmesh it in a paralyzing web of commitments.

“Admiral Guan was representing what all of us think about the United States in our hearts,” a senior Chinese official, who deals with the United States regularly, said on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with a reporter. “It may not have been politically correct, but it wasn’t an accident.” “It’s silly to talk about factions when it comes to relations with the United States,” said a general in the PLA who also spoke on the condition of anonymity. “The army follows the party. Do you really think that Guan did this unilaterally?”

Dean Cheng over at the Heritage Foundation also counsels against taking this Chinese tone too lightly. PLA Major General Zhu Chenghu, who was Mr. Gates’ interlocutor at the recent Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore and bluntly stated: “You, the Americans, are taking China as the enemy”, is also far from an ‘outlier':

General Zhu is the same officer who, in 2005, broached the idea that China’s nuclear “no first use” policy on nuclear weapons might not apply if China was attacked with conventional weapons. Except that Zhu was subsequently appointed to head the Defense Affairs Institute at the PLA’s National Defense University (NDU). The PLA’s NDU is the equivalent of a military region, with precedence ahead of the actual military regions. More to the point, he is now attending the Shangri-La Asia Security Summit, representing the PRC…Beijing knows exactly what it was doing. In which case, Secretary Gates is seriously misreading the message that China is sending — China’s leadership, both military and civilian, are not interested in deepening military-to-military relations unless the US abandons its commitment to Taiwan.

I would only add that a worrying number of people knowledgeable about China have also expressed grave doubts about Beijing’s willingness to cooperate in recent months. “The truth”, one U.S. official told Council on Foreign Relations China expert Elizabeth Economy late last year, “is that the Chinese do not want to cooperate”. After extensive discussions with foreign policy analysts and Chinese strategists and elites, Brad Glosserman, director of Pacific Forum CSIS – a think tank — concluded that China tends to attribute problems like North Korea, Iran and Afghanistan-Pakistan to these countries’ desire to reshape their bilateral relationships with the United States,  and therefore feels like Washington should bear the burden of resolving these dilemmas, while Beijing has a small, if any role to play (this is similar to the kind of sentiment Mr. Pomfret found). A CSIS survey of Chinese elites also showed that few saw any sense of international responsibility for Beijing globally, with a whopping 90 percent rejecting an international leadership role for China.

Chinese conduct up to this point mostly confirms this. With the exception of not vetoing fresh Iran sanctions at the U.N. Security Council, China wrecked last year’s Copenhagen conference, has thus far refused to take a tougher stance on North Korea despite its clear involvement in the sinking of a South Korean ship, and declined to lift a finger to assist in the Af-Pak region. Meanwhile, China’s blistering military modernization is sounding alarm bells among Washington’s allies in Asia (consider Singapore’s patriarch Lee Kuan Yew’s concern about China expressed during his last trip to Washington , or Australia’s recent defense white paper). Secretary Gates himself admitted last year that China “could threaten America’s [previously unchallenged] ability to project power and help allies in the Pacific”. And a handful of U.S. experts from across the political spectrum, including some who were previously more optimistic about China, recently concluded almost universally that Beijing had reverted to an aggressive stance in the South China Sea (others also seem to agree).

I agree that U.S. cooperation with China is essential in order for progress to be made on a range of important global issues, and that both Washington and Beijing should try to make this come about. I also realize these matters are tough and don’t yield quick results. I just think the Obama administration, like any other administration in office in the United States, ought to be more honest and realistic about how much and how far the Chinese are willing to go to cooperate. So far, I suspect that even some State Department officials would agree with me when I say that the record hasn’t been very encouraging. If so, the United States should start acting like this is the case, instead of harboring illusions about how China perceives Washington as recent reports seem to suggest.

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