By: Tanvi Madan
September 25, 2013
Editor's Note: This piece first appeared on the New York Times "India Ink" blog.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India, who is on a visit to the United States, will meet President Obama in Washington on Friday.
Mr. Singh is meeting Mr. Obama at a time when both the United States and India have their attention directed elsewhere. India is preoccupied with domestic political developments and the economy. On the foreign policy front, there is perhaps greater interest in the meeting Mr. Singh is scheduled to have with Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister of Pakistan in New York. Washington is focused on a potential government shutdown, and Iran and Syria are the top issues on the foreign policy docket.
The United States and Indian governments are keeping expectations low for the Obama-Singh meeting. Thus it is easy to lose sight of what the visit does signify — the end of an era during which administrations of different stripes in both countries laid the foundation of a strong bilateral relationship. The question that lies ahead is whether the two countries — and not just the governments — will build something substantial upon it.
The state of the two countries is different today than it was four years ago when Mr. Singh last visited Washington. Then, the Indian economy was growing at about 8 percent and Mr. Singh’s coalition had recently returned to power. It was the United States that was struggling with the financial crisis and geopolitically. Mr. Singh’s current visit comes after announcement that the Indian economy grew at a 4.4 percent rate in the last quarter and at a time when people are questioning whether his government will have a mandate to do anything substantial before the 2014 elections.
Despite the impending politico-economic crisis in Washington, the American economy seems better off today than four years ago. In combination with the unconventional energy revolution, this has observers and policymakers cautioning against betting against the United States.
Recently, there has been much talk about the drift and the differences between India and the United States. There is little doubt that there are differences — most of which will be on the agenda when the two leaders meet.
On the geopolitical side, there has been much concern in India about what the United States’ drawdown of forces from Afghanistan will mean for India’s role there, the American and Indian relationships with Pakistan, and the American stance on terrorism. In the United States, Indian imports of oil from Iran have been a concern, especially on Capitol Hill. On the economic side, there has been heartburn in the corporate sector.
Over the last decade, corporations had been among the strongest proponents of the United States-India relationship, but more recently it has been the complaints from this sector that have been louder. Some Indian companies are concerned that potential American immigration reform will adversely affect their business model. Sections of American business and labor have expressed chagrin about Indian trade and investment policies — their unhappiness has been evident in letters to and from congressional members, at hearings on the Hill, and in advertisements being placed in advance of the prime minister’s visit. Multilaterally, the two countries disagree on climate change, global trade negotiations and issues like Syria.
The agenda, however, won’t just be full of lamentations. The two countries have a host of regional issues to discuss, including those related to the Asia-Pacific region and the Middle East. Both sides are playing down the possibility of potential agreements, but there has been an effort to get deals done on the defense and climate change fronts.
Ashton Carter, the American deputy secretary of defense, just returned from India having offered that country the opportunity to produce the Javelin missile jointly. There were some indications that there might be an agreement on climate change akin to the one China and the United States reached, but an Indian official noted that that was still a “work in progress.”