Asia Program

India and the United States

Jul 18, 2005

Two Wilson Center program directors discussed U.S.-India relations at a press briefing in advance of the visit of India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the first such visit by an Indian prime minister in five years. This visit has prompted high expectations in India but fewer expectations in the United States, said Robert Hathaway, director of the Center's Asia Program. He warned the U.S. press will largely ignore Singh's visit, viewing him as yet another world leader passing through Washington. This lack of press coverage has frustrated Indians in the past, he said, and reflects the disparity between the two countries.

Hathaway called the bilateral relationship "still fragile and brittle," noting the continued mutual suspicions and prevailing stereotypes on both sides. "For all the progress in recent years, there is a lot of baggage from the past," Hathaway said. India is concerned about current U.S. policies, including the preemption doctrine and the U.S. tendency to use force, while the Pentagon remains skeptical of the utility of a close bilateral relationship as different perceptions abound. He cited the example of Pakistan. "For the United States, Pakistan is part of the solution to the war on terrorism; for India, Pakistan is part of the problem."

Still, the U.S.-India relationship is advancing and has strengthened considerably in the past decade. Hathaway noted that immediately following the 9/11 attacks, New Delhi offered logistical help, including the use of airfields, in contrast to India's response 10 years earlier during the first Gulf War when India reneged on its initial offer to allow U.S. warplanes to refuel in India. "The relationship is qualitatively richer today than it was even as recently as six or eight years ago."

While the relationship has improved, India and the United States do define their interests differently, which has caused some contention. For example, India, unlike the United States, seeks closer ties with Iran and is currently cooperating with Iran and Pakistan on a gas pipeline across the three countries, a deal the United States opposes. Hathaway added that the India-U.S. relationship is not one between two equals. For India, the United States is its most important bilateral partner but the reverse is not true.

"These differences sometimes lead to bruised sensibilities," Hathaway said. India welcomed the U.S. Administration's assertion several months ago that it sought to help India achieve global power status. At the same time, Hathaway noted, the United States remains reticent about supporting India's aspirations for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

Getting back to Singh's upcoming visit, Hathaway urged recognizing longstanding differences and refraining from such jargon as calling the two nations "natural allies," which is not the case given the serious contention between both nations for the past four decades. He also underscored setting realistic goals and anticipates this will be a productive visit for both countries.

Turning to the economic dimensions of the U.S.-India relationship, director of the the Wilson Center's Program on Science, Technology, America, and the Global Economy Kent Hughes noted India's economic rise. Increasingly active in trade negotiations, India was among the emerging market countries that attended the latest G-8 conference. India's government turned toward a market economy following the currency crisis of 1991 and continues to be a growing player in the global economy.

While India's growth offers opportunities, it also presents numerous challenges. Hughes said the financial press has focused attention on call centers-—in which an American making a product service call would be talking with someone from Bangalore. The new phenomenon, he said, is much broader. Now, software engineers in India offer a wide range of online services, from chip design to research to analysis.

Hughes said, "Even the idea that this interchange is limited by the need to have face-to-face contact, I think, is going to erode as the spread of broadband allows more and more videoconferencing."

In addition to this integration of high-level services, India has increased its commitment to higher education. In fact, more engineers graduate from Indian universities than from U.S. and European universities combined, noted Hughes.

To address these challenges, Hughes urged creating a climate conducive to public-private investment and to address the fiscal and current account trade deficits. The U.S. current account deficit is approaching 7 percent of GDP and a sudden adjustment could lead to recession, which creates great risk for the U.S. as well as the global economy. Another key ingredient is innovation, including adequately funding research in the physical sciences, engineering, and computer science.

Hughes also urged transforming our education system. "I think we need to move even beyond the idea of lifelong learning to thinking about a system that extends from before the cradle till after conventionally defined retirement," said Hughes. This plan should include increasing the number of young people entering the fields of science and engineering. He recalled the shock in 1957 when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, beating the United States into space. When President Kennedy made sending a man to the moon a national goal, young people all across the country were drawn to math, science, and engineering. Hughes said we need a long-range goal or similar big idea to inspire young people today, one "that can excite people, show them a national purpose, a global purpose, and, if it's matched by adequate research funding, hold out the promise of sustainable careers."

Among the opportunities for bilateral cooperation, Hughes suggested energy and health care. The United States and India have vast supplies of coal; in fact, India has the world's fourth largest coal reserves. Collaborating on cleaner ways to use hydrocarbons while developing alternative energy sources can help global economic and environment goals. In terms of health care, India produces a substantial amount of generic drugs and offers advanced care far more cheaply than that in the West, presenting a mutually beneficial opportunity for both systems to pool their resources and expertise.

Hughes said, "We will become more intertwined as economies and there will be occasional tensions...the points of tension may simply be a sign of a maturing and ever closer relationship."

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