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Future of U.S.-India Relations

March 11, 2009

On January 29, 2009, in New Delhi, The Asia Foundation and the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) convened top India and U.S. experts to examine U.S.-India relations under the new Obama Administration. The following is a summary of the day’s discussions and analysis prepared by CII.

Indian and American business leaders, academics, and journalists came together in late January to discuss and debate the “Future Direction of U.S. Relations with India and the Region” in New Delhi. Organized by The Asia Foundation and the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), the discussion focused on the Foundation’s recent report, America’s Role in Asia: Asian and American Views and highlighted issues needing attention to strengthen U.S.-India relations under the new U.S. Administration. The discussions covered deepening trade and commerce links, collaborating on technology innovations to address climate change, and developing counter-terrorism strategies, and ensuring stability in Asia. Given the sheer size and economic weight of Asia – and with India emerging as a major player – America’s future is inextricably linked to the region.

Ambassador Karl Inderfurth, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State and author of the chapter on India in America’s Role in Asia (ARA) presented a list of specific recommendations for  President Obama’s Administration. Ambassador Inderfurth said that America’s positive stance with India has been consistent for the last two changes of political power – a clear indication of the growing importance of India for the U.S., and the world. He also assured India that the U.S.-India strategic partnership initiated under former President George Bush also has strong Democratic support under President Obama. To strengthen U.S.-India relations in the 21st century, Inderfurth suggested these seven  points:

(1) Strengthen strategic ties to maintain a balance of power and stabilize the Indian Ocean littoral area; (2) Realize economic potential to deepen commercial ties and remove impediments to trade cooperation; (3) Pursue a broader nuclear dialogue by engaging India in non-proliferation;  (4) Highlight higher education, which would make India a knowledge producer from a talent supplier; (5) Support India’s UN Bid for a permanent seat at the UN Security Council; (6) Collaborate in India’s neighborhood, helping to stablize Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Afghanistan; and (7) Promote a Cooperative U.S.-India-China Triangle.

Ambassador Naresh Chandra, Former Indian Ambassador to the U.S. , said America’s Role in Asia serves as a useful guide to advance India-U.S. ties and its recommendations will help both countries work towards rebuilding the regional architecture. C. Raja Mohan, Professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and South Asia Regional ARA Chair, observed that such close U.S.-India cooperation would have been unthinkable two decades ago, but the nuclear deal changed the relationship’s dynamics considerably.

In the discussion on “U.S. Relations with India & the Region,” Ambassador Rajendra Abhyankar, director of India Programs for The Asia Foundation, noted the significance in recent U.S.-India joint initiatives, which have resulted in several bilateral agreements: the Civil Nuclear Agreement, the Open Skies Agreement, Logistics Support Agreement, and the Nehru Fulbright Scholarship Program. Steven White, deputy chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy, stressed that India and the U.S. should focus “less on differences and more on similarities” while pursuing a broad-based agenda. Emerging issues like India’s role in stabilizing the Asian region, participation in global multilateral institutions, Indo- U.S. cooperation in fostering higher education and advanced technology, climate change, combating terrorism, building infrastructure in public health, and reforming agriculture, should be the focal points.

The panelists acknowledged extremist groups’ violence as a harsh reality and prime concern and agreed that in order to promote greater stability in the region, the U.S. and India should work together in Afghanistan.

Panelists agreed that both countries must also deepen their trade and commercial links while maintaining an open and free market economy. T N Ninan, chairman and managing director of Business Standard Ltd, and editor of the Business Standard, evaluated the positives and negatives in bilateral economic growth, but said that even with just 6.5 percent growth, India is likely to remain a growth magnet. Impediments to trade are still far too many, as both countries face protectionist issues. However, economic growth cannot be sustained without standards for higher education or at the cost of environmental damage. There is tremendous scope for joint initiatives in these two areas.

Ambassador SK Lambah, Special Envoy to the Indian Prime Minister, discussed the challenge of increasing populations, and extracting higher agricultural productivity from decreasing land under cultivation. He pointed to the necessity of the US helping India to usher in a second Green Revolution through increased bilateral collaboration in the field of agricultural science and biotechnology. He said that the agricultural collaboration between US and India would be critical for the future of bilateral ties highlighted in Ambassador Inderfurth’s seven point agenda.

Mr. Brajesh Mishra, former National Security adviser to the Government of India, said that within the first 10 days of assuming office, the Obama Administration had shown an important and clear focus on Asia. With India and China emerging as major players on the international stage, a cooperative triangle between India-US-China would go a long way.

Tarun Das, Chief Mentor at CII, concluded the discussion on an optimistic note, saying that although more problems naturally rise from more proximity, the energies of both countries must be focused towards their resolution. Building a relationship is all about building trust and we are slowly moving towards that, he said.

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