WASHINGTON — U.S.-India relations will take a cautious step forward Friday, when Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh meets with President Barack Obama in what may be the last visit in a relationship marked by unmet expectations.
Singh, a former economist with a reputation for building consensus, has yet to signal any intention to seek another term in India’s 2014 general election. His tenure has been defined by an interest in bilateral relations with the U.S., highlighted by his decision in the late 2000s to put his party on the line over groundbreaking nuclear agreements.
Friday could mark the end of an era, an effort from Singh to go out on a high note.
Beyond symbolism, however, a tense Middle East and pressing domestic crises could stalemate any substantial diplomatic progress in what both leaders have said is a crucial relationship.“It’s not going to generate the same kind of enthusiasm that (Singh’s) state visit generated four years ago,” said Lisa Curtis, an expert in South Asia relations at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington. “I think that’s partly because leaders have a more measured, maybe more realistic, set of expectations of the partnership.”
On the pivotal issue of the number of Indian workers coming to the U.S., debates over H-1B visas – a primary method of entry – are tied up in the congressional discussions of overhauling immigration.
Sluggish economies in both countries have demanded inward attention. And America’s military drawdown in Afghanistan has upset the balance in the region, straining India’s effort at being a regional leader.
The muted expectations are a result of the recent stalling of U.S.-India relations, a diplomatic partnership that at one time inspired high hopes.
“This has been a strange relationship over the years,” Stephen Cohen, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who’s an expert in U.S.-India relations, said at a recent panel. “It plunged to the point, 1965 in a sense, that the U.S. and India went their separate ways. . . . It’s been a slow climb back up to a normal relationship, and there’s been many ups and downs.”
The nations were first thrust together during World War II, when British-controlled India served as a staging ground for the war’s China-Burma-India theater. The U.S. lobbied heavily for Indian independence in the war’s immediate aftermath, although it backed off at Britain’s behest. Relations chilled throughout the Cold War, when U.S. ties to Pakistan and India’s closeness with Russia drove a wedge between them; relations hit a low point with the Nixon administration’s closeness to India’s primary rival, Pakistan.
Recent decades have seen marked improvement. India emerged as an economic powerhouse, and the two nations found common ground fighting Islamist extremism.
In 2005, the nations began to chip away at restrictions on India’s civilian nuclear capabilities, and in 2008 Congress lifted a decades-long moratorium on nuclear trade with India; the two countries announced joint nonproliferation efforts in 2010.
But although relations progressed quickly during the George W. Bush years, the pace has slowed under Obama, with little movement in the nuclear conversation and domestic unemployment in the U.S. causing tension in joint economic efforts.
“Momentum has definitely slowed,” said Tanvi Madan, the director of the India Project at the Brookings Institution, a left-leaning research center based in Washington. “One of the things the administration is doing and what the Indian side is doing, they’re managing expectations. They’re not promising huge deliverables.”
Both sides are responsible for the slowing relationship, Madan said.
“It’s not on their top three list,” Madan said. “There are other things they are focused on, even on the foreign policy side.”
The agenda for the visit mostly is economic matters. According to White House spokeswoman Laura Lucas, the leaders will “discuss the reforms India has taken to open key sectors of its economy to investment, streamline regulations and promote inclusive economic growth, and how we can enhance trade, investment and development cooperation between the United States and India.”
Talks might focus on India’s struggling economy, which has seen a sharp drop in growth since Singh’s last visit, in 2009. During a July visit to India, Vice President Joe Biden urged the country to lower its barriers to foreign investment, but congressional concerns about India’s economic struggles might limit any progress on that.
On defense issues, experts said there was some possibility for progress. Talks on joint missile development and the sale of military equipment continue, but even those discussions have been tempered since defense collaborations were announced in 2005.
“There were great expectations . . . that the defense trade relationship would increase substantially by this time,” said Curtis, of the Heritage Foundation.
The hope, Curtis said, was that the U.S. would quickly surpass Russia as India’s primary defense partner. Instead, Moscow and New Delhi have gotten closer, signing a multi-billion-dollar defense contract last year.
Ongoing complications in U.S.-India nuclear agreements further stymie defense collaborations between the nations.
“People thought that the civil nuclear deal would sort of open the floodgate for India to import U.S. defense items,” Curtis said. “And we haven’t really seen that happen.”
The U.S.-India nuclear agreements have been stalled since Congress waived restrictions on India’s importation of nuclear fuel and technology from the international community.
Although the agreements opened the door for American investment, complications have prevented collaborations from coming to fruition.
The initial excitement over those agreements has “dissipated somewhat over the past two years,” said Seema Sirohi, a Washington-based columnist on U.S.-India relations. “Unless they are able to pull a rabbit out of the hat, it seems that there will be an agreement about an agreement about an agreement on the nuclear issue.”
Environmental issues are also on the table, including tighter regulation of India’s hydrofluorocarbons. But Madan said at a recent Brookings panel that any forward motion most likely would come in the form of a statement, not policy.
Despite the expected lack of results, Madan said the visit showed a proactive engagement by the countries’ political leaders.
“There is definitely a huge symbolic aspect,” Madan said.
The “honeymoon” phase, she said, has passed for the two nations, when token issues such as the nuclear agreements stole headlines. But, she said, “The little stuff matters because it keeps things going.”
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