Time to mend fences with the US

rudra chaudhuri
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India and the US should engage with each other in defence and other areas. Brinkmanship on IPR issues is best avoided

karen roach/
karen roach/

The astounding mandate secured by Narendra Modi has led scholars and commentators to focus on what more the US can do to win India’s favour. While some argue that the Obama administration ought to “modi-fy” its advance, others recommend developing “a new relationship with India”.

In most instances, punditry appears focused on the immediate future, perhaps for good reason. Commentators seem sold on Modi’s campaign slogan that “the good days are coming”. Getting on the right side of the new Prime Minister’s expected economic and fiscal turn is considered chief priority for most governments, especially the US, which had banned Modi from its shores.

The current state of political transition in India offers an opportunity to ask questions that look past immediate concerns. This is, of course, not to suggest that efforts designed to overcome the touchy issue of a visa ban on Modi are not important.

Personal anguish can make all the difference in state-to-state relations. Conviction on the part of incumbents is sometimes the key to unforeseeable advancements, a point clearly illustrated by the determination shown by President George W Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in negotiating a landmark civil-nuclear agreement between 2005 and 2008.

Yet, the exaggerated focus on how best an Obama White House may reach out to a Modi-led PMO risks losing sight of what this crucial relationship means for world politics in a more general sense.

Indeed, there is little doubt that India-US relations will strengthen. It maybe “joyless,” as Ashley Tellis, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, persuasively argues, but it will be productive nonetheless.

Immediate concerns

There is an urgent need to address differences pertaining to intellectual property standards. India is one of 10 countries listed on the “priority watch list” of the United States Trade Representative’s (USTR) annual report. The key issue, according to it, has to do with India’s “weak IPR legal framework and enforcement system” which hamper India’s “innovation climate.” This is most acute, according to the report, in areas such as pharmaceuticals and agro-chemicals, where it is difficult to secure and enforce patents.

In turn, the BJP’s retort is unrelenting. During the campaign, Hardeep Puri, the former Indian ambassador to the UN and now a party member, made it clear that the report is “extra-constitutional”.

Even special provisions such as settling matters prior to an out-of-cycle review were put down by Puri as “nonsense.” The answer, according to him, lay in taking the matter to the World Trade Organisation’s dispute settlement body. Rather than resort to brinkmanship, simply because this is a determined US-led initiative, it would be prudent to engage the US bilaterally to arrest such divergence.

Further, much has been written about the so-called “freeze” in US-India relations following the Congress-led government’s decision to award a $10.4 billion contract to purchase 126 Rafale fighter jets.

The American offer of F-class jets did not make the final shortlist. The US military, analysts argue, appears to have understood its mistake in taking the deal for granted. Indeed, the defence relationship is far healthier than many argue. India has spent around $10 billion on American airlift capabilities and other equipment. In 2015, both sides will re-negotiate what is called the “New Framework for India-US Defence Relationship”.

It will be important to manage American expectations, especially given the new Indian Finance Minister’s desire to allow 100 per cent foreign direct investment in defence.

Much is likely to be spent on Israeli and European platforms. Limiting the scale of potential dissatisfaction on the part of American firms and government will introduce a transactional, professional quality to a relationship.

Arguing for responsibility

The BJP government has a great opportunity to debate matters of global interest. Courtesy Manmohan Singh questions around India’s nuclear status no longer dog its advance. The days of “nuclear apartheid” are over. India now has a freer hand to look at global issues beyond proliferation such as humanitarian intervention. Since 2005, when the UN adopted what came to be called the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), Indian representatives have been ill at ease. After all, the idea behind the doctrine (adopted at the UN 2005 World Summit Outcome) is to empower the international community to assist, place pressure, and even intervene in cases where a state no longer offers protection to its population.

India has staunchly opposed intervention, seeing it as nothing more than a “Trojan horse for refurbished imperialism”, according to one former Indian representative to the UN. The invocation of R2P, in the case of Libya, only reaffirmed the view of Indian diplomats. Nonetheless, R2P is hardly a finished product; it is a doctrine in need of development.

Rather than remain permanently disenchanted, there is an immense opportunity for India to demonstrate leadership and argue the merits and demerits of R2P with American counterparts. To be sure, a major foreign policy speech by President Obama on May 28 made clear that one of America’s key priorities will be to “strengthen and enforce international order”. Such enforcement has done little in Libya. Whether or not arming rebel groups in Syria will prove effective is highly questionable. Clearly, the question of intervention is not going away. Rather than remain on the sidelines, there is an opportunity for India to engage the US to find a balance between two very different sets of approaches to intervention.

India and the US share a relationship like none other, a relationship that can use matters of immediacy to energise and build the necessary confidence to disagree; issues of international concern can be discussed as well. This will require ambition and a sense for vision, but has the potential to draw India and the US into a dialogue that will help shape a more constructive and balanced 21st century.

This article is by special arrangement with the Center for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania. The writer is a senior lecturer in the department of war studies and the India Institute at King’s College London

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated June 4, 2014)
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