Biden Goes to India: A Defining Partnership, Or Squabbling Cousins?


Throughout this week, Vice President Joe Biden has toured India with an aim to foster what President Obama has called the “defining partnership of the 21ST century”. Despite Biden’s high praise for India and a call to strengthen ties, very little resulted from the trip. Speeches made about the importance of strategic and economic cooperation between the two nations led to no concrete resolutions or agreements.

The outcome of Vice President Biden’s trip is disappointing, but by no means surprising. The many ideological, economic, and cultural affinities that have always existed between India and the United States, have never led to a durable partnership. The explanation for this can be found in a set of divisive issues that have made an earnest partnership a non-starter: India, which has always been wary of alignment and trade liberalization, must learn to open its doors to partnership. For its part, The United States must begin to more clearly define its relationship to Pakistan, India’s arch-rival, to prove to India that it is a good-faith partner. While these issues are by no means the only ones dividing the two nations, a failure to resolve them will preclude a meaningful relationship.

India and the United States share a special relationship. Both are diverse democracies, which espouse a liberal constitution. Indians overwhelmingly have a positive view of the United States and want the nations’ relationship to improve. Americans, basing much of their opinion on Indian immigrants in the United States, share a similarly positive opinion of Indians. In addition to this, the strategic and economic advantages of such a partnership are apparent to both nations.

From this arises the question why India and the United States have never solidified their relationship into a constructive partnership. The answer to this can be found in the long-term security strategies that both nations have employed in the past.

During the Cold War, India operated under the strategy of Non-Alignment. Intending to keep India out of the sphere of influence of either the United States or the USSR, the Indian government eschewed committing to strategic alliances. Since the end of the Cold War, this strategy has only slowly altered. India’s foreign policy remains hesitant to commit to alliance.

In the economic sphere, Indian non-alignment has taken the form of protectionism. Hoping to shield the lowest classes from hardship, it limited the extent that foreign business could enter the country. Though the economic reforms enacted by then Finance Minister Singh in 1991 were profoundly important, they did not go far enough. Further reforms that protect American business interests are essential to a strengthening relationship. The Indian government’s recent decision to ignore U.S. pharmaceutical patents is just one example of protectionism unbefitting an economic partner. While India maintains this form of economic protectionism that is damaging to American business, it cannot hope to establish a relationship with the United States.

In a profound sense, India must ask itself if it is ready to commit to a partnership and to cast off an obsolete Cold War strategy. Only this strategic and economic reset will allow the U.S. to engage it in a partnership.

The U.S. must do its part to improve the India-U.S. relationship, as well, by reevaluating our foreign policy. For more than a decade, the United States has had an intimate and unpleasant relationship with Pakistan. Though this relationship has been integral in fighting the war in Afghanistan, it has greatly alienated India. India frequently accuses Pakistan of using billions of dollars of aid from the U.S. to strengthen its military along its contentious border with India.

In order to engage with India, the United States must begin to slowly divest itself from Pakistan. By doing so, it will keep itself from having to serve conflicting interests and demonstrate that it sees India as more than just a pawn in a power struggle for Asia. 

With the historic importance of Pakistan for the United States, this will not be an easy task. However there are many signs that the time is right. The U.S.-Pakistan relationship has never been worse. As the recent Pakistani Army intelligence leak confirmed, the relationship is hostile and suspicious at best. The War in Afghanistan is slowly coming to an end, greatly lessening the strategic importance of Pakistan for the U.S. Most importantly, Pakistan just held a historic election that solidified the prominence of the state over the military. As has been recently argued by Husain Haqqani, breaking up is hard to do, but the time to do it may be right.  

At this juncture, the United States must reassess its long-term strategic priorities and determine which nation, India or Pakistan, it wishes to further engage with. Though encouraging reconciliation between the two hostile nations should always be a priority, for now, the United States must choose one or the other.

This argument does not mean to discount the many other divisive issues that stand between the United States and India. Without a doubt, other strategic and economic issues will strain a U.S.-India partnership. The War on Terror, China and global warming will all be issues where the two nations will often disagree. However, unlike the issues mentioned above, trade and Pakistan will make a strategic partnership a non-starter.

Modifying security strategies to establish a lasting partnership will not be easy for either country. The great irony of the U.S.-Indian relationship is that their democracies, which are so central to their ideological affinity, will make resolving disagreements more difficult. Democracies are messy, slow, and filled with politicians that are always wary of making difficult decisions. However, the US-India partnership could indeed be a defining relationship of the 21st century. More than granting both nations huge strategic benefits, it could help ensure the continued significance of democracy. In a time when autocratic China offers an attractive model for emerging economies, a U.S.-India partnership can strengthen the global perception of democracy as compatible with economic development.