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India’s Growing Global Influence Raises Stakes for U.S. Diplomacy

November 8, 2010 at 5:38 PM EST
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President Obama's endorsement of India's demand for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council reflects the country's growing global weight. Ray Suarez gets two views on the president's trip and U.S.-Indian relations from Deepa Ollapally of George Washington University and Charles Kupchan of the Council on Foreign Relations.
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RAY SUAREZ: For more on President Obama’s trip to India, we get two views.

Deepa Ollapally teaches international relations and is associate director of the Center for Asian Studies at George Washington University. She frequently travels to India. Charlie Kupchan is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of “How Enemies Become Friends: The Sources of Stable Peace.” He served on the National Security Council staff during the Clinton administration.

Professor Ollapally, during this trip, President Obama has called the tie with India one of the defining relationships of the 21st century. Is he right? And how does this trip contribute to that?

DEEPA OLLAPALLY, George Washington University: I think the—his view of India as the as one of the defining partnerships is easy enough to understand.

If you think about overall U.S. interests in this century in the 21st century, India offers if you look at it strategically, economically and ideologically, India is a pretty sure bet in the long term to be working together with the U.S. in solving a variety of problems, both globally, as well as regionally.

So, I think Obama is I think this is something that he’s been saying quite frequently. And I think he sort of walked the walk when he was in India this time.

RAY SUAREZ: Charlie Kupchan, hyperbole, or is he on to something?

CLIFF KUPCHAN, research director, Eurasia Group: I think that the trip succeeded in the sense that Obama needed to send a message to the Indians that India hadn’t fallen off the American radar screen. That was the real concern, because, during the Bush years, India felt that it was in the limelight. There was a nuclear deal.

And then there was a sense that there was a drift in the relationship. I would agree with Deepa that the general alignment between the U.S. and India over the long run looks pretty good. I fear that this three-day visit, however good, warm and fuzzy, may put the cart before the horse, in the sense that I think, probably by 2020 or 2025, it will be a very important relationship.

But, right now, the U.S. and India are pretty far apart on Afghanistan and Pakistan. They don’t really agree on Iran. India isn’t ready to cut commercial ties. On China, India is really focused on the northeastern border that — the territory dispute, the U.S. more on naval issues.

On climate change, don’t see eye to eye. And, on trade, there’s a lot of tough talk. In fact, the U.S.-India confrontation really stalled the Doha round of trade negotiations. So, my bottom line is, it looks good over the horizon, but don’t say things that you can’t actually back up in the near term.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, that’s a pretty daunting litany from Charles Kupchan, isn’t it?

DEEPA OLLAPALLY: Right. Right. I have to say I don’t fully agree with Charles on this one.

I think one of the things is that India’s rhetoric has been somewhat — it’s been disconcerting, from the U.S. point of view. I agree that, on climate change and Doha, there were clear problems. But, on the other hand, India sees, in trade at least — and that’s the key part here, with a president who is facing the domestic economic downturn that we have here — jobs are very important. The trade is very important.

And what India has — I think what you’re going to see is a shift over time, and not 20, 30 years, but in the next five years, where they have recognized that India is a net winner with globalization, participating in a new round of Doha perhaps, but participating in changing and talking within the WTO framework.

So, I think India has actually — is on board on that, because if you look at what they have done, chasing the free trade agreements that would have been unthinkable just three, four years ago. Also, this move, as I think that Obama has announced there, has really empowered the — what I might call the great power realists within India, because there are different schools of thought.

And I think this really builds the case for those people who are — been dragging their feet to actually act more concertedly and be serious about acting in different ways that help U.S.-Indo relations.

RAY SUAREZ: Charles Kupchan, let me follow up with you on the trade question. For years, people talked about China as a great potential future market for American goods and said, oh, you have to be in China. Yes, it’s going to cost you a lot up front, but, eventually, going to pay off handsomely.

Now the Chinese are making a lot of those things that we were supposed to sell to them for themselves. Might India follow suit?

CHARLES KUPCHAN: Well, right now, India has an economy that is only about a quarter the size of China. Trade with the United States is one-seventh trade with — excuse me — United States and China.

So, we’re still talking about a country that is emerging, not yet on the global stage. And, moreover, a lot of industrialization has yet to take place in India. A lot of the development has been in the services industry and software. So, we’re not really talking about a situation where there’s a huge diversion of industrial and manufacturing capability from the United States to India.

But I do think there has been a lot of progress on the economic front, and that I sort of see this trip as laying the foundations for a relationship that may well burgeon over the coming decade. But this is really the beginning. And, again, I think it’s important for both sides to keep those expectations in check, because, otherwise, we may, when we — when we take off the rose-colored glasses, say, well, where’s the beef? What is the stuff of this new partnership?

That would be my concern.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor, before we close, we do have to talk about the American president’s public pronouncement that he backs India for future membership on the permanent members of the Security Council of the U.N.

Is it a big deal for India to get that kind of public endorsement?

DEEPA OLLAPALLY: Absolutely. I mean, this was very high up on the Indian wish list. But it was seen as something that was probably not going to come any time soon, partly because of the Chinese resistance and also the delicate relationship of the U.S. and Pakistan. The only other country that the U.S. has endorsed so far is Japan. And they’re allies, right?

So, India — I think this far exceeded the Indian expectations, but it has gone a huge way in shoring up Indian trust with the U.S., because one thing we have to understand is that, for 50 years, U.S. and India were on really different sides of the equation, during the post-independence period.

So, it’s a huge progress that they have made over the last five years, and to the point where India and the U.S. — the U.S. has the largest number of military maneuvers with India today, more than any other country, which is itself — you know, so you have to look behind the sort of general sort of, you know, dragging of the feet and not much happening.

But there are impacts, in fact, important steps that are being taken, military and economic. So, I think it was — this is something that will go a long way to cementing relations between the two.

RAY SUAREZ: Can the United States be expected to put its real diplomatic muscle behind that endorsement?

CHARLES KUPCHAN: It’s an enormously complicated process.

I think the president is right to say it’s time to start this discussion, that the U.N. Security Council represents the post-World War II distribution of power, not the world that we live in today. But to get a consensus among the perm five, the key players, to get China to agree, to figure out how to deal with Brazil, with South Africa, with other players, is going to be a very long-term investment.

So can India…

RAY SUAREZ: Well, are we talking about? Five years, 10 years? How long is long?

CHARLES KUPCHAN: I would — I would say that three to five years is not on. I think we’re talking about an expansion of the Security Council maybe by the end of the decade. And, again, that’s why let’s be careful. Let’s not put the cart before the horse, lest we end up creating expectations that go unmet.

RAY SUAREZ: Charles Kupchan, Deepa Ollapally, thank you both.

DEEPA OLLAPALLY: Thank you.

CHARLES KUPCHAN: Pleasure.