Joe Biden’s recent visit to New Delhi and Mumbai—the first trip by an American vice president to India in 30 years—occasioned no shortage of handwringing over the state of the U.S.-India relationship. Commentators on both sides point to stalled economic reforms and slowing growth in India combined with uncertainty over how India fits into Washington’s vaunted “rebalance” to Asia. And from one perspective, the glass can indeed appear half empty. Yet the U.S.-India relationship enjoys bipartisan support in both countries, and the underlying strategic logic remains sound. Building on this foundation will require able stewardship in both Washington and New Delhi.
The differences and divisions have taken center stage in recent months. India and the United States are, after all, two large and messy democracies whose political systems respond at least as much to domestic pressures as they do to foreign policy opportunities. Thus American businesses complain of unfair tax treatment and regulatory barriers to trade and investment in India, which can have strategic impact in a relationship driven in part by rapidly expanding economic ties. Indian high-tech companies worry about provisions in the immigration bill under debate in the U.S. Congress that would tighten H1-B visa rules, to Indian firms’ possible detriment.
At the same time, the landmark civilian nuclear cooperation agreement, which formed the “big idea” of the bilateral relationship several years ago, remains unfulfilled due to differences over India’s nuclear liability law. Washington and New Delhi have differed over sanctioning Iran, and Indian policymakers express concern about America’s commitment—or lack thereof—to Afghanistan after 2014. And though military ties have improved rapidly over the past decade, key defense agreements remain unsigned.