While much of the world’s attention was focused on the birth of Britain’s Prince George, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden was visiting India, in an attempt to get the bilateral relationship between the world’s oldest and largest democracies back on track. New Delhi is understandably wary of the Obama administration. India’s policymakers are concerned about a possible U.S. “rush for the exits” in Afghanistan after 2014, especially if it involves a deal with the Taliban that would allow the militants to exercise real authority in the country and undercut Indian interests. Moreover, while India has real issues with China, including continued tensions over unresolved border issues, New Delhi is not anxious to be drawn into playing a supporting role in Washington’s strategic pivot to Asia. Nor does it want to assume new commitments on behalf of the U.S. for underwriting U.S. security preferences for the Indian Ocean basin.
Meanwhile, the Indian government has not done enough—in American eyes—to open up the prospects of the vast Indian market to U.S. businesses by removing trade barriers that continue to provide preferential protection for domestic industries. Given President Barack Obama’s promises that U.S. exports would be an engine for job growth and, as his address this week at Knox College made clear, his realization that turning the U.S. economy around will be critical to his legacy as president, Indian foot-dragging in reducing some of the barriers that continue to block U.S. imports remains an irritant.
Although no great breakthroughs occurred on Biden’s trip, each side did seek to reassure the other that its concerns are being addressed. Speaking in Mumbai, Biden reaffirmed that U.S. policy in Afghanistan remains that any “reconciliation” with the Taliban will require them to accept the Afghan constitution and authority of the existing government. He praised existing efforts to reduce trade barriers and called on his hosts to continue the process, pointing to a five-fold increase in U.S.-India trade since 2000 and arguing that with “the right choices” there is no reason not to expect a similar increase in the near future. Biden’s comments about the “Big Three”—India, China and the U.S.—being essential for the health of the global economy also help mitigate New Delhi’s negative reaction to the Obama administration’s apparent predisposition during its first term to think in terms of a U.S.-China G-2 that seemed to relegate the U.S.-India relationship to the second tier.