President Barack Obama’s visit to India on January 25-27, 2015 renewed India’s place as a centerpiece of the “pivot to Asia.” Moving ahead with long-pending strategic deals on civilian nuclear trade and defense co-development, along with the renewal of our expiring New Framework for the U.S. India Defense Relationship, underscores the new cooperative spirit with which our strategic communities are engaging each other. The real gem from this visit may ultimately prove to be the U.S.-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region (JSV). The vision laid out in this document offers similar promise to the 2004 Next Steps in Strategic Partnership (NSSP) in terms of its scope for transforming—and upgrading—our strategic partnership.
The JSV, like the NSSP, is not an exhaustive document with specific measures outlined in advance. In the JSV, the U.S. and India focus heavily on the countries’ shared values and the desire for security as a means to achieve prosperity. Finding tangible ways to turn the principles contained in the JSV into action is not a direct and easy path. But if our governments commit themselves to breathing life into these principles, it is a powerful step towards creating a more stable Asia.
To India, deepening strategic engagement beyond its immediate neighborhood highlights a growing recognition that its interests are fast becoming global. Engaging the U.S. on regional security issues will benefit India in important ways:
- Stability in Channels of Goods Trade: Today, India’s goods trade balance is around forty percent of GDP, up from thirteen percent in 1991. India shares a land border with only one of its top twenty-five trade partners (China) so much of this trade comes from the sea, including hydrocarbons. A disruption to these trade flows will have a meaningful impact on the Indian economy.
- Protecting the Diaspora: India has a vast non-resident population, sometimes living in unstable areas. The Ministry of Overseas Indians lists among the top twenty-five countries by non-resident Indian population such places as Nepal, Burma, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, and Yemen. Each of these countries has faced issues of domestic or regional instability that should be of concern to India’s leaders.
- Access to America’s Strategic Technologies: The U.S. generally withholds top-line strategic technologies except from our most trusted partners. Assisting in the maintenance of global stability will support the case for allowing the export of more advanced strategic technologies to India.
- Ability to Influence American Foreign Policy: When the U.S. thinks of India as non-aligned or inwardly-focused, it is relatively easy to dismiss Indian suggestions for moderating America’s foreign policy. But if we deepen our strategic partnership and the U.S. finds itself relying on India to some degree, it provides new leverage for India to help influence American foreign policy.
The U.S.-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region could prove a seminal document in laying out the principles for a new strategic global partnership, much like the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership did for our bilateral strategic partnership. Such documents which lack specific next steps can only be truly judged in hindsight. But having leaders committed to follow-through opens the door to interesting possibilities to advance the partnership.