The tenor of US-India relations in 2013 was similar to that articulated by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2012 when she spoke of the need for “daily, weekly, monthly collaboration” rather than dramatic breakthroughs. In a February 2013 visit to Washington, Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai echoed these comments. He argued that the bilateral relationship has reached a “new normal” in which consultation has become a habit. For its part, the Obama administration continued to hail the relationship as a defining partnership. There were about 60 official visits during the year and about 35 different dialogues, working and consultation mechanisms to move the relationship forward. The areas of discussion and action covered commercial ties including trade and investment, defense relations, a special focus on Afghanistan, and broad consultation on Asia-Pacific and global issues.
Over a decade into the “normalization” of US-India relations and nearly 20 years into India’s “Look East” policy, the US-India-East Asia nexus is regularly articulated by the US and India, generally accepted in the region, and shows some signs of gaining traction including a regular US-India dialogue on East Asia and the launch of the first-ever US-India-Japan trilateral dialogue. More broadly, US views of India as part of Asia now encompass mental as well as policy maps (though not yet bureaucratic and all geographical ones) and transcend party politics. Meanwhile, US-India bilateral relations move steadily if sometimes frustratingly forward, and India-East Asia ties continue to deepen and widen though to neither side’s full satisfaction. One thing is clear: triangulation depends above all on India’s own commitment and actions to build a closer relationship with the wider Asia-Pacific region. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in an echo of comments made by regional leaders over the years, told an Indian audience in Chennai in July that “India’s leadership will help to shape positively the future of the Asia Pacific. That’s why … we encourage India not just to look east, but to engage east and act east as well [emphasis added].”
High-profile visits and meetings characterized Indian relations with both the United States and East Asia in 2010. While there were no major “breakthroughs” or departures as a result, the ongoing evolution of both US-India and India-East Asia relations suggests that they are now a fixed part of the US-Asia dynamic. It is worth noting that while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton neither visited India during her first trip to Asia in February 2009 (she did visit India in July 2009) nor made mention of India in her pre-departure address on US Asia policy, in November 2010 President Obama opened his speech to the joint session of India’s Parliament by declaring that “[i]t’s no coincidence that India is my first stop on a visit to Asia…” And the joint statement between the two countries issued during that visit specifically noted a “shared vision for peace, stability and prosperity in Asia, the Indian Ocean region and the Pacific region…[and] agreed “to deepen existing regular strategic consultations on developments in East Asia…” Indeed, including India at all in an Asia itinerary is a recent innovation in US foreign policy and one that speaks to a larger US policy debate about the evolving Asia-Pacific. Whether such an innovation sticks remains to be seen, although many indications suggest that it will; especially as the need to coordinate increases on matters such as the East Asian Summit, maritime cooperation across the “Indo-Pacific,” and wider global issues.
The past two years have been especially full for India’s diplomacy – both toward the United States and East Asia. Toward the U.S., India, by mobilizing hundreds of thousands of troops along the international border with Pakistan following an attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001, was engaged in “coercive diplomacy” aimed at getting Washington to pressure Pakistan to halt cross-border infiltration into Kashmir. For much of 2002 and half of 2003, U.S.-India relations were preoccupied with getting Pakistan to carry through on its commitments, preventing further escalation or miscalculation of the crisis, initiating a political process in Jammu and Kashmir, and nudging India-Pakistan relations toward dialogue. Simultaneously, the U.S. and India worked to implement the “big idea” of the Bush administration to transform U.S.-India relations through enhanced defense cooperation, improved trade, and wider political and security consultations. On both these counts, the U.S. and India achieved some progress – though not smoothly.
India in 2003 was also pursuing an improvement in relations with its rapidly growing neighbor, China, while building on the past few years of steady improvement with Southeast Asia, and to a lesser extent Japan. While no dramatic events or breakthroughs have occurred, an incremental but steady focus by India on East Asia has been maintained despite severe India-Pakistan tension during all of 2002 and the first half of 2003.
This article, building on earlier reviews of U.S.-India (see “U.S.-India Relations: Visible to the Naked Eye,” Comparative Connections, Vol. 3, No. 4) and India-East Asia Relations (see “India-East Asia Relations: The Weakest Link, but not Goodbye,” Comparative Connections, Vol. 3, No.1, January 2003), examines U.S.-India and India-East Asia relations in 2002-2003 and 2003 respectively.