The US and India have made a lot of progress in this realm in recent years, and, according to Desai, the US conducts more joint military exercises with India than with any other nation. Both nations are seeking to improve their geopolitical position in the Asia-Pacific region, especially in response to the rise of China and both generally have similar objectives in the region. Therefore, it is highly likely that the US and India , along with Japan and Australia, will continue to make progress on greater strategic cooperation.
While Desai sees US-India relations as holding great promise for the future, he also pointed out three major “irritants” that could impede this relationship going forward if they are not addressed.
The first of these is climate change. The US and India are both major polluters, but have have different understandings of how to address this issue. The US wishes for all nations to commit to emissions cuts in order to curb climate change, while India believes that, as a developing nation, it is unfair for it to undergo emissions cuts after richer nations like the US developed without any restrictions on its pollution.
The second challenge is intellectual property, particularly in the pharmaceuticals sector. India is the world’s largest generic drugs producer, while the US hosts many of the companies that believe these generic drugs are patent violations. In recent years, Indian courts have ruled more often in favour of generic drug producers in patent cases, angering US pharmaceutical companies. Many Indian policymakers see this as a moral issue, in which India provides affordable medicines to the developing world, while the US sees India’s generic drug production as removing incentives for pharmaceutical research.
The third challenge is trade. The US finds India to be protectionist, while India thinks the US is imposing its norms upon the rest of the world in this area. The two countries have filed vast numbers of cases against each other in the World Trade Organisation, and relations on this topic have been so strained that India has been excluded from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a proposed free trade deal between the US and East Asian countries.
3. The Indian Diaspora in the US
Desai believes that Indian-Americans are set to play an unprecedentedly important role in relations between the two countries. The first major instance of the diaspora playing such a role emerged during the 2005 Indo-US nuclear deal, in which Indian-Americans lobbied the US Congress to accept the deal, signalling that the relative lack of political representation of Indian-American interests was set to change. Since Narendra Modi has come to power, according to Desai, he has sought to transform the way India engages with the Indian diaspora, as evidenced by the massive crowd that watched him speak at Madison Square Garden in New York last year. Nonetheless, Indian-Americans across the US are yet to develop a set of common interests and goals that they may pursue by organising, or a set of organisations to represent them in a concerted manner, and Desai expects this to change slowly over time, given recent developments both in India and the US.
4. The Discourse Around Rights
Desai expects there to be increased attention on India’s rights discourse going forward, because he believes India is reaching a ‘tipping point’ in many areas, including women’s rights, minority rights, and freedom of speech. The recent banning of the documentary ‘India’s Daughter’ and government officials’ belief that this was a conspiracy against India is out of touch with the views of many younger Indians, and issues such as this are likely to become more contentious going forward. The US has always found it hard to engage with this debate, as it has often wished to defend its values abroad without seeming to interfere in India’s domestic issues. The manner in which President Obama briefly and carefully tried to discuss minority rights when he visited India, and the huge outcry this prompted in India, indicates how difficult it can be to maintain this balance.
At the same time, Desai argues that, despite its flaws, India represents many of the values that the US holds dear, and can serve as a beacon for those values across the wider world. He points out that other nations are not worried about India’s geopolitical emergence, in the way that they have been about the rise of China or Russia. In a year where many parts of the world have slipped into unrest, the relative stability of both India and the US is symbolically important. In his view, and that of the US, India must be more vocal about standing up for its values in the wider world, and taking positions on foreign policy issues in the future.
5. The Economy
Desai sees the private sector playing a greater role on both sides of the relationship, but especially in India. The new Indian government is more oriented towards the private sector, and towards foreign investment, and, while companies from both countries have been engaging each other quite actively, this engagement could now feed into the wider US-India relationship.
These five trends, according to Desai, are already emerging, but are likely to become more pronounced in the future, as both the US and India seek to develop the relationship between the two countries in an evolving geopolitical context. As Desai observed at the end of his talk, this partnership will have an impact on multiple levels, right from creating new opportunities for individual Indians, Americans, and Indian-Americans to engage with each other to producing global geopolitical shifts. How exactly these trends interact with each other, and the exact impact that this will have, is yet to be seen.