Why India and Washington Could Still Clash

Since the Congress Party's huge win in India's elections was announced on May 16, pundits across the country and in the United States have predicted that the warming relations between Delhi and D.C. are now sure to grow even closer. After all, Congress has finally rid itself of the troublesome coalition partners that were holding it back; surely now it will press forward on the issues that matter most to Washington, such as strengthening the two countries' budding security partnership.

Yet this optimism overlooks some real dangers. Potential conflict looms on three fronts—Kashmir, nonproliferation and trade—and unless the Obama administration handles these issues with more dexterity than Washington has shown thus far, relations with a newly emboldened Indian government could actually get a lot more tense in the months ahead.

So far the signs aren't promising. The U.S. Congress recently announced plans to jump-start the Indian-Pakistani peace process by helping to resolve the Kashmir dispute. Washington's proposal? Sens. John Kerry and Richard Lugar, authors of a new bill providing economic and military assistance to Pakistan, want to push New Delhi to reduce its troop presence in Kashmir as a way of assuaging Islamabad's fears about India's intentions. Their plan, which has the tacit blessing of the Obama administration, may sound reasonable. After all, the United States wants Pakistan to pull troops off its eastern border and throw them into the fight against the Taliban in the west, and calming tensions with India seems like a perfect way to convince Islamabad to do just that. But things aren't so simple. For starters, while such a move might well comfort Pakistan, it would trigger no doubt unpleasant Indian memories of the Cold War, when Washington worked hard to strengthen Islamabad at New Delhi's expense. In addition, Indians are still angry about the devastating Pakistan-based terrorist attacks that hit Mumbai last November. Thus far, India has shown great restraint in not responding to the attacks militarily. But no government in New Delhi—especially one that has just received an overwhelming mandate from the Indian people—would take kindly to American pressure to go even further in making new concessions to India's dangerous and now highly unstable neighbor.

Then there's the nuclear question. Just last fall, Washington, by pushing the landmark U.S.-India nuclear deal, seemed to bless India's new status as an atomic-weapons state. But now the Obama administration has announced plans to revive the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty and to push various holdouts, including Israel and India, to join. India, although it was an original sponsor of the treaty, has come to oppose the measure in recent years, arguing that it would permanently freeze India's fledgling nuclear-weapons program and leave the country vulnerable to its well-armed neighbors, especially China. In the absence of real progress toward true universal disarmament, New Delhi is unlikely to agree to limit or reduce what it sees as its hard-fought and vital nuclear deterrent—no matter who asks it to, or what rewards are offered.

Finally there's trade, which has long been a source of tension between India and the United States. The Bush administration, which did so much to improve ties between the two countries, was frustrated by India's stubborn obstruction of a new global trade agreement as part of the Doha round of negotiations in 2008. New Delhi, along with Beijing, insisted that U.S. agricultural subsidies gave American farmers an unfair advantage, and so they conspired to block all progress until Washington cut such support.

One might think that the newly empowered Congress government might be more amenable to compromise during the next round of the Doha talks, as yet unscheduled. Yet the opposite is probably true. India's new government won the elections by assiduously appealing to the country's vast rural and agricultural constituencies through various state-sponsored development programs. This means New Delhi is now more beholden to its farmers than ever, and it is extremely unlikely to make compromises that might hurt their interests—at least not without similar concessions from the United States and Europe.

None of these problems is insurmountable, or guarantees that the U.S.-Indian relationship is headed for real trouble. For one thing, friends can, and often do, disagree without endangering their underlying relationship. For another, the Obama administration could take measures—such as arranging an official visit by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (who skipped India on her last Asia trip) and pushing through a new agreement on weapons sales—that would greatly reassure India without abandoning America's own priorities. But the point to remember is that it's going to take hard work. The celebrations over Congress's victory are now finished. Time for both sides to sober up and get down to the tough business that lies ahead.

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