WASHINGTON -- U.S.-India relations will take a cautious step forward Friday, when Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh meets with President Barack Obama in what may be the last visit in a relationship marked by unmet expectations.
Singh, a former economist with a reputation for building consensus, has yet to signal any intention to seek another term in India’s 2014 general election. His tenure has been defined by an interest in bilateral relations with the U.S., highlighted by his decision in the late 2000s to put his party on the line over groundbreaking nuclear agreements.
Friday could mark the end of an era, an effort from Singh to go out on a high note.
Beyond symbolism, however, a tense Middle East and pressing domestic crises could stalemate any substantial diplomatic progress in what both leaders have said is a crucial relationship.“It’s not going to generate the same kind of enthusiasm that (Singh’s) state visit generated four years ago,” said Lisa Curtis, an expert in South Asia relations at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington. “I think that’s partly because leaders have a more measured, maybe more realistic, set of expectations of the partnership.”
On the pivotal issue of the number of Indian workers coming to the U.S., debates over H-1B visas – a primary method of entry – are tied up in the congressional discussions of overhauling immigration.
Sluggish economies in both countries have demanded inward attention. And America’s military drawdown in Afghanistan has upset the balance in the region, straining India’s effort at being a regional leader.
The muted expectations are a result of the recent stalling of U.S.-India relations, a diplomatic partnership that at one time inspired high hopes.
“This has been a strange relationship over the years,” Stephen Cohen, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who’s an expert in U.S.-India relations, said at a recent panel. “It plunged to the point, 1965 in a sense, that the U.S. and India went their separate ways. . . . It’s been a slow climb back up to a normal relationship, and there’s been many ups and downs.”
The nations were first thrust together during World War II, when British-controlled India served as a staging ground for the war’s China-Burma-India theater. The U.S. lobbied heavily for Indian independence in the war’s immediate aftermath, although it backed off at Britain’s behest. Relations chilled throughout the Cold War, when U.S. ties to Pakistan and India’s closeness with Russia drove a wedge between them; relations hit a low point with the Nixon administration’s closeness to India’s primary rival, Pakistan.
Recent decades have seen marked improvement. India emerged as an economic powerhouse, and the two nations found common ground fighting Islamist extremism.
In 2005, the nations began to chip away at restrictions on India’s civilian nuclear capabilities, and in 2008 Congress lifted a decades-long moratorium on nuclear trade with India; the two countries announced joint nonproliferation efforts in 2010.
But although relations progressed quickly during the George W. Bush years, the pace has slowed under Obama, with little movement in the nuclear conversation and domestic unemployment in the U.S. causing tension in joint economic efforts.