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11.06.10

Two Nations With Different Interests

The U.S. and India have always said their interests are parallel. But the devil is in the details—defense contracts, aid to Pakistan—and the two countries may not be as chummy as they seem.

It's festival season in India. As the dust settles from the fireworks and gift giving of Friday's raucous Diwali celebration across the country, President Obama touches down in New Delhi on Sunday hoping that the spirit of goodwill continues.

As President Obama launches a charm offensive for greater access to India's growing market and increased security cooperation, despite India's red-carpet treatment, he may find the pair's relationship in need of some therapy.

"We are two great democracies we keep telling each other, and we say our interests are parallel, but when it comes to real hard decisions on the ground, it's never worked," says Vikram Sood, former head of India's intelligence agency. "The relationship with the U.S. is important, but we haven't really figured out how to take it further."

Long gone are the Cold War days, when the U.S. and India were on opposing sides. For the U.S., India has emerged as an important democratic ally to balance the expanding influence of China and a regional power in South Asia. The Obama administration is hoping that increased economic ties can help cement the relationship that has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years, but still hasn't fully erased skepticism that India often gets the short end of the stick. U.S. aid to India's archrival Pakistan continues to strain relations, as do lingering U.S. restrictions on India's ability to procure arms while it looks to assert itself in an increasingly contentious part of the world.

While Obama aims to smooth over these differences, India's new economic clout has changed the terms of the relationship. India's booming market has raised its economic profile and New Delhi is seeking the political clout to match. Meanwhile, as the American economy limps along and Obama's popularity wanes at home, India has found a new swagger in dealing with the U.S. "India has several advantages at the moment, a huge population, a rising economy, so the world is paying attention to it," says Rajiv Nayan from the Institute of Defense Studies and Analyses in New Delhi. "President Obama is here because of the rising Indian profile."

"It's going to be difficult for India to simply do what the U.S. wants us to do because the U.S. wants it to be done."

India's profile is also rising as a strategic partner in a part of the world that has proven problematic for the U.S. Charting a path in Afghanistan and stabilizing a nuclear Pakistan are priorities for the Obama administration. India has emerged as a key player in accomplishing both tasks. India's goals in the region are similar, but India's looking for more influence on the course of action. "It's going to be difficult for India to simply do what the U.S. wants us to do because the U.S. wants it to be done," says Sood. "There are times that it has been suggested Indian policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan needs to be changed to help U.S. leave with honor, but we're not going to give up our strategic interests in the region for that."

One important test for both countries is India's desire to upgrade its military. India's relationship with its neighbors remains a contentious one. The country's borders with China and Pakistan are still contested, and India is set to dip into its newfound wealth next year to upgrade its military. U.S. companies, Boeing and Lockheed Martin, are in the running to land the contract for the $11 billion deal. American companies, however, aren't the only ones who have taken notice of India's growth. Heads of state from Russia and France have also made visits to New Delhi this year looking for the upperhand. Russia has been a longstanding and reliable partner in providing arms to India with few strings attached. Whether India looks to the U.S. for the planes could be an important barometer of their relationship. The contracts would boost the American economy as Obama looks to create jobs, and more than any presidential rhetoric provides a better indication of U.S. commitment to India, says Sood.

"It's fine to be a democracy and to have the grand vision of being allies and having converging interests, but this is a real test," he says.

Elliot Hannon is a journalist based in New Delhi where he is a frequent contributor to Public Radio International and Time magazine.