NEW DELHI — Hopes were high after Congress passed a U.S.-India civilian nuclear agreement in 2008 that the two countries would forge a close military and strategic partnership.
But Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s three-day trip to India, starting Sunday after a weekend stop in Bangladesh, comes amid reduced expectations and political distraction on both sides and a relationship increasingly marked by incremental movement on a variety of issues.
Though India remains an important ally, few big-ticket nuclear and defense deals that the United States had hoped for have materialized. India is wary of becoming too closely aligned with the U.S. to the detriment of its relations with Russia and Iran. And politics, including the U.S. presidential campaign and the growing weakness of India’s Congress Party-led government, has limited the scope of agreements.
“There’s a broad consensus that India-U.S. relations are still in a state of drift,” said Dhruva Jaishankar, Asia program officer with Washington’s German Marshall Fund of the United States. “The two countries are talking more about more issues than any time in the past. That said, there’s no room in either capital for anything very ambitious.”
China, which Clinton has been visiting this week, is expected to be a key topic of discussion when she meets with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna, starting Monday, analysts said. In April, India test-fired a long-range missile capable of hitting Beijing.
Afghanistan will also be high on the agenda, analysts said, as U.S.-led NATO forces prepare to hand over security to their Afghan counterparts by the end of 2014, altering the regional power balance.
Washington is now more inclined to welcome Indian aid, trade and training for Afghanistan after worrying about ruffling Pakistan’s feathers. “It was quite idiotic, the U.S. reluctance to let us get involved,” said K. Shankar Bajpai, former ambassador to China, Pakistan and the U.S. and now an analyst with the Delhi Policy Group think tank. “It’s only natural we’d want good relations with Afghanistan.”
Indian officials are likely to push for greater access to U.S. technology, analysts said, and to seek assurances that their regional interests will be protected under a new U.S.-Afghan partnership agreement. The U.S. is looking for progress on a variety of commercial issues, including access to India’s retail and financial markets, and assurances that India will reduce its links with Iran and Syria.
“Both sides are doing many things , and doing them right,” said Ashley J. Tellis, senior associate at Washington’s Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “But these are often not the sexy things, so they get taken for granted.”
Between stops in China and India, Clinton will spend Saturday night in Bangladesh, the first visit to that country by a senior U.S. official in 12 years. She’s expected to meet in Dhaka, the capital, with Prime Minister Sheik Hasina Wajed, among others, and discuss terrorism, security, energy, aid and technology transfers.
Clinton’s visit will follow several days of strikes and violence in Bangladesh after the disappearance of a senior opposition figure. It also comes as the government juggles relations with India, China, Russia and a new Myanmar.
“Recent political problems have created a crisis for the present government,” said Ataur Rahman, a political science professor at the University of Dhaka. “The government seems to be vacillating and undecided about the future course of its foreign policy direction. There is a concern therefore whether it can take advantage of Hillary’s visit.”
Clinton is scheduled to spend Sunday night in India’s eastern state of West Bengal, where she’ll meet with the state’s mercurial elected leader, Mamata Banerjee, before flying to New Delhi on Monday. This will be a chance to push Wal-Mart’s bid to enter the market given Banerjee’s opposition to large foreign retailers in India.
More fundamentally, however, the stop reflects a shift in political power to the state level in India.
“It is part of the larger recognition that power in India no longer resides simply in New Delhi,” Tellis said. “The U.S. must engage with regional leaders, and all senior U.S. officials will do so going forward.”