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The United States and India: A 21st Century Partnership

A Conversation with Ambassadors Nirupama Rao and Nancy Powell

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India and the United States, two of the world’s largest democracies, increasingly recognize the need not only to maintain a bilateral relationship but also to work together on many issues, including a peaceful and prosperous future for the Asia-Pacific region. The two countries’ continued cooperation as well as their capacity to openly discuss potential causes of disagreement will be key components of their indispensable partnership.

Nancy Powell, the U.S. ambassador to India, and Nirupama Rao, the Indian ambassador to the United States, sat down at the Center for American Progress last Friday to discuss some of the most pertinent issues of the U.S.-India relationship ahead of this week’s U.S./India Strategic Dialogue, a forum hosted by Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and her Indian counterpart designed to stimulate progress on a variety of economic, security, and diplomatic matters facing the two countries.

Powell said that while preparing for the meeting she became “increasingly convinced of the true value” of the dialogue, which will involve diplomats as well as investors, innovators, and researchers. “Watching these sparks come off of scientists or people who are dealing with climate or looking at inoculation programs has been quite heartening,” she said.

Rao noted that the dialogue’s effects can be felt by everyday people. “The number and the extent of the dialogue mechanisms that sustain the relationship today are really focused on almost every field of human endeavor,” she said, reiterating that a focus on progress, development, and people underpins the U.S.-India relationship.

Powell and Rao both objected to notions that the U.S.-India relationship is oversold and that the dialogues between the two countries lack substance. “I look at it at the ground level and see the extent and the depth and substance of the kind of dialogue and cooperation that happens between the two countries,” Rao said, citing the two countries’ interaction in the region and the expansion of trade and business as evidence of “palpable areas of cooperation.”

Responding to criticisms that the United States and India have not acted unilaterally, Powell said, “I think people that expected India and the United States to be in lockstep probably do not have an appreciation for the independence of either of us, that we are going to pursue our interests, our policies.” She added that the United States and India can disagree over routes to shared goals without acrimony.

Rao also emphasized that she sees no “fundamental divergence” in the United States’ and India’s approaches to Iran’s nuclear ambitions or other situations in the region. “India has expressed its position in an independent manner, but that independence has not signified a certain fundamental resistance to what our other partners are saying,” she said. The two countries can discuss dissonances where they exist, Rao suggested, reflecting “the maturity and the candor” that characterizes the countries’ relationship.

Beyond foreign policy goals the ambassadors acknowledged the necessary interaction between the United States and India to strengthen the global economy. Rao said India’s government is committed to liberalizing the domestic market, saying she believes there is no “real doubt or questioning of the fundamental needs for opening up and reform.”

Despite an economic growth rate in India that has recently slowed due to the recession, both ambassadors pointed to dynamic business relationships and two-way investments that will benefit both countries in innovative sectors such as information technology or pharmaceuticals. These interactions, Rao said, demonstrate the business community’s appreciation of beneficial business conditions in India. “People are making profits. People are feeling that the climate in India is transparent,” she said.

The ambassadors said this relationship transcends partisan politics in both their countries. Various sides of the political spectrum in India believe, Rao said, “that this is a relationship that needs to be strengthened and will in fact progress as we move forward into the future.”

Powell stressed the importance of expanding the U.S. presence outside of the Indian capital. “There are 45 cities in India that have at least a million people in them. We’re only located in five of them,” she said, suggesting that working with Indian state and local governments will help attract U.S. investment and increase innovation.

Though the ambassadors recognized the increasing interaction and cooperation between India and the United States in the recent past, both also acknowledged that this relationship must expand for the countries to attain common goals in the future.

See also: Turning Words into Action by Rich Verma and Michael Werz

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