Monday, March 24, 2014

India: most important (future) US ally, really?

The results are not too encouraging (or discouraging if you are Arundhati Roy), if at all the India-focused numbers have gone down from the dizzying heights of the nuclear deal days.

Summary: India is considered a more promising future ally of the USA (ranked above China, Japan, and Europe) by US foreign policy experts. That conclusion seems to be on the money, unless a certain strong-man desires a closer Indo-China link (in preference to the USA).
The US public's view of India has soured in recent years. In 2008, the year of the Indo-US civil nuclear agreement, 63 per cent of Americans surveyed by the Pew Research Center had a favourable perception of India. This year, that positive opinion has fallen sharply to 46 per cent.

US attitudes toward India vary dramatically by demographic group. About six-in-10 Americans with a college degree (61 per cent) hold a favorable view. But only 36 per cent of those with a high school education or less see India positively.

The perception of India among some US foreign policy experts is more favourable. When members of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), a grouping of former diplomats, government officials and international relations specialists were asked in a separate Pew Research survey about which countries will be more important to the United States in the future, 37 per cent named India, while 35 per cent said China and 25 per cent identified Japan. Only 20 per cent said the European Union. Nevertheless, this is a smaller portion of the CFR membership who named India than just four years ago, when 55 per cent saw India as a key future ally.

Moreover, 62 per cent of Americans support foreign firms setting up operations in their country, which should be good news to Indian investors, who had $7 billion in direct investments in America at the end of 2012.

There is less good news for Delhi on a neuralgic friction point in Indo-American relations: access to the US labour market for high-skilled Indian workers. The US Congress is currently debating immigration reform, and the US Senate has passed a Bill that would increase the number of H1B visas often used to bring Indian information technology workers to the United States for short stays. But it would also make it harder and more expensive for Indian companies to make use of the programme. Americans are effectively divided on the issue: 50 per cent say more people coming to the US to work in high-skilled jobs would mostly hurt the US economy, while 46 per cent say it would mostly help.

The divisions within American society on high-skilled immigration are quite illuminating. Men (51 per cent) are more supportive than women (41 per cent). Six-in-10 (60 per cent) people with at least a college education support high-skilled immigration, but only 38 per cent of those with a high school education or less are supportive. There is no major partisan divide on this issue between Republicans and Democrats.

More broadly, on foreign policy issues of concern to Indians, the survey found that Americans aren't buying the Obama administration's pivot to Asia. They say Europe (50 per cent) is the most important area to the United States, rather than Asia (35 per cent).  

But this trans-Atlantic foreign policy focus may not last. It is largely the view of aging baby boomers. Americans aged 18 to 29, the next generation, share a trans-Pacific sensibility. They say Asia is the most important, by a margin of 52 per cent to 37 per cent.
So, while Americans are more open to economic engagement than they have been in the past, they also continue to exhibit a wariness about refocusing US policy toward Asia and have misgivings about accepting more high-skilled immigrants. Deepening and broadening the Indian-US relationship in the near term may prove an uphill struggle in this atmosphere.


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