U.S.-India Relations Will Endure Despite the Khobragade Controversy

01/13/2014 02:22 pm ET | Updated Mar 15, 2014

A month after the United States arrested an Indian diplomat in New York over charges she committed visa fraud, a consensus has emerged that U.S.-India relations have sustained grave damage. If recent headlines and commentary in both countries are to be believed, the arrest and alleged mistreatment of Deputy Consul General Devyani Khobragade on December 12 in Manhattan have triggered an unprecedented deterioration in bilateral relations between Washington and New Delhi. U.S.-India ties are now apparently between a rock and a hard place, experiencing a big chill, regressing and threatening to completely unravel. The Khobragade affair -- and India's deeply emotional response to it -- have even prompted some experts to question the fundamental assumptions underlying U.S.-India relations, hailing an end to the honeymoon between the world's oldest and largest democracies. Khobragade's indictment, grant of diplomatic immunity, and subsequent departure from the United States have only strengthened this perception rather than end the controversy.

But is the U.S.-India strategic partnership really so fragile? Although the heated rhetoric surrounding the Khobragade episode would suggest otherwise, the United States and India have confronted other challenges far more formidable than the ongoing diplomatic row that has erupted between the two countries over the young diplomat's arrest and the circumstances surrounding it.

India's close relationship with Iran, for example, long constituted a major irritant in ties between Washington and New Delhi. At a time when the United States was leading international efforts to isolate Iran over its disputed nuclear program, American officials were chagrined to see India continue to import Iranian oil to meet its voracious energy demands. Some experts predicted an inevitable train wreck in U.S.-India relations over New Delhi's relationship with Tehran, which would lead to long-term damage in U.S.-India ties. The train wreck never occurred. On the contrary, American and Indian officials collaborated closely together in a manner consistent with Washington's goals regarding Iran's nuclear program, while accommodating India's legitimate concerns about its energy supply.

The stringent liability legislation enacted by India's parliament shortly after passage of the landmark U.S.-India civilian nuclear deal has also posed a potent challenge to bilateral relations for more than five years.

Inconsistent with governing international standards on nuclear liability, the Indian law effectively precludes American companies from entering India's lucrative nuclear market and realizing the benefits of the historic nuclear accord. While some observers worried that the liability legislation would derail U.S.-India ties by rendering the centerpiece of the strategic partnership fundamentally irrelevant, these fears proved to be unfounded. Officials in both capitals refused to allow the relationship to be hijacked by one single issue, focusing instead on other opportunities for cooperation, including within the nuclear energy arena.

More recently, documents leaked by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden revealed that India was among one of the NSA's top surveillance targets and that its United Nations mission in New York and embassy in Washington were bugged and monitored by the agency. While similar revelations of American surveillance on other friends and allies abroad provoked outrage and condemnation in capitals around the world, New Delhi's tepid response highlighted its resolve not to let the disclosures impact U.S.-India ties.

Each one of these challenges implicated equities more central to core American and Indian national interests than the ones supposedly affected by the Khobragade arrest. Officials in both capitals, however, remembered the larger value of the strategic partnership to both countries and found a way to move it forward. In fact, profound differences continue to exist between the United States and India on a host of issues, including climate change, intellectual property protection for American pharmaceuticals sold in India, and global trade, for instance. But while these differences are serious ones unlikely to be resolved anytime soon, decision-makers in Washington and New Delhi have so far not allowed them to compromise the overall integrity and forward momentum of the relationship.

Viewed within this context, dire predictions regarding the future of U.S.-India relations appear exaggerated and inconsistent with the history of the strategic partnership. Ultimately, the overall trajectory of the U.S.-India ties is unlikely to be affected by the brewing controversy in the long-term. The underlying strategic logic of bilateral ties remains unchanged despite Khobragade's arrest and the ongoing spat between the two countries. Robust U.S.-India ties remain as important as ever with issues like the pending withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, regional stability, terrorism, and managing China's rise continuing to top the agenda for both countries. American and Indian leaders would be wise to remember this as tensions continue to persist even after Khobragade's departure from the United States.

To be sure, the current diplomatic dispute is a significant one that has put genuine strain on the strategic partnership. But U.S.-India relations have proven remarkably durable and resilient in the face of even more daunting challenges. The Khobragade controversy is unlikely to change that.