In the coming years and decades, the strategic interests of the United States and India are highly likely to become increasingly intertwined. Both sides want democracy to spread and thrive, and both seek to contain terrorism and counterbalance the downside security risks in the rapid rise of China. Stronger economic ties are essential to developing a relationship that is deep and resilient enough to support these objectives.
Growing Bilateral Trade
Making the most of U.S.–India trade and investment linkages has not been easy. Until the early 1990s, India’s economy was closed. Average tariffs exceeded 200 percent, non-tariff barriers were extensive, and foreign direct investment (FDI) was largely blocked.
Economic liberalization in 1991 changed this. India’s ratio of bilateral trade to gross domestic product (GDP) has increased from 15 percent in 1990 to 53 percent in 2013. Average non-agricultural tariffs have fallen below 15 percent, quantitative restrictions on imports have been largely eliminated, and foreign investment norms have been relaxed in a number of sectors, such as defense, auto parts, and insurance. As a result, despite some continuing trade frictions, total trade in goods and services between the U.S. and India has grown fivefold since the turn of the century to approximately $100 billion.
Although India has steadily opened up its economy, the 2014 Index of Economic Freedom, published by The Heritage Foundation and The Wall Street Journal, ranked India a dismal 142nd in both trade freedom and investment freedom. India’s average tariff rate is 7.2 percent, and non-tariff barriers, including tariff-rate quotas on corn and dairy imports, have driven up domestic prices. At 30 percent to 40 percent, India’s average agricultural tariffs are among the highest in the world.
There are many bureaucratic barriers to foreign investment. For example, foreign banks are not permitted to own more than 5 percent of a private Indian bank’s assets without approval by the Reserve Bank of India. Among the seven new foreign banks that opened branches in recent years, none were from the United States. India is also one of the few countries that practically bans foreign investment in retail trade.
Trade figures indicate why the U.S. has become restless with India. While the U.S. has run a persistent trade deficit in goods with India, the deficit has increased dramatically in recent years, rising from $3 billion in 2009 to $19 billion in 2013. Trade in private services with India (exports and imports) totaled $30 billion in 2012 (the latest data available). The U.S. service trade deficit with India was $7 billion in 2012. In 2013, India was the 18th largest exporting market for U.S. goods, while the U.S. was the 10th largest export market for India. Although trade deficits really do not matter in the overall economic scheme of things, they matter to politicians in Washington.
In recent weeks, there have been signs that bilateral trade frictions are beginning to ease. In November, the United States and India held their first round of formal trade talks in four years. This followed on the heels of a successful U.S. push to overcome unrelated Indian objections to the $1 trillion landmark Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA)—the first multilateral agreement to be concluded since the World Trade Organization was created 20 years ago. If eventually ratified, the TFA will reduce the costs and administrative burdens associated with moving goods across borders. This could be a game changer in India, where customs officials generally require extensive documentation, inhibiting the free flow of trade and causing lengthy processing delays.
The Next Steps
The U.S. and India should quickly build on this recent momentum by pushing:
The U.S. is right to have focused so closely on India during the Bush and Obama Administrations. Given its size and potential economic growth rate, India holds the greatest potential to influence regional dynamics in a way favorable to American interests in peace, stability, liberty, and prosperity. Over the long term, the sort of U.S.–India relationship most conducive to these ends must have a strong basis in economic freedom.—William T. Wilson, PhD, is Senior Research Fellow in the Asian Studies Center, of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, at The Heritage Foundation.