India and the United States are re-engaging in earnest after three lost years and that is a good thing. What would be even better is if the upcoming strategic dialogue actually injected strategy back into the relationship. And ambition. Both have been missing for some time.

Yet there is awareness in America that China is grabbing headlines in India with various concessions. Xi Jinping’s invitation to Narendra Modi to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, and the fact that the first president of the BRICS bank will be an Indian, are both signs that China is playing nice. Yet in real terms, both of these are basically gestures, not significant policy improvements.

But the Obama administration needs to make a comeback on the Indian stage, uncluttered by recent baggage. Appointing a new ambassador would be a good start.

The much-discussed strategic dialogue is the first major engagement before Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits Washington. Both sides can think big on the two main pillars of the relationship – strategic and economic. Neither should be considered in isolation of the other. The American catalogue of complaints about trade disputes should not be the beginning and end of the relationship.

The catalogue would be best left behind when Secretary of State John Kerry travels to New Delhi next week. He knows that many US companies are extremely successful in India, while some are not and those are the ones who have been the noisiest. But they must not be allowed to control the narrative. The US pharmaceuticals industry needs to accept that India is not about to change its patents law.

If the Indian environment was as murky as is being projected in the US right now, it wouldn’t be the number one supplier to India – in value terms – in defence. But yes, procurement processes need major plumbing.

Narendra Modi's government has to deal with the negative legacy it has inherited. It must change both policy and sentiment to revive interest, which then turns to commitment. Modi told a US business delegation he needs to create 15 million jobs every year and wants American companies to come forward to create that momentum. If the Indian economy improves the gains would be immense for both sides.

India’s priorities
The Indian government’s priorities are clear – firing up the economy, building infrastructure, expanding the manufacturing base and easing tensions with neighbouring countries. The fact that FDI caps have been raised to 49% in both defence and insurance – an old American demand – indicates seriousness of intent. It is up to the US business sector to respond.

But Modi is also concerned about the second pillar – the strategic backbone, the security architecture. What is America’s long-term strategy in Asia? How does it plan to manage the rise of Chinese power or deal with an unstable Pakistan or rescue an Afghan government if it comes under siege from the Taliban?

That the answers are far from clear it became obvious at a recent US Senate hearing on re-energising India-US relations. Senator John McCain, a Republican who was recently in New Delhi, asked awkward questions about the administration’s vision for Asia with regards to China, India and Japan. He wasn’t satisfied with the answers.

No Clear View
Nisha Biswal, the assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia, bravely listed the many elements of America’s “strong relationship” with India – intelligence sharing, energy security, defence cooperation and the upcoming Malabar exercises with the US, India and Japan. And that the US had made a “strategic bet on India.” But she shied away from articulating the larger worldview of the Obama White House. Cynics might wonder if there is one at all.

Official testimonies stayed carefully away from any iteration of an American strategic framework for Asia but outside experts were open in invoking the need for it. Frank Wisner, a former US ambassador to India, said the relationship had atrophied after Obama’s 2010 visit to India and was losing its strategic thread.

If the pivot to Asia is a defining move, senior US officials must speak of it with confidence. The reality is they don’t, which leads to endless doubting and hedging. The only recent, clear articulation on the pivot-turned-rebalance was by defence secretary Chuck Hagel at the Shangri La dialogue.

Washington may be consumed by the many foreign policy crises, but it must find a way to reassure friends that it wants to shape long-term dynamics in Asia. Or it may be read as a dilution of US commitment, as some have, or worse, a policy of how to give the least while demanding the most. It is unlikely to play well in New Delhi.

India’s new government is eager to engage on all fronts. The flurry of diplomatic activity choreographed by a government barely in power for two months is a good pointer. The United States, as a key strategic partner, must be in the game.

Those who take an interest in the general health of the relationship recognise that without high-level attention, it tends to get bogged down. As Senator Tim Kaine said at the recent hearing, “we need to get this relationship right”.