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Obama: A Relook at India

Imparting greater importance to the USA’s strategic relations with India without adding to the unease of China and Pakistan—- that has emerged as the keynote of the new US strategy towards India.

2. Comments of US leaders and officials in the run-up to the high-level strategic dialogue at the ministerial level currently under way in Washington DC and the pre-announced decision of President Barack Obama to attend the reception being hosted by Mrs.Hillary Clinton, US Secretary of State, in honour of the Indian delegation on June 3,2010, indicate a realisation by the policy-makers of the Obama Administration of the need to take note of the widespread impression in India that since he took over as the President the importance attached to the US relations with India has been downgraded and the warmth towards India at the level of the President, which characterised the attitude of the Bush Administration towards India, has disappeared in less than a year after Mr.Obama took over as the President.

3. Credit for drawing the attention of the Obama Administration to the downslide in the comfort level between the two countries should go to analysts in India as well as the US—- more particularly to the well-wishers of India in US non-governmental circles who kept sounding a wake-up call to the Obama Administration that the gains of the second term of Mr.George Bush when Indo-US relations really started moving forward quantitatively and qualitatively were being diluted by a perceived lack of adequate attention to India.

4. This perceived lack of adequate attention to India could be attributed to Mr.Obama’s search for a workable exit policy from Afghanistan before the next Presidential elections for which the co-operation of Pakistan was considered necessary and for a workable economic recovery policy and a nuclear non-proliferation policy towards North Korea and Iran for which the co-operation of China was deemed necessary.

5. There was a compulsion on the Obama Administration to take note of the Pakistani concerns over the growing Indian presence in Afghanistan and of Chinese concerns that the growing Indo-US ties under Mr.Bush were motivated by a common desire to balance China with Japan brought in for this purpose. The first few months of the Obama Administration were devoted to addressing these concerns of Pakistan and China without realising that excessive attention to these concerns could have a negative impact on the relations with India.

6. The open articulation by officials of the Obama Administration and some non-Governmental experts of the concerns of Pakistan over India’s role in Afghanistan and the impression that they wittingly or unwittingly conveyed to India that they found these concerns understandable and the stepped-up military assistance to Pakistan, which was unrelated to its performance in action against terrorists operating from Pakistani territory, created an impression in India of a re-hyphenation of the US policies towards India and Pakistan, which had been discarded by the Bush Administration.

7. The unannounced jettisoning by Mr.Obama of the various strategic initiatives undertaken by the Bush Administration in the US and the Manmohan Singh Government in India for balancing China through enhancing India’s power and status in the Asian region, joint naval exercises in areas of interest to China and by associating Japan with some of these initiatives and his action during his visit to China in November 2009 in reviving the policy of the Clinton Administration of encouraging an activist role for China in South Asia—-particularly in Indo-Pakistan matters—- created an impression in India that a convergence of China-related perceptions, which was a defining characteristic of the policies of the Bush Administration towards India was no longer a motivating factor in the White House.

8. These two impressions—which were valid—- tended to weaken the foundations of the Indo-US strategic architecture built up under Mr.Bush. The welcome indications of a greater focus on India in recent weeks and the beginnings of a course correction in policy-making towards India underline a realization by Mr.Obama of the intrinsic importance of a sound and healthy strategic partnership between India and the US. This does not presage a possible downgrading of the importance attached to Pakistan and China.

9.While the Obama Administration is convinced of the need to impart quality and momentum to Indo-US relations, this exercise will be based not on perceptions of common threats facing the two countries, but common ideals such as promotion of democracy and common interests such as counter-terrorism, climate, knowledge and agriculture related initiatives etc.

10. The Obama Administration will take care to ensure that its course corrections give a feeling of satisfaction to India without adding to the concerns of Pakistan and China. Common bilateral ideals and interests will be the motivating factors. Moderating Pakistan and balancing China will not be the motivating factors.

11. While encouraging the Obama Administration’s search for a New Look Indo-US Strategic Partnership by responding positively to its ideas which would be in Indian interest and by coming out with ideas of our own, India should refrain from looking at the US while giving a new direction to its policies towards Pakistan and China.

( The writer, Mr B.Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate of the Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: )

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