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Obama’s Visit to India: How to get Round Speed-Breakers

President Barack Obama will be visiting India in November. During his stay, apart from holding talks with Prime Minister Dr.Manmohan Singh and other Indian leaders, he is expected to  address a joint session of the Indian Parliament and possibly  visit Mumbai. This would be the sixth visit by a US President to India since it became independent in 1947. The previous visits were of Dwight Eisenhower in 1959, Richard Nixon in 1969, Jimmy Carter in 1978, Bill Clinton in 2000 and George Bush in 2006.

2. Obama’s predecessor George Bush visited Afghanistan, India and Pakistan in March 2006. During his stay in India, there was a terrorist attack in Karachi in which an American diplomat posted in the US Consulate was killed. Despite this, Bush went ahead with his visit to Islamabad. His decision to stick to his itinerary despite the Karachi incident spoke highly of the confidence of the US Secret Service in its ability to protect him.

3. During the visit of Bill Clinton in March 2000, no public announcement was made about a visit  to Pakistan. He did visit Islamabad for a few hours from a Gulf country before flying back to Washington DC. On the eve of his arrival  in New Delhi (March 20,2000), 15-17  terrorists  , dressed in  army fatigues, entered the village of Chattisinghpora, located in the Anantnag district, ordered all of the  Sikh men and boys to assemble at the village gurudwara, and systematically shot and killed 34 of them. Many others were injured.

4. White House officials have been quoted as saying that Obama does not intend visiting Pakistan, but one should not be surprised if after visiting India, Obama makes a quick visit to Pakistan as Clinton did. Indian security agencies should be alert to the possibility of a  mass casualty terrorist strike, possibly in J&K, during his visit to embarrass him and the Indian leaders.

5. The forthcoming visit of Obama to India has not given rise to the same excitement and the same kind of expectations as the visit of Bush had done. Since Obama assumed office in January last year, Indo-US relations have lost some of  the élan that they had acquired under Bush. During the presidency of Bush, Indo-US relations were rich in symbolism and protocol as well as in substance. Bush and his Secretary of State, MS.Condoleezza Rice, made no secret of their desire to help India emerge as a big Asian power on par with China.

6.Commenting on the visit of Bush to the three countries  the “Dawn” of Karachi wrote as follows on March 11,2006: “THE recent visit of President Bush to Afghanistan, India and Pakistan has brought home the point once again that India is and likely to remain for a long time the centrepiece of the US policy towards South Asia. In contrast, Pakistan, despite its services in the war on terror, seems to have lost its earlier pre-eminent position in US foreign policy calculations. The fact that India is a well-established democracy is a source of great strength to its strategic ties with the US which under President Bush has made the promotion of democracy one of the salient features of its foreign policy. Their joint cooperation in combating nuclear proliferation and terrorism is another link bringing the two countries closer together as is the prospect of mutually beneficial cooperation in the fields of economics, commerce, defence and civil nuclear technology. Above all, it is the prospect of the emergence of India as a major power in the 21st century and as a counterweight to China on its southern periphery that is acting like a magnet in attracting US policymakers towards India. Thus, the growing Indo-US strategic relationship neatly dovetails the strategic objectives of a global hegemon and an aspiring regional hegemon.” The “Dawn” was not wide off the mark in its assessment.

7. Under Bush, Indo-US relations were marked  by a breath-taking flow of new ideas on how India and the US can work together. To mention some of them— Indo-US civilian nuclear co-operation, strategic partnership, joint army, air force and naval exercises, Indian naval escort for US warships  moving between the Pacific and the Gulf during the Iraq military conflict, co-operation in counter-terrorism and cyber security, joint humanitarian missions  to help the victims of the tsunami of December 2004 in the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Indonesia, a concert of democracies consisting of India, the US, Japan and Australia and so on.

8. While the Bush Administration was not enthusiastic about any Indian strategic role in Afghanistan and about a Look West Policy by the Indian Navy lest it add to the concerns of Pakistan, fear of adverse reactions from China was not an inhibiting factor in respect of ideas for Indo-US co-operation in areas to the East of India. Bush and his aides did not try to project China as having a legitimate  role in South Asia.

9. The enthusiastic ideas of the Bush Administration relating to Indo-US co-operation were a refreshing departure from the hesitant policies of the Clinton Administration which for the first time, much to the unhappiness of India, brought in the idea of a Chinese strategic role in South Asia during Clinton’s visit to China in  June-July 1998. Under Obama, the high symbolism and protocol of the Bush administration have remained, but the substance of the relations  has been diluted much to the chagrin of India. Indo-US relations are back to the hesitant days of Clinton. Chinese sensitivies are once again a determining factor influencing policy-making towards South Asia in Washington DC. The reference to the  role that China could play in South Asia during Obama’s visit to China in November 2009 showed a reversion back to the days of Bill Clinton.

10. The 22 months of the Obama Administration have been marked by a paucity of ideas as to what India and the US can do together. Apart from the Joint Counter-Terrorism Initiative launched by the two countries during the visit of the Indian Prime Minister to the US in November 2009, there has been hardly any new idea which could be called Obama’s own and over which India could feel excited.  Even the Joint Counter-Terrorism Initiative has had an indifferent start due to  the disappointing experience of Indian officials relating to the interrogation of David Coleman Headley, of the Chicago cell of the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET). The pressure exercised by the US on Pakistan to act against Hafiz Mohammad Sayeed, the Amir of the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, and to vigorously prosecute the Pakistan-based conspirators of the Mumbai 26/11 terrorist strikes has been half-hearted and has not produced results to the satisfaction of India. All US Administrations, including that of Bush, have been soft towards Pakistan and have avoided acting against it for sponsoring terrorism against India. The Obama Administration has been particularly so. Its priority is to nudge Pakistan to act against Al Qaeda, the Afghan and Pakistani Talibans and the associates of Al Qaeda posing a threat to US nationals and interests in Afghanistan, in the US homeland and elsewhere. Action against Pakistani Punjabi terrorists posing a threat to Indian nationals and interests, whether in India or in Afghanistan, has a lesser priority.

11.Even more than the Bush Administration, the Obama Administration has been sensitive to Pakistani concerns over India’s presence in Afghanistan  to assist the Hamid Karzai Government in matters like medicare, improvement of governance and education, road construction etc. In contrast, the Obama Administration has shown very little concern over the Chinese presence and role in Afghanistan. On the contrary, it has been encouraging China to play its due role as an important regional player by assisting the Governments of both Afghanistan and Pakistan in dealing with terrorism. Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s special envoy on Af-Pak policy, was reported to have visited China to urge a more active role by Beijing in strengthening Pakistan’s counter-terrorism capacity.

12. The reported induction of a large number of Chinese troops into the Gilgit-Baltistan area of Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK) from Xinjiang has hardly elicited any criticism from the Obama Administration. Even Washington’s opposition to Chinese moves to supply two nuclear power stations to Pakistan in disregard of the restrictions of the Nuclear Suppliers Group has been pro forma and half-hearted. Media reports that the Obama Administration might be linking its support for India’s permanent membership of the UN Security Council to forward movement on the Kashmir issue are not encouraging from the point of view of Indo-US relations.

13. The change in the US public stance on the dispute over the South China Sea islands between China and some ASEAN countries has a pointer for India. China has always been contending that it is a bilateral issue in which third parties have no locus standi, The US had not challenged this Chinese stance in the past, but now it has started saying that the US has a locus standi because the territorial dispute affects regional peace and security and freedom of navigation. It has been accepting till now the Indian stance that the Kashmir issue has to be handled bilaterally by India and Pakistan and that third parties have no role in the matter. Pakistani  and even some US analysts have been arguing that the settlement of the Kashmir issue should be of legitimate interest to the US because the so-called dispute has implications for regional peace and security. India cannot take for granted continued US silence and neutrality on the Kashmir issue.

14. The Obama Administration has had differences with Beijing over issues such as the sale of US arms to Taiwan, the meeting of Obama with his Holiness the Dalai Lama in the White House and the Chinese naval assertiveness in the South and East China Seas and the extension of the Chinese naval interests to the Indian Ocean region. Despite this, it looks upon China as capable of playing a benign role in South Asia, including Afghanistan. Indian concerns over the increasing Chinese strategic presence in South Asia were understood and appreciated by the Bush Administration, but not by the Obama Administration.

15. Thus, India has every reason to be disappointed with the policies of the Obama Adminstration. Despite this, we should not relent in our efforts to strengthen India’s economic and strategic relations with the US. Indian policy-makers should be realistic enough to realise that there would be limits to US support for India in matters having an impact on our bilateral disputes with China and Pakistan. This is an unpleasant reality to which we must adjust ourselves. Is it possible to develop the strategic partnership despite this unpleasant reality? If so, how to do it? That is a challenge to Indian and US policy-makers.

16.The amazing lead of the US in science and technology is constantly expanding. Neither its Western allies nor the old communist empire headed by the erstwhile USSR nor the newly-emerging powers such as China or India have been able to catch up with the US in this field. Nor will they be ever able to. Neither China nor India will ever be able to make the kind of financial and intellectual investments in S&T that the US has been making. When  countries such as China or India seek a strategic partnership with the US, an important motivating factor is the hope of benefiting from the gains made by the US in S&T. Their hopes remain unfulfilled because of the reluctance of the US  to share these gains. While there is no limit to the US generosity when it comes to sharing its economic wealth with the rest of the world, it has been the most reluctant to share the advances made by it in S&T. This is one of the reasons for the tardy progress in its strategic partnerships with China or India or other countries. How to break the US inhibitions in sharing at least some of its technologies with India is a question that needs attention.

17.`Of its military power, the USA’s naval strength has been the most important component.  India is attracted by its naval power. China is overawed by it. India is hoping to emerge as the most important naval power after the US in the Indian Ocean region. It would like to prevent the emergence of China as an important naval power in the same region. Both these objectives would require the benevolent support of the US. There is a greater admiration and goodwill for the US in the Indian Navy than in the Indian Army or Air Force. This is natural and is likely to continue. The Indian Navy needs the US Navy as a helper in capacity-building, as a collaborator in maintaining the freedom of the seas in the Indian Ocean region and as a facilitator in the  rise of India as a benign power.

18. Indian policy-makers and public opinion would welcome Indo-US naval co-operation. Similarly, US policy-makers and public opinion would be comfortable with naval co-operation with   India, but might not like to get involved with India in its territorial conflicts with China and Pakistan. Navy-Navy ties have to be an important pillar of the Indo-US strategic infrastructure. In working out its policies in this regard, the US faces a dilemma arising from the question: How to help  the Indian Navy in maintaining a primacy vis-a-vis China in the Indian Ocean region while ensuring that the newly-acquired strength of the Indian Navy would not be used against Pakistan? This explains the ambivalence in the US policies—- encouraging Indian naval activism in the waters to the East of India, while discouraging it in the waters to the West lest they cause concern to Pakistan. This ambivalence will continue and act as a speed-breaker in the development of Indo-US strategic partnership.

19. In the acquisition of economic power, China is more than a decade ahead of India, which is unlikely to catch up with China in the short and medium terms. The Chinese  lead is due to two reasons. Firstly, it opened up its economy 13 years ahead of India in 1978. It realised the importance of the US market and the purchasing power of the US consumers for the growth of its manufacturing sector. China would not have succeeded in developing as rapidly as it did but for its knack of siphoning benefits from the  US market. The role of the US market and the US consumers in making possible the Chinese economic miracle has not been adequately realised in India. India is still not paying the required attention to the US market, the US consumers and US businessmen. It thinks it can achieve the same results as China by depending on its own increasingly prosperous consumers. Its hopes are likely to be belied. India’s lead over China in the services   and  the IT sectors will be short-lived. The manufacturing sector needs greater attention and it should be able to compete with China in the US market.

20. The US will ultimately  need both China and India to maintain  its economic prosperity. For US economic policy-makers, China is a bird in hand. India is only a bird in the bush. How to create a mutual dependence between the US and Indian economies similar to the mutual dependence between the US and Chinese economies? Is it wise to have such dependence at all? These are important questions to be examined by Indian policy-makers and analysts.

21. Indian soft power, which is growing, is not a copy-cat of American soft power. India has sought to learn from the positive points in the US soft power without blindly aping it. The evolution of the Indian soft power owed more to the Indian ethos and culture than to the American influence. China, which has only recently realised the importance of soft power, is seeking to ape the  US and other countries of the West. Its admiration for the US soft power is considerable and influences its policy. In determining the present and future directions of  the Indo-US strategic partnership, one has been seeing the role of a new component of  soft power, which is a common heritage of India and the US—-that is, the soft power of the growing Indo-American community in the US. No other immigrant community in the US—-not even from Europe or South America—– has played such an important role as the Indo-American community in acting as a catalyst for closer  bilateral relations  between the US and the country of origin of the immigrants. One saw in the case of the Jewish community in the US the role which a diaspora can play as an element of soft power. One is seeing it now in the case of the diaspora of Indian origin. This soft power can add strength to the Indo-US strategic partnership and should be valued and nourished by the two Governments. ( 14-10-10)

(Courtesy: South Asia Analysis Group. The writer Mr B Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. E-mail: )

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