Obama visit to India

A strategically significant visit that will benefit both countries

Brahma Chellaney
GUEST COLUMN: The Economic Times, October 31, 2010

THE US-India relationship has picked up momentum that is independent of the two governments. US President Barack Obama’s impending visit will do little more than symbolically strengthen an already warming relationship with India. His predecessor had declared in his valedictory speech that, “We opened a new historic and strategic partnership with India.” Since then, despite a growing congruence of US and Indian interests on larger geostrategic issues, significant strategic content has yet to be added to a relationship that is largely being driven by the business community, which is spurred on by the expanding commercial opportunities in the Indian civilian and defence sectors. 

    The very fact that Obama is visiting India as part of a tour of Asia’s four leading democracies—the others being Japan, Indonesia and South Korea—is significant. Although Obama has already been to China once, the symbolism of a tour restricted to Asia’s major democracies cannot be lost on Beijing at a time when Chinese assertiveness on exchange rates, trade and security issues has upset US calculations. 

    In fact, the Obama administration spent last year assiduously courting China. The catchphrase coined by Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg in relation to China, “strategic reassurance,” signalled an American intent to be more accommodative of China’s ambitions — a message reinforced earlier by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when she went out of her way to downgrade human rights in America’s China policy during a visit to Beijing. Obama, for his part, declared that America’s “most important bilateral relationship in the world” is with China. 

    Today, with his China strategy falling apart, Obama is seeking to do exactly what his predecessor attempted — to line up partners. Still, for several reasons, that is unlikely to significantly elevate India’s importance in his foreign policy. 

    First, he is coming to India when his presidency is likely to be weakened by reverses in congressional elections. With his approval ratings plummeting, Obama could end up as a one-term president.
    Second, on key regional issues, especially Afghanistan-Pakistan, Iran and Myanmar, his administration sees Indian policy as not in sync with US strategy. That is particularly conspicuous on Pakistan. 

    The Obama administration, not content with

turning Pakistan into the largest recipient of US aid in the world, has just unveiled fresh military assistance of $2.3 billion to that country. Such aid will further fatten the Pakistani military and intelligence—the very institutions controlling the country’s foreign policy and nurturing terror groups. 

    With Obama determined to end the US-led war in Afghanistan, the US needs the Pakistani military and intelligence for its exit strategy in much the same way it relied on them to start and sustain the war. 

    Third, despite the more-recent erosion in trust and confidence between the US and China, Washington is unlikely to try and contain a country with which its economic and political linkages are likely to remain deeper than with India. 

    Indeed, since Obama came to office, the US has sought to abjure elements in its ties with New Delhi that could rile China, including a joint military drill of any type in Arunachal Pradesh or a 2007-style naval exercise involving the US, India, Australia, Japan and Singapore. Even trilateral US naval manoeuvres with India and Japan now are out so as not to raise China’s hackles. Washington has actually chartered a course of tacit neutrality on the Arunachal issue. 

    On the two key issues— China and counter-terrorism—that were supposed to help shape the US-India strategic partnership, the reality has turned out to be different. The David Headley case, for example, has belied expectations of close counter-terrorism cooperation. Moreover, despite the nuclear deal, the US has yet to ease export controls against India. 

    Still, the US and India have never been closer than they are now. Their multifaceted cooperation will continue to grow, irrespective of policy differences on some regional issues. The billions of dollars worth of arms the Obama administration has contracted to sell India symbolise the new partnership.


(c) The Economic Times.

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