Special Reports
 
 


US PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA AND INDIA

by

Surjit Mansingh
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The Visit
India gave President Obama and his wife Michelle a welcome respite from a ghastly Washington autumn. They made a three-day state visit from the 7th to the 9th of November 2010, winning public acclaim and giving every indication of diplomatic success pleasing to the public in both countries. At home, Obama had faced a campaign waged against him with a viciousness that defies belief. Then the November 2nd Congressional elections gave his party, and by implication him, a drubbing by returning a majority of Republicans to the House of Representatives and truncating the Democratic majority in the Senate. Republican leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) publicly declares his sole goal to be making sure the Obama Administration lasts only one term. At the same time, Obama’s independent supporters and liberal Democrats gloss over his administration’s substantial legislative achievements in less than two years, express a sense of betrayal, and attack him for bending too easily to Republican demands. Many wonder how he can retain his calm demeanour and pragmatic approach; some wish he would show more fire. In this respect, as in others, he shares much with Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh, and the two men are reported to have formed an immediate bond at their very first encounter in London last year. They cemented this mutual sympathy during Manmohan Singh’s state visit to the US in November 2009 — the first one hosted by Obama-- and meetings at multilateral forums such as the Nuclear Summit in April 2010 and the Group of Twenty (G-20) leading economies. This body formed in 2008 is less exclusive than the big five Permanent Members of the United Nations Security Council, and consists of both established and aspirant great powers, including India, likely to shape global governance in the 21st Century. Personal relations matter in foreign relations; Obama and Manmohan Singh do not hide their mutual respect and liking.

President Obama had announced his intention to visit India in November 2010 many months in advance, giving officials of both governments time enough to choreograph the visit so as to highlight deepening bilateral ties and build public support for the relationship despite the absence of any big item equalling the Indo-US Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement forged during the George W. Bush Administration. For example, shortly before Obama’s departure for Mumbai, Washington announced that the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and Bharat Dynamics Ltd. would be removed from the US Department of Commerce’s ‘entity list’ subject to stringent export controls. A potent source of Indian resentment was thus removed and the door opened for increasing US high technology and dual-use exports to India. This was followed on November 7 by a pledge to support India’s full membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), the Australian Group and the Wassenaar Agreement without insisting on India signing the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as a non-weapons state, a clear impossibility. India’s membership in these regulatory bodies would give it an equivalent status to the five recognised nuclear weapons states and make it a genuine partner rather than a target of international non-proliferation efforts. In short, the Obama Administration was moving further along the road of US-India cooperation charted during the Bush Administration.

Similarly, before Obama arrived, India signed the Convention on Supplementary Compensation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which could persuade American companies to build nuclear power plants in India despite their dislike of the Nuclear Civil Liabilities Act passed by the Indian Parliament in August. No fewer than 240 chief executives of American companies, including Boeing and General Electric, accompanied Obama to India and an announcement was made from Mumbai itself that sales agreements already reached would result in creating more than 50,000 new jobs in the US. An American public suffering an unemployment rate of over nine per cent and resenting earlier outsourcing of jobs to India and other countries would welcome this news. Meanwhile, American aircraft and armaments manufacturers such as Lockheed-Martin, Northrop Grumman and Raytheon were eagerly competing for lucrative defence contracts expected to flow from India’s military modernisation programmes. In New Delhi, Obama’s speech to the Indian Parliament on December 8th touched all the right public relations buttons: reverence for Mahatma Gandhi, praise for India’s achievements, reference to shared values and convergent interests, determination to consolidate a strategic partnership with a “risen” power on the global stage, and embrace of the idea that India become a permanent member of a reformed UN Security Council. This first time US endorsement of a longstanding Indian objective was loudly welcomed.

The two governments signed six agreements in the course of Obama’s visit, giving substance to the rhetoric of enhancing bilateral ties. These agreements were to establish a joint clean energy research and development centre in New Delhi, a global centre for nuclear energy partnership, an India-US energy cooperation programme that included exploration of shale-gas resources in India, a global disease detection centre, and technical cooperation for predicting the Indian monsoon, crucial for Indian agriculture. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh issued a six page joint statement at the end of the visit reaffirming the shared values and interests of their two democracies, and outlining the ways in which they envisaged a global strategic partnership for the 21st century. These included: regular consultations and cooperation on matters pertaining to the United Nations, East Asia, Afghanistan and nuclear security; a regular dialogue building on the Counter Terrorism Initiative signed in July 2010, condemnation of terrorism and a call to Pakistan to bring to justice perpetrators of the 2008 Mumbai attacks; further strengthening of defence and civil space cooperation and reaffirmation of maritime security; continued expansion of trade and investment in both directions, as well as links between educational and cultural institutions to develop a knowledge economy and create a green economy in India.

The two leaders thus laid out an ambitious agenda for strategic cooperation between their two countries on the world stage. Thereby, Obama did much to overcome Indian suspicions that his Administration would be less supportive than that of his predecessor. Nevertheless, a great deal of work on both sides is required to bring a new, young, partnership to fruition. Legacies of the past and inbuilt inefficiencies of the present may well impede prospects of a rosy future.

Recent Retrospect
Initial Indian misgivings about President Obama arose from positions he had taken as a Senator, as a Presidential candidate, and in the first year of his Presidency on issues of vital importance to India: civil nuclear cooperation, Pakistan, and China. Then Senator Barack Obama (D-Ill) was not a wholehearted supporter of the dramatic initiative taken by the Bush Administration on the occasion of Manmohan Singh’s visit to Washington in July 2005 on civil nuclear cooperation with India. This was a veritable “game-changer” making broad-spectrum US-India partnership possible as never before. Negotiations between the two official teams leading up to what came to be known as the 123 Agreement were tough. India struck a hard bargain, and negotiations between the White House and Congress on drafting enabling legislation to overturn more than thirty years of US policy were almost equally strenuous. Obama was one of those legislators from the Democratic Party who wrote qualifying conditions on nuclear testing and sanctions on Iran into the Hyde Act of December 2006 to which some Indians took offence. (Manmohan Singh’s standoff with the Indian Parliament before eventually getting its agreement to the nuclear deal in July 2008 was even more problematic.) Obama’s position was rooted in concerns about nuclear proliferation and persons described as “non-proliferation ayatollahs “ (ideologues) were among the senior appointments he made at the State Department as President. Indians doubt the willingness of his Administration to make the same efforts on India’s behalf in the NSG and other bodies as the Bush Administration had, notwithstanding the pledge he made in New Delhi to do so.

As is well-known, large-scale American military assistance to Pakistan and Washington’s episodic attempts to mediate between Pakistan and India on the contentious subject of Kashmir have been major obstacles to good US-Indian relations for over sixty years. Presidential candidate Obama and one of his main advisers on South Asia, Bruce Riedel, openly advocated US mediation on Kashmir so as to induce Pakistan to be more actively engaged than it was against Al Qaeda and the Taliban on its western frontier with Afghanistan. Bob Woodward’s Obama’s Wars narrates well Washington’s tortuous paths toward trying to improve chances of success—however narrowly defined—in Afghanistan, the early identification of Pakistan as a “dishonest ally” on which the US was almost entirely dependent to transport supplies to the predominantly American International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, and recognition of the military fact that Pakistan and Afghanistan constituted a single area of operations (Af-Pak or Pak-Af) notwithstanding their separate nationhood. As early as January 2009 Washington media reported the likelihood of Richard Holbrooke (sadly deceased 13 December 2010), being appointed special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as the inclination to include India in his brief. India protested strongly against any attempt to re-hyphenate India and Pakistan, and ruled out third party mediation on Kashmir, especially as bilateral back-channel talks between India and Pakistan had produced a near agreement before President Musharaff fell from power. Obama dropped the idea, refrained from mentioning Kashmir on his visit to India while stating the truism that a stable Pakistan was in everybody’s interest, and did not make a two-hour detour to Pakistan as its supporters wanted. Meanwhile, senior Indian officials including the Foreign Secretary had met Holbrooke regularly and made every effort, with some success, to demonstrate India’s vital interests in Afghanistan and their congruence with American interests there, gradually winning Washington’s acknowledgement of India’s already substantial contributions to development and health in Afghanistan and willingness to do more. How the Obama Administration pursues the unpopular war in Afghanistan, and the extent to which it is willing to pander to the Pakistan Army’s anti-India obsession, will naturally have a heavy impact on Indo-US relations.

China’s phenomenal rise over thirty years as an economic, political and now military power is transforming the structure of international politics. Neither China’s neighbours in Asia, such as India, nor the sole super-power, the US, have determined the best ways of dealing with this new China as yet, and Beijing too might be uncertain about the most advantageous applications of its self-styled “peaceful rise.” India has serious problems with China’s enormous territorial claims and its multi-faceted security and nuclear alliance with Pakistan, but since 1988 has concentrated on improving bilateral relations with China, especially through expansion of trade and investment, rather than military confrontation. India has also been building bridges to other countries in East Asia as well as Africa, Europe and the Americas to raise its own international profile. Successive administrations in the US have engaged China in various ways in order to win its cooperation in upholding the existing international system and on specific problems such as North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme, without, however, relinquishing America’s superior position in Asia and on the high seas. The Bush Administration began to look at India and China together for the first time, and the idea of hedging against a power shift at the top of the international hierarchy by strengthening ties with other democracies and maritime powers without announcing a policy of “containing” China gained currency in Washington.

Faced with the worst financial crisis since 1929, a severe recession, enormous trade and budget deficits, and a huge debt owned by China, the Obama Administration established a Strategic and Security Dialogue with China in July 2009, and scheduled a state visit by the President in November. Washington gossip crafted the term “G-2” as a replacement for the “unipolar moment” that had clearly passed in world politics. Whatever assessments Indians made of the Obama visit to China, the US-China Joint Statement issued at its end on November 17th contained a paragraph that was like the proverbial red rag to a bull. Under Part IV Regional and Global Challenges, it read: “The two sides are ready to strengthen communication, dialogue and cooperation on issues related to South Asia and work together to promote peace, stability, and development in that region.” While those familiar with the watertight compartmentalisation in the State Department could dismiss this as an avoidable bureaucratic mistake, it pricked New Delhi hard. And Indian commentators on Obama’s visit to India one year later noted that he had offered no assurances on China and avoided public chastisement of Pakistan for terrorist attacks against India launched from its soil. They wondered if and how India would benefit from the increasing defence cooperation and defence purchases from the US promoted by the two governments.

Prospects
As mentioned above, Obama’s state visit to India and the Joint Declaration issued at its end did much to overcome earlier misgivings of indifference toward India. American and Indian analysts and officials, not only the Ambassadors, are strongly positive about the present level of cooperation—so far beyond anything imagined 11 years ago-- and the prospects of strengthening the partnership in the 21st century. Five good reasons exist for such optimism, subject to the qualification that practical realisation even of common objectives by two cacophonic federal democracies operating through divided legislatures and lethargic bureaucracies are complicated. Moreover, the Cold War left a legacy of estrangement that can only be overcome by constant effort on both sides. Habits of cooperation need to be forged so as to overlay the default position of mutual mistrust. It is possible to do so.

First, there is bipartisan support in both countries for strengthening relations. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) first coined the term “natural allies” in reference to India and the US, and Congress Party Manmohan Singh shares that sentiment. Though the Communist parties of India and their establishment sympathisers are congenitally anti-American, their influence on policy has diminished. Democratic President Clinton made the first breakthrough in reaching out to India after its 1998 nuclear tests, Republican George W Bush went much further, and now Obama has picked up the baton. The large India caucus in the US Congress and Senate is composed of members from both political parties and the influential US-India Political Action Committee lobbies with both and draws support from Democratic and Republican Indian-Americans alike.

Secondly, India’s economic liberalisation after 1991 and its current economic dynamism despite a worldwide economic downturn, spur American interest in India that is actively cultivated by the Indian government and Chambers of Commerce. Perhaps the most visible sign in Washington of US-Indian partnership is the US India Business Council. Bilateral trade in goods and services has more than doubled in the last ten years, with neither country generating too much surplus or deficit, or registering many complaints with the World Trade Organisation (WTO). US foreign direct investment in Indian portfolios is large, and Indian greenfield investment in US manufacturing, automobiles, biotechnology and services has grown to $20 billion with corresponding employment opportunities for Americans. The private sector in both countries provides the driving force toward shared prosperity. Yet bilateral US-India trade is only one tenth the volume and value of US-China trade and there are barriers in both countries to increased economic collaboration. The US presses India to open its markets to agricultural products and retail stores, lift limits on foreign ownership, and open banking, insurance and defence industry to FDI. India’s reluctance to do so results in large part from its bad experience from as far back as the English East India Company in the 18th century. India too has complaints about US agricultural subsidies, protectionist impulses, and restrictions on movement of professionals through excessive limits on visas and high fees. The picture would surely brighten were American companies to accept India’s invitation to invest in its infrastructure development and educational projects and create joint ventures with Indian companies in Africa and other parts of the world, and were all Indian states as eager to embrace globalisation as Gujarat is.

Thirdly, India and the US are both targets of jihadi terrorism and need to be more active in sharing intelligence and pursuing miscreants than they have been. A counterterrorism initiative was launched in July 2010, after the deadly seaborne attacks of 26 November 2008 on Mumbai ascribed to the Lashkar-e-Taiba (L-e-T) based in Pakistan had killed some Americans as well as many Indians, and after a Pakistani-American, David Headley, formerly employed as a US agent, had confessed to his major role in planning that attack. The US praised India’s self-restraint and warned Pakistan that the consequences of another such attack would be grave, but the US Department of Homeland Security and India’s Home Ministry are yet to forge effective coordination in approaching terrorist threats in South Asia. US reluctance to tackle Pakistan is one inhibition, but the paucity of Indian officials with the expertise and the authority to partner their American counterparts is another. Nevertheless, terrorist threats to all open societies demand international cooperation.

Fourth, the convergence of Indian and American strategic goals is becoming increasingly evident and equitable engagement with the US is a high priority for Indian strategists. A Carnegie Endowment study of regional strategy in Afghanistan shows only India among neighbouring countries to have the same objectives there as the US. India’s strategic goals and vital interests in Asia and the Indian Ocean do not conflict with those of the US at any point as both seek to maintain open societies, political stability, maritime security and freedom of sea lanes. The number of joint operations between all three branches of the Indian and American armed forces—navy, air force and army—has increased exponentially, and further defence cooperation through sales, technology transfer, and joint production is envisaged. Interoperability is unlikely to be achieved soon, however. India resists signing documents on which the US insists as a prior condition, such as the Communication Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA) and the Mutual Logistic Support Agreement (MLSA) for fear of being relegated to the status of junior partner and losing its prized strategic autonomy. And while strategic objectives may converge, actual policies to achieve them often diverge.

Last, but not least, kinship ties are bringing India and the US closer together. Over 90,000 Indians study in the US. Almost three million Indian-Americans have won respect for their own abilities as well as for their country of origin. Highly educated and relatively affluent as a community, Indian- Americans are prominent in the corporate and educational worlds and are becoming commercially and politically active as well. President Obama has appointed 34 of them to various positions in his administration. As the forces of globalisation reduce the physical and emotional distance between countries, it seems reasonable to suppose that an American President who keeps a photograph of Mahatma Gandhi in his office and made a state visit to India within two years of taking office is favourably disposed toward an Indo-US partnership.