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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 25, June 12, 2010

The Angst of Wayward US Partnerships

Monday 14 June 2010, by M K Bhadrakumar


As the crow flies, just over a kilometre separates the White House from Foggy Bottom, the home of the United States Department of State, but the travel distance is longer. At any rate, the drive President Barack Obama took last Wednesday (June 2) from the heart of Washington to the border with Virginia was a rare one.

Obama broke protocol by attending a reception hosted by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in honour of her visiting Indian counter-part, S. M. Krishna, who co-chaired the inaugural United States-India strategic dialogue.

With his personal interjection into the US-India relationship, Obama signalled that India remains a top priority in his foreign policy agenda. There should be no ambiguity on this score. International diplomacy is replete with symbolism and this is doubly so at a time of great volatility in the international system.

Thus, coming a week after the US’ strategic dialogue with China and a couple of action-packed months after the US-Pakistan dialogue, comparisons are bound to be drawn. China’s People’s Daily hastened to react: “The intensity of US-China traffic is in sharp contrast with the lack of high-level exchanges between the Indian leadership and Obama.”

Yet, Obama asserted that one-third of his cabinet officials had already visited Delhi and he himself would travel to the Indian capital in November.

The Chinese angst surfaced when the daily added: “US officials have repeatedly sought to reassure India that the bilateral relationship remains on a fast track under the Obama Administration and that it will not pursue close contacts with China at the expense of strong ties with India.”

Beijing is closely watching the “latest US move to affirm the importance of the South Asian country” and the indication that the “Obama Administration has identified India as a major strategic partner in the new international order”. It comes at a time when Obama is choreographing a reset of US-Russia ties. Besides, China’s northeast diplomacy has lately run into headwinds, as the impasse over the sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan—seemingly by North Korea—highlighted.

Most certainly, compared to his last visit to Japan in 2008, Premier Wen Jiabao was far less exuberant during talks in Tokyo on May 31 about the China-Japan relationship and his discussions were noticeably subdued as regards how China and Japan might shape their future. Indeed, Beijing has reason to be apprehensive.

How far is Beijing’s angst warranted? If rhetoric can take wings, the United States-India relationship is all set to fly high into a clear blue sky where the sun shines eternal. Seldom has such high-flown rhetoric resonated the corridors of power inWashington: simply put, the Obama Administration is apparently convinced that the US has no future in the 21st century without India’s partnership. The rhetoric by far exceeded what it was supposed to serve—to calm New Delhi’s nerves regarding Obama’s perceived lack of commitment to the US-India partnership.

Instead it virtually resuscitated the George W. Bush-era paradigm that Washington, in its self-interest, is determined to make India a first-rate global power.

But life is real. And Krishna probably did the right thing to plant his feet firmly on the ground. On balance, the US-India strategic dialogue did not produce any “deliverables” for New Delhi. The heart of the matter is that the Obama Administration is not in a position to annoy Pakistan.

Senior US officials not only took care to sequester Pakistan from censuring as a state sponsoring terrorism but instead viewed Pakistan with sympathy—as, like India, a victim —rather than as a perpetrator of terrorism in the region, as New Delhi alleges.

Equally, they underscored the centrality of Islamabad’s cooperation for reaching an Afghan settlement. US officials, including Clinton, liberally commended India’s development assistance for Afghanistan but shied away from inviting Delhi to assist in capacity-building for Afghan security forces, which is the number one challenge.

Washington factors in that Pakistani Army Chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kiani has drawn a red line in regard to India’s profile in Afghanistan and if the US breaches it, there will be consequences.


So, why such US hype—that India is an “indispensable partner and a trusted friend”; that “a rising India is good for the United States and good for the world”; that the relations with India are “at the highest of priorities” for the Obama Administration; that India forms part of the “fundamental pillar” of America’s global engagement; that India and the US have “reached the stage where our individual success at home and abroad depends on our cooperation”?

There is an overall belief in Washington, with some considerable justification, that the Indians love flattery. But diplomacy is at once hardball, too. Three main reasons can be attributed to the US statecraft. First, having India on its side becomes a pragmatic need for the US to tackle certain key major foreign policy challenges, especially climate change, the situation around Iran, the endgame in Afghanistan, and nuclear non-proliferation.

The recent “course corrections” in Indian foreign policy seem to have caused disquiet in Washington. The India-China cooperation at the Copenhagen summit on climate change check-mated the Western strategy and the two Asian powers put US diplomacy at a disadvantage. Delhi is making a renewed effort to advance the normalisation with Beijing—although it needs two hands to clap.

New Delhi is lately taking an independent line on Iran and even welcomed the Turkey-Brazil-Iran enriched uranium swap deal, which patently undermines the US’ coercive diplomacy. Again, the endgame in Afghanistan is critically dependent on Pakistan’s cooperation, which in turn is linked to India-Pakistan tensions and the US’ capacity to moderate their historic rivalry.

Second, the US is robustly pushing exports to crank up its economy and the Indian market offers tremendous potential. During the dialogue, US officials demanded easier access to the Indian market for American goods and services across the board, including a big share in military sales and nuclear commerce and in such diverse fields as education, agriculture and energy.

Prospects have indeed brightened for the US to do away with residual restrictions on transfers of sensitive technology to India, which opens up huge prospects of military cooperation. Clearly, Washington senses that the Manmohan Singh era of Indian policy-making will not last forever and would like to accelerate the partnership agenda.

The Indian Prime Minister has been handed down some tough assignments like legislating on areas facilitating US entry into nuclear commerce and education, signing of a logistics support agreement for the use of Indian military bases by the American military, “more rapid Indian consideration of reforms, including the easing of caps on investment in critical sectors”, etc.

Finally, there is unmistakably an international context in which the Obama presidency in its second year is seeking out India as a partner to “work together in Asia” and “build a new global commons—an international system in which other democracies can flourish”, as William J. Burns, the US State Department Under Secretary for Political Affairs, put it on June 1.

The Obama Aadministration has dusted up the Bush-era doctrine at a time when new tensions have come to the fore in the US-China relationship. A distinct frostiness has appeared in the air while until recently the prognosis was about a “G-2” in the making.

The US has resuscitated old ideas about joint patrolling of the maritime routes in the Indian Ocean and coordinating South Asian policies where the two countries have “complementary interests” and to build an axis involving India and US with “other large Asia-Pacific demo-cracies—Japan, Australia and South Korea... [for] cooperating more systematically on security issues.”

Burns called on India to participate in the “institutional architecture of the Asia-Pacific region” where “India’s voice as a successful democracy is important”. He said: “We [US] share with India an interest in regional stability and a geopolitical balance.” (Emphasis added)

He added the US’ search for a “healthy relationship” with China in no way becomes a “zero-sum game. Instead we [the US] attach great significance to India’s expanding role in East Asia, and welcome our partnership across the region.”

New Delhi needs to assess what kind of relationship it wants with the US in the 21st century—how far its interests can be dovetailed with US efforts to gain tactical advantages in the exercise of “smart power” vis-å-vis China. Not an easy task considering that the US is a superpower in decline and its policies lack consistency while China is certainly a power on the rise and it is a difficult neighbour, too.

But then, Burns gently underscored that the Americans too have their angst about India— “that India doesn’t always see as clearly as others do how vital its role in Asia is becoming. Some Americans worry that India is ambivalent about its own rise in the world... The further truth is that progress in US-Indian partnership is not automatic... Realising the full potential of our partnership in the years ahead will require some important choices from both America and India. Partnership means more than just having shared values and common interests. It also means developing complementary policies and habits of cooperation.“

Put differently, India needs to do a careful cost-benefit analysis of the geostrategy serving its long-term interests within a complex matrix of almost-irreversible US-China interdepen-dency.

Given an option, India probably prefers to pursue its own normalisation with China without being hustled by the US. Indeed, Krishna’s next port of call is Seoul, which faces somewhat comparable predicaments.

(Courtesy: Asia Times)

Ambassador M.K. Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.

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