Friday, December 4, 2009

Obama tries to allay Indian fears

PRIME Minister Manmohan Singh's visit to the United States was the first such visit by a Head of State/Government under the Obama administration. The hosts used this point in the media to single out the visit as a special one. Likewise, the state banquet given to the Indian Prime Minister, where over 300 guests were invited, was also mentioned in the media in great details to underscore the care and the attention that the hosts have taken to make the visit remarkable. The President's choice of words to praise India and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made it obvious that he was also trying to underscore the visit as more than an important one. He referred to the usual pitch that marks such visits between the two countries; theirs being the two largest democracies in the world. This time, the fact that both Obama and Manmohan Singh have only recently assumed office (Manmohan Singh for a new term) and would have a long time to implement agreements reached between the two countries was added to the usual pitch to underscore the visit's importance.

The official talks between the two leaders lasted two hours. A Joint Statement was issued following the talks and the two leaders also addressed a joint press conference. Obama acknowledged India as a “rising and responsible global power” and welcomed it for “rise of a stable, prosperous and rising Asia”. Obama said the US considered its strategic partnership with India “as one of the redefining partnerships of 21st century” and added that the necessity to broaden and strengthen US-India cooperation would be a matter of priority for his administration. Obama underscored India's fantastic rate of economic development and stressed upon the need to strengthen trade and investment in each other's country for mutual benefit. In the context of the agreements reached at the Pittsburg G20 Summit, President Obama underscored the need for India to “have a greater voice in shaping the international financial structure.” Obama also said at the press conference about an agreement to interact closely on the issue of climate leading to the UN sponsored Copenhagen Summit next month.

President Obama also said that the two countries agreed to deepen cooperation on “transnational threats”. To prevent future attacks like the one Mumbai witnessed a year ago, they agreed that “our law enforcing and intelligence agencies will work closer, including sharing information.” President Obama assured India that the Civil Nuclear Agreement reached in October 2008 would be implemented soon and welcomed India's participation in the nuclear summit next year “in a shared vision of a world without nuclear weapons.” President Obama also spoke of US-Indian cooperation in education, disease control, and food security. Manmohan Singh expressed satisfaction at the agreement of the two sides to strengthen their strategic partnership and to cooperate closely on trade and investment relations. He expressed pleasure at the assurance on implementing the Civil Nuclear Agreement. He also echoed the sentiments of Obama on the agreement to work on climate, economic issues, education and food security. The visit was also significant because of the 8 MoUs signed on a wide range of areas highlighting deeper cooperation between the private sectors of the two countries.

The ambiance created around the visit by the hosts was in contrast to the build up to the visit from the Indian side. The US President's state visit to China just days before Manmohan Singh's trip to Washington did not make the Indians particularly happy. Former Indian Foreign Secretary and Ambassador to Washington Lalit Mansingh said that although it is easy to explain Obama's bow to the Emperor of Japan as a matter of protocol, his bending over backwards to please the Chinese was nothing but “appeasement”. The Indians are unhappy that the Obama administration has been paying too much attention to China and not enough to the Indians. The warmth of relations that was there under President Bush who brought US-India relations out from the cold storage after decades of antagonism during the Cold War was missing going into the visit. The Indians were getting apprehensive because of the Obama administration's silence to activate the Civil Nuclear Agreement. The US had to use its influence with the 43 nations Nuclear Suppliers' Group to get its clearance to sign the deal.

The task of making the visit successful thus lay more on the lap of the US than on the Indians. In fact, the US had to walk the tight rope on this account. It had to keep Pakistan happy by not giving too much to the Indians as the Obama administration has already pinned that country as a strategic partner in the war against terror. China is the emerging world giant set to overtake Japan soon as the second strongest economy in the world and eventually beat the US to the number one position. China is also US's most important trading partner. These are just a few of the imperatives that make relations with China extremely important for the US. In fact, Lalit Mansingh was correct when he said that Obama's overtures towards China during his recent trip was “appeasement” because given China's ever growing influence in world affairs, and US's dependence on China for economic reasons, it is in US' national interest to keep China happy.

Thus, the US cannot lean towards India without considering the reactions of Pakistan and China. By reiterating commitment to work with India on issues of climate; terrorism in South Asia; global trading arrangements; the US has assured the Indians about India's importance to the US as a strategic partner without upsetting Pakistan and China. The importance of US-India Strategic Dialogue established at the level of Secretary of State/Minister of External Affairs as underscored by Obama has also made the Indians happy. These facts notwithstanding, no agreement has been signed nor any commitment made by the US with India which may upset either China or Pakistan. Nevertheless, the assurance given by the US to implement the Civil Nuclear Agreement has been a major outcome of the visit. A visibly relieved Indian Prime Minister said at the joint press conference that it would take at most a couple of months before the deal is implemented.

In the context of big power international politics, the visit will not give India any new importance than what it already enjoys. In the context of regional politics in South Asia, the visit has clearly underscored that India will be, to the United States, the regional leader where Pakistan would be the exception. Bangladesh may have less of the US attention on regional matters such as those related to security and terrorism, sharing of water of common rivers or on maritime boundary and US may be inclined to take the Indian view on such matters to decide its policy.

The two big issues upon which the US media reported extensively are the state banquet where the First Lady wore an elegant dress designed by an Indian designer; the Indian cuisine served on the occasion; and the galaxy of elites who were invited to it. The other big issue is the gate crashing event of Tareq Salahi. Neither issue is of substance but still they dominated media attention. This does not suggest that important issues were not discussed. It nevertheless suggests that the issues discussed did not make any breakthrough which might have taken US-India strategic relations to the next level as was predicted by Assistant Secretary for South Asia Robert Blake in his pre-visit assessment. Rather, the visit of Manmohan Singh will maintain the current US policy in Asia, that of not choosing a favorite among India, Pakistan and China.

Published in The Daily Star, December 5, 2009

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