Saturday, November 20, 2010

President Obama gives India a dream visit

Published in The Sun, November 17th.'2010
M. Serajul Islam

If the Indians were to write the script for President Obama for his Indian visit, they could not have written a better one than what President Obama scripted and executed. While giving Indian support for a permanent seat in an expanded UN Security Council, the President suggested that with “increased power comes increased responsibility,” leaving no doubt that the USA considers India a responsible world power. In fact, in his speech in the Indian parliament, Obama said that India is not an emerging world power; it has already emerged as one.

The President entered India through Mumbai, the financial capital of India. In Mumbai, the President talked business that was on top of his agenda for the Indian trip for which a record 215 member trade team was in his entourage. He was eager to demonstrate to the Americans his focus on what was the major issue that led to the debacle in the mid-term elections for the Democrats. The massive defeat in which the Democrats lost control of the House, has also cast doubts on the President’s re-election bid. He thus pampered Indians to encourage them to sign business deals for not just increasing trade but also creating jobs in USA. He expressed surprise that India is not even in the list of 10 top trading partners of the USA.

Towards helping India achieve that position, deals worth over US$ 10 billion were signed by business executives travelling with him. For USA, such deals will have the potential to create 50,000 jobs. These deals were signed in areas of defence production; automobiles; electronics; aeronautics and transportation. Significantly for India, the US has agreed to lift controls for export of high technology items and technologies to India. This is a manifestation of the trust that US now has upon India.

In Mumbai, the President and the First lady stayed at Mumbai Taj, the scene of 24/11.The hotel was chosen deliberately to convey to the Indians USA’s support for fighting terror. However, Indian expectation that he would also convey a message to the Pakistanis whom they believe to be behind the 24/11 terrorist attacks in which 166 people were killed did not happen. That was perhaps the only issue that the President left undone in the Indians’ wish list but that was understandable given Pakistan’s strategic value to USA in the ongoing war on terror in the frontier between Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the Joint Declaration, the two sides “called for Pakistan to bring to justice the perpetrators of November, 2008 Mumbai attacks”.

The President was received in New Delhi by the Indian Prime Minister in breach of protocol that permits the Minister in waiting to receive a visiting Head of State. In official talks between the President and the Prime Minister, there was not a chance that there would be even the remotest possibility of any differences on any issue emerging. None did. A gleaming Prime Minister told the press in the press briefing he held jointly with the President that the USA has also agreed to help India gain membership in multilateral export control regimes, including the powerful Nuclear Suppliers Group, a cartel that has held India to a pariah status for over 3 decades following its nuclear tests of 1974 till the US had intervened to help remove India from that status to sign the civil nuclear deal.

The President’s speech in the joint session of parliament was simply the sweetest music to the Indian ears. He said India and the US are “indispensible partners” and the US fervently supports India’s rise as a world power. He partially satisfied for failing to name Pakistan for 24/11 earlier in the trip by stating in the Indian parliament that terrorism linked to safe havens in Pakistan “is not acceptable.” He spoke admiringly about India as a great civilization and even mentioned thoughtfully that the all important number zero was invented in India. He spoke of Mahatma Gandhi and how his life influenced him. Clearly, the President made very serious efforts to make India happy.

The Joint Statement on the visit contained the usual clichés that India and the US are the two largest democracies of the world. Nevertheless, there is a clear emphasis in the JS to conclude that the US now accepts India as an equal in strategic global partnership. In fact, in the JS, US-India has been described as “one of the defining and strategic partnerships of the 21st century.” The areas of cooperation are also significant because it covers important areas to underscore the depth of relationship.

President George Bush had come to India in 2006 with one issue; the civil nuclear deal. President Obama came with his domestic agenda and foreign affairs as priorities.. He has learnt a very valuable lesson on the relation between the economy and job creation and elections; that “it is the economy, stupid” that is of fundamental importance to voters. That explains the record trade team as well as the emphasis on the trade deals and job creation. One therefore cannot help but wonder whether the President would have praised India as he did had the Democrats not lost so badly that made India’s huge market of1.2billion people very attractive.

The foreign affairs agenda was to send a strong message to China to go slow in believing that it would be left with Asia and the Pacific as its spheres of influence. In that context, the President used his trip to tell China that USA and India would stand together to contest such a Chinese desire. The strong words used to support India’s Security Council candidature that is not a burning issue at UN Headquarters at New York at present was intentional for the same China factor.

The President travelled to India with 40 planes, including Air Force One, for reasons of security and logistics. In these, were 6 armoured vehicles including the President’s Cadillac that is fitted with mini communications centre to let the President remain in touch with Washington. This was by far the most extravagant arrangement ever for a US President allegedly costing US$ 200 million a day. The President’s men also lost no opportunity to remind that the 3 days that the President spent in India were the longest on a foreign trip. Clearly, the message of this new interest in India is for China. Nevertheless, for South Asia, it is also a message that India has made a quantum leap in world affairs, leaving the rest of South Asia behind. All said, the question that will linger in this region among those who know India better is whether India has the heart and the vision to live up to the importance that US has given it. Bangladesh for one would be looking expectantly for an answer when Dr. Manmohon Singh comes over to Dhaka for a visit early next year.

India’s current position, rising as it is towards becoming a world power, did not warrant the extravagant praises the President heaped upon it. For one, India’s contribution to the world GDP is still a low 2%. Inside the country; it has plenty of problems; one being the situation in Kashmir on the human rights issue that is hardly a happy one. India’s problems with its neighbours still linger where India has not shown the maturity that would make President Obama’s lavish praise fully comprehendible. One analyst called the President’s efforts high on “diplomatic flattery” while another reminded him that he spent the early part of his administration “kowtowing” China and neglecting India.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt and Director, Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Sino-Bangladesh relations: Need for vision

Published in Daily Sun, 9th., November, 2010
M. Serajul Islam

There was news in the media recently that Foreign Minister Dipu Moni had postponed her China visit on health ground. There was no news afterwards whether that visit has been rescheduled. In the absence of any information on the issue, questions have arisen in minds of many whether the visit was postponed on medical grounds alone.

Sino-Bangladesh relations had a very unhappy beginning. China opposed Bangladesh’s liberation and had held up its UN candidature for quite a while at a time when it was extremely important for it to have that membership. Following the changes after 15th August 1975, China established diplomatic ties with Bangladesh and also facilitated Bangladesh’s entry to the UN by withdrawing its veto. In the next three and a half decades, Sino-Bangladesh relations developed from one level to another in excellence. In the process, every aspect on which a country builds a relationship with another, like trade, economics, defense cooperation ; people to people contact, etc., have been brought into the Sino-Bangladesh relations with many agreements/protocols providing the framework for conducting these relations.

Although Bangladesh and China have not built a strategic partnership in the formal sense; there has never been any doubt that India has always been a factor in jelling their bilateral relations. In 1988, when Bangladesh faced one of history’s worst floods, General Ershad brought the point home in a dramatic way. He asked India through diplomatic channels to take back the helicopters that it had provided for dealing with the flood telling the Indians that there was no need of helicopters anymore. At the same time, in fact the same day, the President requested China on the national TV for helicopters to deal with the flood.

President Ershad visited China five times during his tenure to underscore the importance China gave Bangladesh. There were high level visits from China during this period including one from the Chinese President. There were reasons for China to please Bangladesh. First, Bangladesh had the opening to the Bay of Bengal in which China was interested for strategic reasons, including the need for a deep seaport for economic purpose that it hoped Bangladesh would build. Second, China in those days was also interested in the ongoing insurgencies in the Seven Sisters of India and Bangladesh was ideally located for furthering such interest. Third, China also had its problems with India. Fourth, China viewed Bangladesh with its large population as a potential market for its businesses. Finally, China perceived India as a competitor to its ambition to become a regional power and for that it needed Bangladesh (and other countries in South Asia) as an ally.

Although the end of the Cold War that also saw the return of elected government in Bangladesh changed many equations of international relations, Bangladesh-China relations remained warm. When the AL came to office in 1996, Sheikh Hasina accepted China’s invitation for a visit that was her first overseas trip when she was barely in office a couple of months, the party’s historical ties with India notwithstanding.

Bangladesh’s foreign policy practitioners did not fully comprehend the changes in international politics of the time, particularly the fact that some of the reasons that had made it attractive to China were losing their edge. They also failed to realize that Myanmar could give more to China, and in fact doing so, on the strategic issues than Bangladesh.

While these changes/developments were taking place, the BNP made a blunder in 2005 by allowing Taiwan to open a trade office without taking China into confidence. The office was opened at a time when elections were taking place in Taiwan and thus the most inopportune time to give such permission. It also cancelled a Chinese aided project DAP 1 that was signed in the final days of the AL government unilaterally that angered China very much. When the AL came to office in January, 2009, China’s eagerness for a relationship with Bangladesh based on special considerations had mellowed substantially. On coming to power, the AL also gave China cause for disappointment when it failed to take China into confidence while changing the name of the China-Bangladesh Convention Centre that China had fully funded.

The AL Government also made overtures to reach out to India that it did not last time. It made dramatic concessions on land transit and security during Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s “state visit” to India in January this year. In the Joint Communiqué, Bangladesh agreed to support India’s candidature for membership in an expanded Security Council although the issue is not even current in UN affairs. The strong words of support sent a clear message to Beijing about Bangladesh’s regional preference.

Bangladesh has painstakingly built its relations with China over many decades starting when China was a developing country to a position where it plays a dominant role in international politics and economics today. To lose China’s interest now or a mellowing down of the earlier warm relations would be losing out on benefits out one of the most successful pursuits in the foreign policy initiatives of Bangladesh, namely building with China excellent bilateral relations.

It is Bangladesh’s prerogative as a sovereign nation to get close or distant to and from any nation for pursuing its national interests. So China cannot have any qualms about what Bangladesh does with India. Nevertheless, Bangladesh should keep in mind that it befriended China for leverage against India. China reciprocated warmly towards Bangladesh also because of the India factor. Thus if Bangladesh would like to improve relations with India now, the least China would expect is to take a time tested friend into confidence. Today, as a responsible world power, China is no longer interested in meddling in India’s internal affairs. The two countries are also patching up their bilateral problems. Hence, India to which Bangladesh has made exceptional overtures for friendship that it has never done before would also not have any reason to worry if Bangladesh had taken China into confidence on moving ahead with it. Bangladesh foreign policy practitioners have not shown enough maturity in handling its relations vis-à-vis India and China for it does not appear that they have taken China into confidence. The time it took to invite Sheikh Hasina to Beijing this time underscores Chinese disappointment.

The Bangladesh Foreign Minister’s visit to Beijing would have answered questions in the public mind about China’s present perception about; whether Bangladesh has played away the strategic value of China for promises from India. The forthcoming visit of the Indian Prime Minister to Dhaka and what offer he brings for Bangladesh on its water sharing; trade and maritime boundary demarcation problems would also help clear a lot of uncertainties. If the Indian Prime Minister fails to offer major concessions to Bangladesh on the outstanding problems, the public would be convinced that Bangladesh has indeed played away its cards with India and in the process, lost the warmth of China.

China conducts foreign policy on long term perspective. It is also not in the habbit, as some major powers are, of abandoning a tested friend like Bangladesh. Thus whatever Manmohon Singh offers us or does not, Bangladesh should deal with China with vision and while trying to improve relations with India, do so with China on the loop. Between the BNP in its last term and the AL so far, Bangladesh has shown no such vision. One just hopes that China would understand if Bangladesh showed the vision.

(The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt and Director, Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies)

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

President Obama’s India trip: Pakistan out

The Daily Sun, November 2nd.,2010
M. Serajul Islam

President Obama will start a trip on November 5th to India, Indonesia, South Korea and Japan for an APEC meeting. It is however his trip to India that has created discussion and controversy; a lot of it caused by the US side itself. The discussion and controversy has been based on the fact that he would be visiting India without a trip to Pakistan, something ususual. In the past, Washington had taken the sensitivities of the two South Asian rivals and had pleased both without playing favourite with either with a Presidential visit.

US-India relations have been on a fast track since the US and India signed in 2005 an agreement under which India agreed to separate its civil and military nuclear facilities and place the former under IAEA inspection. In the next 3 years, the US backed India through complex negotiations to get the consent of the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group, a very powerful cartel group whose consent was necessary to allow India to seek assistance for building nuclear reactors for energy needs. The NSG’s approval gave India the prestige and respectability as a responsible world power and helped it come out of its pariah status following its 1974 nuclear test.

President Obama backed fully his predecessor’s moves towards India and the whole gamut of bilateral relations was reviewed positively during Prime Minister Manmohon Singh’s very successful visit to Washington last year. The visit of President Obama to New Delhi has been described by his aides as one intended for action on what was agreed during the Indian PM’s trip to Washington in November last year. They said little time would be wasted on talks or negotiations, underscoring the fact that the two sides are ready for a paradigm shift in relations from one of “doner-donee” to one of strategic partnership between two equals.

President Obama has decided to visit India without a parallel trip to Pakistan fully conscious about what it would mean to Pakistan. It wants to give recognition to the massive strides that India has made in the last one decade or so in international politics and the importance of a US-India strategic partnership in Asia. US Under Secretary William Burns described this partnership as “ a cornerstone of our broader Asia approach.” China’s recent initiatives in Asia and the Pacific have not brought comfort in New Delhi. Washington too is viewing this with concern. The US side has none the less dismissed media speculation that the importance it is giving to President Obama’s India visit is intended to send signal to Beijing saying that it is equally interested to strengthen its relations with China. There is nevertheless reason to believe that the visit to India is being arranged without Islamabad on the loop to give that message precisely.

On the agenda for the trip will be the entire gamut of bilateral relationships; from health care to defense; from trade to climate change; from education to high tech exports. Trade and financial issues will however be a principal focus on the trip. US-India trade has doubled between 2004-and 2008 when it reached US$ 43 billion. This year, the two way trade is expected to touch US$ 50 billion. During the visit, both sides will push for exponential growth that is within reach of both countries. Market access by US farm products to Indian market is perhaps the only issue of contention in US-India relations at present is also expected to be discussed. One administration official hit the bull’s eye for anyone seeking to understand where US-India relations stand today when he said: "What concerns US today, concerns India as well. And what concerns India, concerns the US. If we move ahead on these issues, it will be a big push forward."

Nevertheless, Pakistan will be an important backdrop for the visit. Understandably, the Pakistanis have been upset by being ignored. However, leading to the visit, it has been the US administration that has made most of the attempts to explain that the importance of Pakistan cannot be under-estimated from the visit in the context of US’ foreign policy priorities where Pakistan is one of its most important allies. President Obama called President Zardari over telephone to reassure him that Pakistan continues to be a very important partner of the USA and its relations with India did not in any way affect its relations with Pakistan. He referred to the recent Third Round of US-Pakistan Strategic Talks in Washington to underscore the importance and depth of US-Pakistan bilateral relations. In his conversation, President Obama assured the Pakistani President that his country will assist Pakistan to get back on track once the war on terror is over, perhaps to assure Pakistan that it would not abandon Pakistan as it had the last time during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Earlier, President Obama had made an unexpected visit to the venue of US-Pakistan strategic talks in Washington to demonstrate the importance the US attaches to its relations with Pakistan. During that visit, he had told the Pakistan delegation that was led by Pakistan’s Foreign Minister that he would undertake a separate visit to Pakistan next year. During his telephone talk with President Zardari, President Obama re-confirmed this invitation.

The overtures that the US side has made to meet Pakistan’s sensitiveness are interesting and unusual. It is something that US has not done before, not for any country. The US, while undertaking these efforts, has also been aware about the furor that was created in US-UK relations when the British Prime Minister had visited India ignoring Pakistan. Yet it has gone ahead and arranged President Obama’s visit to India ignoring Pakistan.

Thus, all the pep talks to soften Pakistan’s sensitivities including a promise of a visit by President Obama next year notwithstanding, there is clearly a shift in preference of the US for one of the two arch rivals in South Asia. It is only the war on terror that is keeping the US committed to Pakistan. Recently, the US has committed US 2 billion in military aid; even overlooking human rights violations by Pakistani troops that should have come under serious scrutiny under the Leahy Amendment that bars aid under such circumstances. This aid comes on top of US$ 7 billion already committed for civilian projects. But at the same time, the US has also expressed its disappointment over the Pakistan military’s commitment in counter terrorism efforts and has warned that if any terrorist attack in USA is traced back to Pakistan, USA would take out “150 terrorist camps” in Pakistan unilaterally. USA is losing its patience with Pakistan and needs more commitment to end the war on terror with the US President committed to start withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan from next year. Ignoring Pakistan on the South Asian trip could have a message about this impatience.

The only silver lining that Pakistan could see in President Obama’s visit to India is he could convey to the Indians its concerns about Indian presence in Afghanistan where it has become a leading donor having so far pledged US$ 650 million. President Obama’s visit to India underlines the fact that it has emerged in a class of its own with Pakistan in the race as long as the war on terror remains unresolved with the rest of South Asian nations not even in the race in USA’s scheme of things in the region.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt and a Director, Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies.