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.

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