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India summit sneak preview

When Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh comes to Washington next week, the Obama administration will be challenged to reassure India, and the Washington foreign-policy community, that the relationship is keeping up the momentum established during the Bush years. The visit comes at a time when the Obama administration is making overtures to China and focused ...

576418_091120_singh2.jpg
576418_091120_singh2.jpg

When Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh comes to Washington next week, the Obama administration will be challenged to reassure India, and the Washington foreign-policy community, that the relationship is keeping up the momentum established during the Bush years.

The visit comes at a time when the Obama administration is making overtures to China and focused on Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the Indians are worried their rank on the White House priority list is falling. While U.S.-India relations are generally strong, in what is often seen as the zero-sum struggle for White House attention, New Delhi simply can't compete with Beijing and is increasingly worried about what that means for power politics in Asia.

When Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh comes to Washington next week, the Obama administration will be challenged to reassure India, and the Washington foreign-policy community, that the relationship is keeping up the momentum established during the Bush years.

The visit comes at a time when the Obama administration is making overtures to China and focused on Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the Indians are worried their rank on the White House priority list is falling. While U.S.-India relations are generally strong, in what is often seen as the zero-sum struggle for White House attention, New Delhi simply can’t compete with Beijing and is increasingly worried about what that means for power politics in Asia.

“From the Indian point of view, they are very unhappy with Obama,” said Stephen Cohen, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, “Indians are really bent out of shape by what they see as a shift of American policy from India to China in Asia. This is complicated by America’s dependence on Pakistan.”

Administration critics saw Obama’s joint statement with Hu Jintao in Beijing as an implicit downgrading of the U.S.-India relationship. The statement said 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.”

“If China and America work together on South Asian issues, such as peace between India and Pakistan, then China is the great power while India is simply another South Asian country that needs help from others to solve its problems,” wrote former Pentagon official Dan Blumenthal, “With the joint statement, Obama officially accorded India junior status in Asia.”

Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific security program at the Center for a New American Security, said that while “the relationship with India is clearly coming second,” progress in the U.S.-China relationship indirectly benefits India.

“If the United States and China can’t figure out a way to manage their strategic competition, then India and all of us lose,” said Cronin. “They need to give the administration more space to try to put the U.S.-China relationship on the most positive trajectory possible.”

Nevertheless, the Obama-Singh summit will stand in stark contrast to Singh’s 2005 tête-à-tête with George W. Bush, when the two countries embarked on a “strategic partnership” that has taken the relationship far and paved the way for the U.S.-India nuclear agreement.

“Bush already capitalized on what you could from that relationship,” said Cronin. “They picked already the low-hanging fruit.”

The trip is likely to result in agreements to move forward on second-tier issues, such as an educational agreement, some new military sales to the Indians, or shared information on homeland security. But on big issues like Iran, moving forward with nonproliferation, and coming to terms on climate change, India hands expect little movement.

Underlying the dynamic is a sense that the Obama administration has yet to really commit to a real plan for advancing the U.S.-India relationship. A State Department review is ongoing.

One issue is that there is no real powerful driver for India policy within the administration. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is well versed on India, but too busy to address it day-to-day. That work has fallen to Under Secretary of State William Burns, but he too has a broad portfolio. Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake is the highest identifiable official with a constant, determined focus on the relationship. Even at the National Security Council, India doesn’t have a strong advocate yet.

India lobbied against having Richard Holbrooke, the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, as its lead interlocutor, leaving the relationship without a specific manager.

Ashley Tellis, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, is hoping the Obama administration will take the opportunity to announce its support for India to become a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council.

“Although it would have no short-term practical consequence, it would provide the benefits in ‘atmospherics’ sought from Prime Minister Singh’s visit,” he wrote.

That’s not likely, according to most observers, but many argue that Obama must make some show of commitment to actually advancing the relationship, not just maintaining it.

“Obama needs to show that we are trying to institutionalize what is the growing strategic relationship with India,” said Cronin. “He can’t have the prime minister go back to New Dehli without having a sense that we know where we are going together.”

Cohen pointed out that the White House might also be frustrated that India hasn’t come through in the one area that could really benefit U.S. interests right now: reducing tensions with Pakistan so that Pakistan can divert its attention and resources toward cracking down on terrorism and militancy.

“Where is their contribution to what’s going in Afghanistan and what are they doing with respect to Pakistan that might make our problem there easier?” asked Cohen of the Pakistanis. “What have they done for Americans lately?”

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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