Why India has mixed emotions about Obama
President Obama will visit India on a state visit in early November. I recently returned from New Delhi, and it was a trip that revealed a mix of hope and ambivalence that awaits the president’s arrival. On the positive side of the ledger, developments over the past few months have diminished India’s sense that U.S. ...
President Obama will visit India on a state visit in early November. I recently returned from New Delhi, and it was a trip that revealed a mix of hope and ambivalence that awaits the president's arrival.
President Obama will visit India on a state visit in early November. I recently returned from New Delhi, and it was a trip that revealed a mix of hope and ambivalence that awaits the president’s arrival.
On the positive side of the ledger, developments over the past few months have diminished India’s sense that U.S. diplomacy has neglected Asia’s key rising democracy after a bad stretch early in the Obama administration. Undersecretary of State Bill Burns delivered a terrific speech in June that declared America’s vital interest in India’s rise and Washington’s desire to facilitate it — a geopolitical vision that has been lacking since President Bush left office. Counterterrorism cooperation has intensified since the United States allowed Indian officials to interrogate captured terrorist suspect David Headley and explore his connections to Pakistani militant groups. The Obama administration has softened its line about dramatically drawing down troops from Afghanistan starting next summer, encouraging Indians and others to hope that the president will see the mission through to some minimally satisfactory conclusion.
With regard to Indians’ closely watched northern neighbor, Sino-American relations appear to have stabilized after Washington’s flirtation with the G2 condominium concept last year, followed by a period of military and diplomatic tension that has led to stronger U.S. pushback on Beijing’s revisionist claims in maritime Asia. The U.S. administration is engaging in a concerted push to lift remaining technology sanctions on India — a legacy of America’s 30-year effort to contain Indian power when the countries were estranged by Cold War and proliferation tensions — and to more broadly revise American export control laws in ways that catalyze technology trade and investment. The Obama administration is considering declaring its support for India’s permanent membership on the U.N. Security Council — an overdue change of American policy if it occurs. All these developments have been welcomed in New Delhi.
However, India’s strategic community remains concerned about (and in some cases, alarmed by) the president’s approach to Pakistan; his strategy for Afghanistan; his willingness to pursue a more robust Asia policy that raises the costs of Chinese assertiveness; the absence of American leadership on trade; and his commitment to treating India as a key power and partner in world affairs in a way consistent with Indians’ own sense of their country’s rising stature and capabilities.
Pakistan/Afghanistan and China are central areas of concern. Indian elites recognize that Washington has ceded to Islamabad (read Rawalpindi, headquarters of Pakistan’s military establishment) a dominant role in delivering the Afghan Taliban and associated insurgent groups for an Afghan political settlement. Indians fear this will impose Pakistani suzerainty over Afghan politics in return for the creation of conditions that allow Western forces to come home. This U.S. approach, and the president’s "surge and withdraw" announcement of 2009, caused many Indian officials and experts to give up hope a long time ago that Obama would ultimately leave behind an independent Afghanistan that would not threaten India by playing host to Islamic militants with wider regional and global ambitions to foment jihad.
On China, one retired Indian admiral and leading strategist told us that, in light of China’s developing blue-water navy and ambitions to project maritime power far from home, "India is the only thing standing between China and the South Atlantic." Washington and New Delhi, he argued, should therefore structure their military and diplomatic relations around preventing Chinese hegemony in Asia and the world, especially if America intends to preserve the Monroe Doctrine in its hemisphere and sustain its control of the global commons. Many Indians have long taken a more hawkish view of China in light of their experience with Chinese aggression in their 1962 war, China’s early development of nuclear weapons with missiles capable of targeting every Indian city, and China’s arming of India’s neighbors, from Pakistan to Sri Lanka to Burma, with an eye on tying India down in its subregion and limiting its ability to project influence more widely. Given China’s increasingly sharp-elbowed approach not only to lesser neighbors but toward a more powerful United States, an Indo-U.S. convergence on China should be in the cards — but Indian strategists do not judge Obama to have demonstrated the necessary resolve vis-à-vis Beijing.
The president’s November trip will be a chance to lay these concerns to rest and outline an ambitious vision for Indo-U.S. relations of the kind that has been lacking in a U.S. approach since 2009 featuring a range of smaller functional initiatives — on agriculture, education, health, etc. — that don’t add up to a strategic whole. But this isn’t a one-way street. The Indian government needs to deliver too — on legacy agreements on defense cooperation and logistics, nuclear liability, foreign investment, and other initiatives that have for too long been tied up in India’s bureaucracy.
It would also be helpful if Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who showed his steel by risking the downfall of his government over civil-nuclear cooperation with America in 2008, could outline an aspirational vision for U.S.-India relations that accords with the potential both sides have long identified. If this is truly to be a partnership of equals between the world’s predominant power and its next democratic superpower, both New Delhi and Washington share a responsibility to propel it forward. If Obama’s commitment to that process is less robust than that of his predecessors, all the more reason for India’s leaders to step up theirs.
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