Triumph in New Delhi

Critics have assailed Obama's Asia trip as a failure. They're ignoring the strategic victory that the president won in India.

Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

If U.S. President Barack Obama was hoping for some quick victories during his trip to Asia after the "shellacking" that his Democratic Party took in the recent midterm elections, he might have come away disappointed. During the G-20 summit in Seoul, the much-anticipated U.S.-South Korea free trade agreement fell through, partially over fears that a newly hostile Congress would scuttle it. And while Obama had harsh words for China’s decision to keep its currency artificially low, he was thwarted in his attempt to rally the world’s largest economies to pressure China to change its policy. Even in Indonesia, where the president is hailed as a homecoming king, some locals grumbled about his decision to cut short his visit due to eruptions from a newly active volcano.

In response, some pundits have dubbed Obama’s Asia tour a failure. In fact, the exact opposite is true. In India, where the stakes of the trip were highest, the president’s visit was a ringing success — and one that will have repercussions long after these temporary setbacks have been forgotten.

Although the White House advertised the visit as being largely about securing American jobs through increased Indian imports, Obama’s words and actions confirmed that he was pursuing a broader agenda: affirming India’s importance in the emerging Asian order, affirming its role as a global rather than as a local South Asian power, and deepening its inclusion in the institutions of global governance.

The visit marked the first time that Obama himself provided clear and unmistakable judgments about India. "In Asia and around the world, India is not simply emerging," Obama said both at a news conference and in speaking to India’s Parliament. "India has emerged."

Responding to this reality, Obama endorsed, for the first time ever, India’s claim to a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. His support for India — over treaty allies like Germany and other claimants such as Brazil — spoke volumes about the importance that the United States places on its alliance with India as an emerging power. "It can be said definitively now: with US President Barack Obama’s India visit, the long shadow that the Cold War cast on India-US ties has been dispelled," the Times of India responded in its lead editorial. "Instead of looking to the past, the relationship has been recast for the 21st century."

Obama also announced a far-reaching initiative that expands India’s access to U.S. high-tech equipment. In exchange for an Indian commitment to continually upgrade its export control system, an important step toward tightening the global nonproliferation regime, Obama declared that the United States would permit India to purchase previously restricted commodities, such as systems useful for defense and space applications. He also pledged to support India’s membership in the four critical global nonproliferation regimes so that India could become part of the rule-making institutions that oversee commerce in nuclear, missile, chemical, and military technologies.

Perhaps no better assurance of an enduring bilateral relationship exists than the deepening of U.S.-India economic relations. Here, too, Obama’s visit did not disappoint: He announced $10 billion in new trade deals, several of which involved the Indian military’s purchase of equipment from U.S. manufacturers such as Boeing and General Electric. The U.S. military now conducts more training exercises with India’s military than it does with any other partner, and the United States now sits on the cusp of becoming India’s largest foreign supplier of weaponry.

Taken together, these initiatives significantly broaden the scope of this important bilateral relationship — and will help the White House in its quest to jump-start American job growth. The deepening U.S.-India relationship will encourage a virtuous cycle — as Washington expands its commitment to India’s success, it will increase the opportunities for greater political collaboration and stronger economic ties.

Last week’s trip improved bilateral cooperation on issues related to counterterrorism as well. Obama’s tribute to the victims of the 2008 Mumbai attacks and his pledge that the two countries "stand united" against terrorism was received warmly in India. His statement emphasized U.S. support for India in its struggle against foreign terrorism and authorized increased cooperation between the intelligence, counterterrorism, and homeland security communities in both countries. These steps to increase joint training exercises and expand information and technology sharing will yield high payoffs in the future.

The intensifying security cooperation between the two countries will not only enhance India’s domestic security — it will redound to the benefit of the United States in Afghanistan. The commitment to deepen cooperation in this war-torn country signifies that Obama has rejected the Pakistani claim that India’s involvement in Afghanistan undermines the U.S.-led international mission and threatens Pakistan — a common assertion heard in Islamabad and sometimes even in Washington. And for the Indian government, the new commitment signifies a momentous shift in the traditional Indian position, which cheered the United States on in Afghanistan but sought to distance itself from any collaborative effort with Washington in Afghanistan. India is now signaling its willingness to not only support the U.S.-led effort from the sidelines, but to play an active role in pursuing their shared goals in the country.

As Obama noted during his trip, the relationship between the United States and India is one of the "defining and indispensable partnerships of the 21st century." His visit there has helped bring the two countries together on shared interests and moved their relationship forward significantly. The setbacks in Seoul will quickly fade from the public’s mind — it’s Obama’s strategic success in India that will be the enduring legacy of his Asia trip.

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