Shadow Government

Obama’s Main Stage Moment in India

President Barack Obama’s impending visit to India comes at an opportune time; he will arrive in New Delhi to take part in India’s Republic Day ceremonies on Jan. 26. As the first U.S. president to attend this event, the symbolism of this bold stroke is important — Republic Day is India’s annual celebration of independence, ...


President Barack Obama’s impending visit to India comes at an opportune time; he will arrive in New Delhi to take part in India’s Republic Day ceremonies on Jan. 26. As the first U.S. president to attend this event, the symbolism of this bold stroke is important — Republic Day is India’s annual celebration of independence, national pride, and military might. The U.S. president is lending the prestige of his office and his personal charisma to India as it reasserts itself under new Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Obama welcomed Modi to Washington with appropriate fanfare last September and can expect similar hospitality in New Delhi. His new ambassador, Rich Verma, with his strong ties to the U.S. Congress, is in place and able to advance the U.S. position on thorny civil nuclear liability issues, increased trade, and intellectual property rights. New Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter enjoys great respect in India and can expand and consolidate military to military relations. The president himself has invested significant personal time and energy in relations with Myanmar, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Southeast Asia more generally. The decision to share the stage on Republic Day gives President Obama a chance to make this visit the centerpiece of a revived Asia policy and a worthy foreign policy legacy.

Three factors contribute to this opportunity, and arise from an unlikely source: the recently completed election in Sri Lanka. First, the election provided yet another example of the value of democracy and free elections. Second, the election relieved pressure regarding accusations, which have dominated discourse between Colombo and the West for five years, of human rights violations by the Sri Lankan government in the closing days of the civil war in 2009. Third, the election has produced a new leader, Maithripala Sirisena, ready to loosen the economic grip China was attempting to fasten on his predecessor, Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Few analysts predicted the outcome of the Sri Lanka election on Jan. 8. The former president had consolidated power over two terms and was confident of winning a third. Yet remarkably, the system worked: not only did the Sri Lankan public vote in large numbers, the defeated president accepted their verdict and vacated his office within hours of the decision. President Obama now has good occasion to reinforce the essential value of democracy in the face of China’s continued defense of single party authoritarianism as the best form of governance in Asia. His hosts in New Delhi lead the world’s largest democracy and continue to face the challenges that free choice and an open market inevitably create. But the will of the people has been heard in Sri Lanka, continues to vividly animate Indian society, and is a bedrock of American values. The contrasts with China cannot be clearer and ought to be emphasized when President Obama arrives in New Delhi next week.

The second opportunity arises from the aftermath of the Sri Lankan civil war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The brutal, decades-long war ended in 2009 when the LTTE was finally crushed. The last battle ended with accusations by Tamils that civilians had been massacred but the Sri Lankan military countered that the Tigers had used civilians as a shield. The two sides disagree both on the numbers and on what actually happened, but the issue continues to be front and center for human rights activists in the Tamil community and the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC). India has consistently been wary of the UNHRC position; this is therefore a good time for President Obama to discuss giving President Sirisena some breathing room on the issue. Teresita Schaffer, former U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka, in her excellent Jan. 12 South Asia Hand blog put it just right: “Washington will need to lower its voice.” That’s good advice. Private discussions in New Delhi will be just as important as the highly visible Republic Day ceremony.

The third opportunity arises in part from the second. Feeling isolated and unfairly targeted by the West, President Rajapaksa took Sri Lanka ever deeper into China’s embrace. Sri Lanka has historically maintained good relations with China, but as part of Beijing’s desire for overseas access to defend its expanding naval capability, relations with Sri Lanka took on new meaning. As the West increasingly focused on the allegations of human rights violations, China spotted an opening. Trade and investment followed, with Western powers largely looking on as bystanders. The relationship was becoming increasingly one-sided — the trademark of China’s foreign policy, where infrastructure projects frequently help Chinese workers and access to raw materials but otherwise do little for the investment partner. India sounded alarm bells but was not well positioned to thwart China’s overtures. India’s large Tamil community is sympathetic to the plight of Tamils in Sri Lanka, India’s military suffered damaging losses when it intervened in the 1980s and former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in 1991 by an LTTE suicide bomber.

President Sirisena now represents a new face of democracy in the region and throughout Asia. He may bring new thinking to the Tamil concerns since the end of the civil war and is not the lightening rod that Rajapaksa was regarding the defeat of the LTTE. Finally, he will also bring new thinking to the benefits of too close an embrace with China. With a page turned, an opportunity for President Obama is available. Strong relations with India must be a critical element in a policy to counter China’s hegemonic ambitions in the region. The smaller states currently feeling pressure from Beijing look to the United States to fashion a policy of alignment and alliance consistent with America’s historic role as a Pacific power. The election in Sri Lanka is one more rebuttal to China. It is Beijing, not Washington that poses a challenge to those in Asia who prefer democratic freedom, value human rights and wish to preserve their sovereignty. President Obama’s visit to India will allow him to present an alternative vision for peace and stability in Asia and thereby build a legacy consistent with his great promise.


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