Breaking New Ground: US-India Relationship

True to Bollywood style, US President Barack Obama had reserved the best for the end. Just as it seemed that this particular US Presidential visit would be all hype and hoopla, Obama pulled out the trump card from his hat when in his  address to the joint session of the Indian Parliament on November 8, 2010, he backed India’s quest for a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).

This is a significant development because it is for the first time that the US has come out openly for India as a permanent member of the UNSC.

Last month, India was elected to a two-year term as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council with 187 out of the 191 members of the UN General Assembly voting for India.

So what does this mean for India and for Asia?

For one, India will have to make up its mind on how to deal with countries like Iran and Myanmar. Iran is very important for meeting India’s energy security needs, provides India an access to Afghanistan and is a bulwark against Pakistan in the Islamic world.

President Obama also exhorted India to speak up on regimes like in Myanmar. India has however other interests in Myanmar. The Chinese have a huge influence on Myanmarese military junta and India does not want that country to become another source of constant worry for India, a la Pakistan.  Myanmar also has huge reserves of natural gas and serves as a base for many of the insurgents operating in India’s Northeast.

Second, India now has to decide on how close it can get to the US without affecting its ties with countries like its traditional ally Russia.

Third, India has to make up its mind on what role it wants to play in Asia.  Late last month, India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Japan, Malaysia and Vietnam as part of its “Look-East Policy”. The visit elicited rumblings in sections of the Chinese media about India trying to “encircle China” with a string of alliances to counter the so-called Chinese “string of pearls” strategy where China is trying to get a strategic foothold in the Indian Ocean region. In a significant development, during Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s recent visit to Japan, the two countries decided to explore the possibility of cooperation in the mining and development of rare earth minerals which find application in computers, solar panels, wind turbines and missiles.

China, which is presently the world’s largest producer of rare earths had unofficially stopped the supply of the same to Japan following a maritime spat between the two countries in the East China Sea near the disputed Senkaku islands when a Chinese trawler rammed into Japanese coast guard vessels.

Why India?

The US is looking for a reliable partner in Asia. President Obama more than anyone else knows Pakistan cannot be trusted. Traditional American allies like Japan are economically on a downward spiral.  In the face of an increasingly aggressive China, the only country that can help prevent the emergence of a unipolar Asia is India.

The economic aspect of Indo-US ties is not difficult to ignore.  President Obama flew in to Mumbai which is India’s commercial capital and deals worth $ 10 billion have been inked on this particular trip which will create more than 50,000 jobs in the U.S.

Domestic developments in the US may have also played a role in Obama administration’s reaching out to India. The mid-term elections saw Republicans gaining control of the House of Representatives while the Democrats barely managed to retain control of the Senate.  It must be noted that it was under the Republican administration of former President George W. Bush that the landmark Indo-US Nuclear Deal was signed, taking Indo-US relations to a new high.

India has the second largest population of Muslims in the world after Indonesia. Fortunately, Indian Muslims by and large have not been radicalised and have not become cannon fodder for extremist groups like the Al-Qaeda and this will where the US can learn from India.

US and Asia

As President Obama traveled to Indonesia, Japan and South Korea on the next leg of this particular Asian trip, it is very clear that the US is still the dominant power in Asia and would like to maintain that status.

In an interesting development, on the same day as President Obama delivered his speech at the Indian Parliament US Defence Secretary Robert Gates travelled to Australia for the annual Australia-US security dialogue where he signed an agreement to increase space surveillance over the Asia-Pacific region by enhancing the reach of US military satellites.  Though the agreement did not mention China by name, it is very clear that the US wants to keep a close eye on China and on countries like North Korea.

The Way Ahead

As India gets ready to play a greater role on the world stage, it will have to choose and tread carefully between its domestic politics, regional interests and global responsibilities.  However, issues like outsourcing may jettison US-India ties if the US economy does not take a turn for the better in the immediate future since outsourcing to countries like India is seen as taking away American jobs.

However, all said and done, the growing engagement between the US and India is a reflection of the changed global realities and in President Obama’s own words, “US-India ties would be one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century”.


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Rupakjyoti Borah

Dr. Rupakjyoti Borah is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal University, India. He was a Visiting Fellow at the Centre of International Studies, University of Cambridge, U.K. in 2009 and an Australia-India Council Australian Studies Fellow. The views expressed are personal.

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