Both the domestic and international context of Obama’s second official state visit to Asia were completely different than the first – underlining the changing strategic realities facing the US in the region. Good then that his India trip netted some successes, narrowing the recent drift in Indo-US ties.
By Harsh V Pant
When US President Barack Obama visited China in November 2009, he was at the height of his power domestically. He was dictating the contours of his domestic political agenda. The opposition was weak and diffuse. His administration had ideas about China as the fulcrum of stability in the Asia-Pacific. China’s growing economic and political clout was forcing the Obama administration in early days to toy with the idea of a G-2, a global condominium of the US and China, whereby China could be expected to look after and ‘manage’ the Asia-Pacific. The Obama administration, however, was signaling that it was more interested in managing America’s decline than in preserving its pre-eminence in the global order. There was no strategic vision about Asia apart from the hope that US and China could work together to sort out global problems.
Today it is a much different scenario, one where China has started asserting itself more strongly than before, and the choice of the four states Obama visited – India, South Korea, Indonesia and Japan – was aimed at reminding China that the US still retains its role as the principle balancing force in the region. All four states are worried about China’s rise and its attempts in the recent past to assert its interests more forcefully in the region. There is a clamor for American leadership in the region, as none of the regional states want China to emerge as the dominant actor in the region. All want a stronger US presence in the region to confer greater stability.
Success in India
In that context, the first leg of Obama’s visit can indeed be deemed a success. India’s recent rise has been described by Obama as being in the best interests of both India and the US – as well as the world. Interestingly, it was in India that Obama had to work the hardest to convince Delhi that the US takes its interests seriously. He did so by embracing the idea of India as a permanent member of an expanded UN Security Council – a significant endorsement of India’s growing economic power and global aspirations. But he added some riders by asking India to share responsibilities in tackling issues like Iran and Myanmar. He also handled the Pakistan issue delicately by making unambiguous American opposition to the terrorist safe havens in Pakistan. He was sensitive to the fact that India considers Kashmir a bilateral issue between India and Pakistan and maintained that that “it is in the interest of India and Pakistan to reduce tensions between themselves and the US cannot impose solutions to these problems.”
During Obama’s visit, more than 20 deals worth $10 billion were signed by the corporate sectors of the two states. These deals included the sale of military transport aircraft, civilian airplanes, mining equipment and jet engines. Obama raised trade barriers and infrastructure bottlenecks as two problem areas in attracting greater American investment.
Other key agreements signed by Delhi and Washington during Obama’s visit included a pact on setting up a joint clean energy research and development center, MoUs on a Global Center for Nuclear Energy Partnership, a global disease protection center and a pact on technical cooperation for the study of monsoons. India and the US also agreed to work closely on agricultural development and women’s empowerment in Afghanistan, as well as boosting joint efforts to promote a reliable information and communications infrastructure, with the goal of free, fair and secure access to cyberspace.
The two states also decided to put in place a four-part export control reform program that includes American support for India’s membership in multilateral export control regimes, removing India’s defense and space-related entities from the American “Entities List,” export licensing policy realignment and cooperation on export control. In line with Obama’s declaration that India is no longer a rising power but has already “arrived,” both countries have announced a dialogue on the Asia-Pacific, which will expand current consultations to include East Asia, West Asia and Central Asia.
Closing the Indo-Obama gap
The visit came at a time when there is a real concern in the corridors of power in New Delhi and Washington that Indo-US ties were drifting. Even two years after Obama’s remarkable victory, Indians have yet to become comfortable with his presidency. India continues to pine for George W Bush, who changed the tone and tenor of US-India ties substantively by gifting India the civilian nuclear energy cooperation pact, thereby re-defining the global nuclear architecture and India’s place in it.
It was indeed a tall order for Obama to match Bush’s achievements vis-à-vis India. Moreover, Obama’s tryst with India started on a wrong note. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh apparently was not on the first list of leaders who received a call from Obama after his victory, and Indian strategic elites, obsessed with symbolism in international diplomacy, took it as a sign that India was not being viewed as important by the new administration in Washington. At least initially, the only context in which Obama talked of India was the need to sort Kashmir out so as to find a way out of America’s troubles in Afghanistan. For an administration dealing with multiple global and domestic crises, India was simply not a priority. Though Obama invited Singh as his Presidency’s first state guest last year, it did little to assuage concerns in Delhi about the trajectory of his South Asia policy.
But in the last few months, the Obama administration has made a concerted effort at wooing New Delhi, and his visit was an attempt at allaying some of India’s concerns. How far Obama was able to do that will depend on what Washington decides to do in the coming months, especially in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But Obama has succeeded in solidifying the achievements of his predecessor by building a partnership between the world’s oldest and largest democracies that will stand the test of time.
Dr Harsh V Pant teaches at King’s College London in the Department of Defense Studies and is an Associate with the King’s Center of Science and Security Studies. His research is focused on Asia-Pacific security issues. His recent books include Contemporary Debates in Indian Foreign and Security Policy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008) and Indian Foreign Policy in a Unipolar World (Routledge, 2009).
Published by International Relations and Security Network (ISN)