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What India must expect from Obama's visit

Last updated on: October 20, 2010 21:08 IST
Barack ObamaWe should keep in mind that a deeper and reasonably balanced relationship with the US is in India's interest, says former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal.

United States President Barack Obama's forthcoming visit to India will test the vitality of the India-US strategic partnership.

In terms of rhetoric and grand gestures the US President has sought to allay misgivings in India about his commitment to the strong India relationship forged by his predecessor.

He received Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as his first State guest, travelled specially to the State Department for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's reception for External Affairs Minister S M Krishna on the occasion of the first ministerial level strategic dialogue between the two countries and spoke in soaring terms there about the India relationship being indispensable to the US in the 21st century, and, more significantly, unlike any of his predecessors, is journeying to India very early in his presidential tenure.

Broad diplomatic rhetoric and symbolic gestures, important though they may be, cannot substitute for progress on a range of pending concrete issues.

The success of the presidential visit will therefore be judged by the Indian public and the international community by the substantive outcomes that emerge from it.

The huge bilateral promise that the India-US relationship holds, the troubled regional situation as well as global trends of a power shift from the Euro-Atlantic area to Asia, demand a successful visit.

The Indian government has invested huge political capital in the US relationship, with the Americans now exerting considerable influence in shaping government thinking and policy with active support from business lobbies.

The Obama visit should demonstrate that the government has been wise in seeking to forge such a close partnership with the US and is getting the requisite returns.

The 'deliverables' form the visit may be less than expected, however, as many outstanding issues between India and the US will take time to settle even with goodwill.

Changes in law and policies with larger implications than for India alone would be required with Congressional approval as necessary.

On the other hand, the President has himself led the charge against US companies practising outsourcing, disregarding their compulsions to do so to retain their global competiveness and ignoring the thousands of jobs that Indian companies have created in the US.

His repeated references to the threat that 'Bangalore' poses to the US economy is hardly consonant with the consolidation of a most fecund area of future India-US economic ties centred on the role of information technology in building an advanced knowledge driven relationship between the two countries in diverse domains.

It is such presidential talk that encourages political opportunists in the US to demean Infosys as a 'chop-shop'. The egregious step by the US Senate to increase in costs of HIB and LIA visas to finance increased surveillance of the US-Mexican border will gratuitously hit the Indian IT industry.

'Bangalore' represents the most pro-US lobby in the country and it would be a folly to alienate it.

One consequence of these thoughtless attacks on 'Bangalore' is that the city that hosts India's hi-tech industry can hardly be included in the President's itinerary.

Even if such talk is construed as playing to the domestic gallery at a time of huge unemployment within the country, projecting India as a competitor stealing US jobs not only negates reality, it also contrasts with the absence of any negative references to the US in our prime minister's discourse.

Continuing US sanctions against Indian government organisations involved in 'strategic' activity like the Indian Space Research Organisation, the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre and the Defence Research and Development Organisation sit ill with claims of a 'strategic' relationship between the two countries.

The removal of these organisations from the US Entities List ought to be announced during the presidential visit. India remains under a restrictive regime under more categories than other US partners for transfers of high technology or dual use technology items.

The US appears to be disposed to ease its export control regime for commercial reasons, but whether sufficient progress can be made in time for any positive announcement during the visit remains uncertain.

In space, despite Indian capabilities, cooperation is as yet limited. On the question of supporting India's permanent membership of the Security Council, a more forward-looking US position is expected to be enunciated during the visit, but that would not be enough.

India is responding 'strategically' to the US by acquiring American equipment despite intrusive conditions and risk of embargoes should there be a regional conflict.

The US is witholding the most advanced technologies unless India signs pending security and inter-operability agreements that India finds too intrusive or are premised on operational military cooperation.

US companies have reacted to the civil nuclear liability legislation very negatively as it does not exempt them from all liability in case of an accident or precludes any recourse to US courts by the victims.

The attempt now would to frame the rules under the act in such a manner that the right to recourse to make the suppliers liable for any patent or latent defect or sub-standard services would be circumscribed.

Accomplishing sufficient progress in allaying the concerns of US companies before the presidential visit would be a tall order.

At the regional level, arming Pakistan even as the Pakistani military under General Ashfaq Kayani is determined to confront India, tolerating its duplicitous conduct on the issue of terrorism directed at India as well as Afghanistan, countenancing its ambitions in Afghanistan aimed at constraining India geo-politically and obstructing beneficial regional economic cooperation damages India's national interest.

So does seeking a modus vivendi with the unspeakable Taliban as an exit strategy unmindful of the fillip this will give to Islamic radicalism in the region at large with increased pressures on India's secular polity that is the best guarantee against a further lurch towards religious fundamentalism in South Asia and beyond.

US timorousness in using the enormous leverage it has in Pakistan to compel it to conduct itself as a normal, law-abiding State because of fears that this may cause a Pakistani collapse and open the doors to an Islamist finger on the country's nuclear trigger is baffling beyond a point.

More so in the context of US reluctance to take a frontal position against China's decision conveyed to the International Atomic Energy Agency to enlarge unstable, terror-infested Pakistan's nuclear capacity with supply of two additional nuclear reactors against the NSG guidelines.

With the current turmoil in Kashmir, pressures may be building up on the President to become active on the issue. Pakistan's abrasiveness in the UN General Assembly on Kashmir and offensive posturing on the dialogue issue reflects the currents at work.

The President's visit should be used to make our bottom lines on J&K clear, especially our opposition to any third party intervention.

The traditional US posture of Pakistan-leaning 'even-handedness' on Kashmir based on equating a failing State like Pakistan riven with terrorism, religious extremism and clandestine proliferation with a democratic and responsible State like India needs to be re-defined to give meaning to its 'strategic' ties with India.

'De-hyphenating' its relations between India and Pakistan does not mean ignoring reality as well as principles.

The fiction of China's 'peaceful rise' was exposed for India by its aggressive posturing on border differences with India earlier on Arunachal Pradesh and now in J&K.

China's increased presence in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir enhances the strategic threat to India. Its expanding military infrastructure in Tibet signals future danger to India.

The US has largely ignored these developments until China's muscle-flexing in the South China Sea, declaring the area as its core national interest and warning against the presence of US aircraft carriers in the Yellow Sea.

Japan's latest humiliation at China's hands over the Senkaku Islands affair has made the US more concerned about the direction of China's future policies.

The US-China financial interdependence, the huge stakes of US companies in China, and the current over-extension of the US military makes a recession-afflicted America cautious in the face of the rising Chinese challenge.

If India has to be brought into any security framework that would hedge against the Chinese threat in the Asia-Pacific region, it is imperative that India's concerns about Chinese policies in South Asia are better understood by the US.

President Obama's visit should be an occasion for him to efface the misunderstanding created by him by his statements that the US and China should work together in promoting peace and stability in South Asia.

Ultimately, an expanded economic relationship will be needed to underpin a veritable strategic relationship.

India would have an advantage over China as its rise is not perceived as a threat by the US.

There is no other country with such a wide-ranging canvas of economic interest as India. The opportunities in the sectors already identified -- energy, IT, science and technology, health, agriculture, education etc -- are immense.

To be 'strategic' in nature, such cooperation has to transcend purely commercial considerations. Preferential transfers of hi-technology, including dual-use technologies with normal safeguards, will be required.

President Obama will be arriving in India just after the November Congressional elections in which the Democrats are expected to suffer reverses. He will therefore need a successful India visit all the more.

The onus is on the Americans to create the conditions for this.

But India's stakes in the visit's success would be high too for bilateral, regional and international reasons, and missing the opportunity provided by the visit to make its longer term intentions towards the US clearer would be costly diplomatically.

We should keep in mind that a deeper and reasonably balanced relationship with the US is in India's interest.

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Kanwal Sibal