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'Obama got off to a rough start on India'

By Aziz Haniffa
November 23, 2009 17:01 IST
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Retired diplomat Dennix Kux, who dealt with India-Pakistan affairs for over two decades at the State Department, believes the Obama administration is attempting to "button down the relationship" by giving Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh the honour of the first State visit of the current administration.

Dr Kux, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars, said the Obama White House did not want the relationship to lose any of the "scorching pace" set during the previous Bush administration.

"So here they are, trying to button things down particularly when the attention has been elsewhere -- in Afghanistan and Pakistan -- and it hasn't been easy," Dr Kux, who wrote the seminal book, India and the United States: Estranged Democracies 1941-1991, said.

Pointing to contentious issues like climate change, the Doha Round and non-proliferation, sustaining the same level of the relationship for all of the symbolism "is not going to be easy"; hence, he argued, the administration's desire to ensure the earlier momentum is not lost.

Nothing that the Af-Pak issue would be the elephant in the room, he pointed out that though the US is aware of Pakistan territory having been used to train and arm terrorists and stage attacks on India, "Pakistan is still strategically indispensable for the US, and there's going to be tiptoeing around the subject."

Similarly, Dr Kux said, analysts have with some justification accused the Obama administration of being obsequious to Beijing, and not including India in the broader vision of Asia. However, he said, "The US-India relationship is now too important because it has moved to a level where there is too much invested by both sides and cannot be allowed to slip. There's a lot of depth in it, particularly in the economic area, where previously there was so little."

He said it was likely that bilateral progress in fields like defence cooperation, education, scientific research etc wouldn't make the kind of headlines garnered by Af-Pak issues, or Obama's trip to China -- but they were equally, if not more, substantial.

Dismissing some think tank circles' belief that beneath the hype, India was in the Asia B team compared to China, Dr Kux said, "India is India -- it's got its own position, and it doesn't really sit with East Asia, which unfortunately is where the bureaucracy still seems to think Asia sits."

Former CIA analyst Lisa Curtis, Senior Research Fellow at the Asian Studies Centre at the Heritage Foundation, believes the summit will provide Obama with an opportunity to lay out his vision for the US-India relationship over the next few years.

"Obama got off to a rough start on India because of his Kashmir statements while on the campaign. He also raised eyebrows in India with several statements that cast India as representing a threat to American jobs," Dr Curtis said. "He certainly has his work cut out in convincing Indians, first, that he recognises India as an emerging global power and does not view it primarily through the Indo-Pakistani lens. Second, that he will follow President Bush's example in going the extra mile to build US-India ties."

While acknowledging that joint initiatives on health, education, trade, energy and the environment would lend credence in terms of tangibles, she argued that it was imperative for Obama to "demonstrate that he recognises India's increasingly important role in the broader Asia region, and his interest in building a long-term strategic relationship. He must quell concern that India is a side issue for his administration, which has been consumed by Afghanistan and Pakistan and also heavily emphasising working with China," Dr Curtis added.

She believes Obama should also acknowledge the important role India is playing in helping stabilise Afghanistan. "Indians were jarred by parts of (US Commander in Afghanistan General Stanley) McChrystal's assessment, which portrayed India's role in Afghanistan as provocative for Pakistan. The fact is the US and India share similar goals in Afghanistan: Preventing the Taliban from regaining control and supporting democracy and development."

Equally, Dr Curtis said, it was necessary for Obama to signal his intent to carry forward the civilian nuclear cooperation agreement signed during his predecessor's tenure. "Also, Obama's statement on strengthening the NPT (nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty) and support for ratifying the CTBT (Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty) have left Indians wondering whether his administration might backtrack on the civil nuclear agreement. President Obama should make it abundantly clear that his interest in strengthening the international non-proliferation framework does not mean he will seek to roll back civil nuclear commitments made to India under the Bush regime."

Sumit Ganguly, Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington, said that in order to avoid giving the summit a purely symbolic hue, "It would be good if Prime Minister Singh could proffer some new ideas and proposals on climate change. All other kinds of MoUs would be mostly window-dressing," he said.

Arguing that with the Af-Pak region on the boil, it was only natural that the administration will not be able to devote much time to India, Professor Ganguly said he hoped that Obama would find time to visit India "before too much time expires in his first term."

Though both sides have spoken vehemently of a full-blown strategic partnership, Professor Ganguly said, "Such a partnership can only be built when sufficient trust has been established, when some in India's foreign policy establishment shed their reflexive and thoughtless anti-Americanism, and when some in Washington, DC, also get over their obsession with non-proliferation and can dispense with the ghosts from the Cold War era."

"For a genuine partnership to emerge, there must be more substantive content to the relationship. This ballast has only been acquired in recent years, and still needs bolstering. Only when it has reached a certain quantum can the relationship be placed on an even keel and a course steered toward that elusive goal of a viable partnership."

He said the relationship would benefit if India "speeded up matters on retail trade, on defense contracting, and sought help with infrastructural projects. A strategic relationship needs to have solid foundations."

Walter Andersen, who has headed the State Department's South Asia bureau of Intelligence and Research and also served two stints in the US embassy in New Delhi, believes the bilateral relationship is no longer the flavour of the month, but will prove to be long-lasting and possibly even game-changing.

"The Obama administration benefits from the strong underlying momentum behind the recently improved bilateral relations," said Andersen, Associate Director of the South Asia Programme at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. However, he pointed out, "The administration has not been able to sustain the relationship with India at the level achieved during the Bush administration."

"For instance, it has yet to come up with a positive emblematic centerpiece for US-India relations comparable to the civil nuclear deal. The Bush administration spent considerable political capital on this initiative, demonstrating the strategic importance it placed on India as a significant balancing power to China in Asia. But this issue seems to have lost its salience in the Obama administration's foreign policy, as it seeks a significant improvement of relations with China."

Even in South Asia, Andersen argued, the administration was too focused on the terrorist threat in Afghanistan and Pakistan to spare much energy for India, which as a result was being progressively marginalised.

Pointing at General McChrystal's August 31 statement made in his report to Obama, in which he said, 'While Indian activities largely benefit the Afghan people, increasing Indian influence in Afghanistan is likely to exacerbate regional tensions and encourage Pakistani countermeasures in Afghanistan or India', Andersen pointed out that the implicit assumption there was that "Pakistan's commitment to the effort in Afghanistan requires that its interests there take precedence over those of India."

This, he said, ignores the reality that India has important interests in Afghanistan, and in ensuring that the region does not become a haven for anti-Indian radical groups. Andersen hoped Dr Singh would bring the issue up forcefully during his summit with Obama.

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Aziz Haniffa Washington, DC
India Abroad