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Prospects for Indo-US relations after President Obama’s visit

Dr. Arvind Gupta was Director General at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • December 06, 2010

    US President Barack Obama visited India on 6-8 November 2010. Before the visit, there was lack of public enthusiasm since no one expected any big ticket announcements like the Indo-US civil nuclear deal. However, the visit was assessed in the media as highly successful. The Indian media was bowled over by the young president’s charm, grace and enthusiasm. His public utterances were lapped up by the media. His speech at the parliament in which he gave a ringing endorsement of an ‘emerged’ India and offered a ‘global strategic partnership for the 21st century’ went down very well with the Indian public. Like a consummate artist, he carefully avoided roiling public opinion by omitting any public references to Kashmir. This only added to the sense that the visit was a success.

    A careful examination of the Indo-US joint statement of 8 November shows that if the glass of Indo-US relations appeared to be half full before Obama visited India, it showed up as somewhat fuller after the visit. But the fact remains that there was far more rhetoric than substance added to the bilateral relationship during the visit. The visit should be seen at best as a step towards consolidation of Indo-US ties which are taking a strategic hue.

    The long-term impact of the visit will be seen in four major areas. First, if and when the UN Security Council is reformed, the United States may support India’s candidature for a permanent membership of the UN body. This is a plus for India although the reform of the UNSC is still quite some distance away. China is likely to oppose India’s entry into the UNSC as a permanent, veto holding, member. The reform process will be slow and uncertain, though US support will certainly count at the appropriate time. However, the United States will be closely watching India’s record in the next two years when India takes its seat at the UN Security Council in the non-permanent category. Therefore, US support should not be taken for granted. It may be qualified as and when the process of UN Security Council reform gathers pace.

    Second, Obama’s announcement that some Indian government organisations will be removed from the US “entity list” is also a positive outcome. Following the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership, a Bush-era initiative that began the process of consolidation of Indo-US ties, US export of technologies to India had picked up though major Indian organisations continued to remain in the list. In the last few years few licenses for export of hi-tech items to India had been rejected by US authorities. It remains to be seen what difference the removal of some organisations will make to the actual exports of high technologies to India. By removing some Indian organisations from the entity list, an important psychological barrier to bilateral relationship has been removed.

    Third, Obama’s visit will give fillip to the Indo-US economic relations. Major Indian orders – about $10 billion worth – will create over fifty thousand jobs in the United States. This is a concrete outcome of the visit from the US point of view. New areas of cooperation may also open up. The United States is increasingly looking at India as a market as well as a source of investments.

    Fourth, the United States will help India get membership of the NSG, Wassenaar, MTCR, and Australia Group. This will help India get integrated with the non-proliferation regime without having to sign the NPT. However, how this will happen is still not clear. Many countries will object. Deft diplomacy will be required to make this happen, but US support will count.


    However, on strategic issues, the convergence between India and the United States is limited at present. In fact, there are significant divergences.

    On Pakistan, India and the United States continue to have divergent views. US military and civil aid to Pakistan, at US$18 billion, will continue and may even pick up further. A few weeks before Obama’s visit to India, the United States had announced additional civil and military aid worth $2 billion to Pakistan. Pakistan will continue to get weapons from the United States, which will be used against India. The Pakistan Army will be strengthened further. Pakistan’s continuing support for terrorism is a matter of grave security concern for India. There is not much in the visit that will give solace to India on this score. The United States has also been maintaining near silence on Chinese plans to supply additional reactors to Pakistan.

    On Afghanistan, India and the United States remain apart. Pakistan’s growing influence in Afghanistan and its efforts to exclude India completely is a matter of concern for India and on which the United States has not given much support, even though it may agree that India has a positive role to play there.

    On terrorism, there has been good cooperation between India and the United States. Though this is likely to grow further, the quality of information sharing must improve. But the main issue of Pakistan’s support for terrorism has not been resolved. Recent Wikileak revelations show that there is a dissonance between US public postures and private assessments. The United States is aware of the nature of the beast but is either unwilling or unable to do very much. The United States has not been able to persuade Pakistan to discontinue supporting terrorist groups working against India and also to take action against the perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks.

    China was certainly on the mind of both countries but neither would like to offend it by taking a confrontationist line. The inclusion of the United States and Russia in the East Asia Summit is an important development in this regard. Without mentioning China the joint statement underlines the need for an open security architecture in Asia. This is important given the recent rise in tensions in East Asia. China’s footprint in South Asia is growing rapidly, as is its assertiveness vis-à-vis India. Perhaps, the United States wants China to play a role in South Asia. But this will discomfort New Delhi considerably. There ought to be greater clarity between India and the United States on how to deal with the adverse consequences of an assertive and rising China.

    Although many people think that the growing Indo-US relationship will in the end act to contain China, it remains to be seen how India’s relations with China and US’s relationship with China develop in the future. It is still too early to say whether Indo-US relations can be viewed as a hedging policy vis-à-vis China.

    It is clear from the joint statement that the United States wants India to align its policies on Iran and Myanmar with those of the US. However, India is not in a position to do so beyond a point. If India becomes openly hostile to Myanmar and Iran as perhaps the US would want it to be, it will only push these countries deeper into the Chinese embrace, which will be detrimental to India’s security interests. India has tough choices ahead to make on its policy towards Iran and Myanmar.

    Although the Indo-US relationship is a strategic partnership given its bilateral, regional and global dimensions, convergences will take time to develop. There is also the additional point: to what extent can India afford to get closer to the United States? Getting too close will have an impact on India’s relationship with key countries like Russia and China with which India is pursuing a multipolar world paradigm and in which the United States is seen as an unstated unilateralist hegemon. Getting too close to the United States may also constrain India’s strategic autonomy. So long as Pakistan continues to get US arms which can be used against India, there will always be doubts abut the strategic content of the partnership. India will remain wary of US-China relations and their impact on India’s security interests. Similarly, the United States will also like India to be more sensitive to US security interests, particularly on Iran. This is not always easy for India.


    The best approach for India and the United States will be to work towards incremental improvement in the relationship and focus on those areas which have a direct impact on the people of the two countries. Obama’s visit lacked any big ticket item though it helped consolidate the relationship in some areas, including health and education.

    On the strategic plane, India cannot afford to remain on the wrong side of the United States since a growing China will, in the final analysis, pose security uncertainties with which India will have to deal with. However, India needs to keep an eye on its other key relationships like those with Russia. Indo-US relationship should not be at the expense of India’s other relationships.

    Dr. Arvind Gupta author holds the Lal Bahadur Shastri Chair at IDSA, New Delhi. The views expressed here are personal.