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What will Obama have for India?

A. Vinod Kumar was Associate Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • September 22, 2010

    That a President of the United States of America is visiting India in his first term, within the first 24 months of his tenure, undoubtedly denotes the position India occupies in the American foreign policy calculus. It is also an indicator that the relationship between the world’s two largest democracies is on a strong footing. However, but for the priority and timing, President Barack Obama’s forthcoming visit in November raises few cheers, as a sense of hollowness creeps into this relationship, which is otherwise touted as a blossoming strategic partnership.

    Like their historic relationship, the strategic partnership has also moved on an uneven scale marked by highs and lows – with current trends pointing to a remarkable low. The President’s visit could be an opportunity to reverse this trend. Yet, there is a feeling of somnolence with no promising initiatives on the table which the visiting President can use to pump up the adrenalin. President Clinton’s visit of January 2000 -- the first by a US President in two decades -- was assumed to have endowed a creeping recognition of India’s de facto nuclear weapon status. President George W. Bush’s visit in March 2006 came months after he volunteered to facilitate India’s return to the non-proliferation mainstream through a nuclear deal, jointly announced with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on 18 July 2005.

    Departing from such energetic scenarios, President Obama comes to a country about which he has warned his younger countrymen, if not euphemistically described though implying, as among the black holes which will suck out American jobs in coming years. For a President whose popularity dipped below 50 per cent in the first 20 months and whose ‘courageous’ policies have failed to revive the bruised US economy, visiting a country which has exploited the fruits of neo-liberal economics and drained the American economy of its jobs could be a fine balancing act. The President might have only Amritsar, Mumbai and Delhi in his itinerary, unlike his predecessors who visited IT hubs in Hyderabad and Bangalore. Will such exclusion help his economic diplomacy, which is in doldrums with his protectionist push and in the process is challenging American capitalistic ethos and employing a tool which the US resisted during the Bretton Woods push? For India, it is wait-and-watch to see how Obama’s vision will reflect at the World Trade Organisation (WTO). The visit could hence be an opportunity to understand the man and his mission.

    Economics apart, the strategic partnership itself is on shaky legs as the President makes his foray into South Asia. There are, in fact, few areas left for new avenues to be explored. Rather, the stimulus needed is on existing key-result areas which remain unfulfilled. But for the nuclear deal and some non-strategic segments like agriculture and health, the Partnership has struggled on crucial sectors including high-technology trade, missile defence, space and defence cooperation, besides irritants in intelligence sharing and counter-terrorism, not to forget Af-Pak. Though intermittent reports point to an existent, fragile channel of intelligence cooperation, the Headley fiasco has raised potent questions on who gains from such cooperation.

    Counter-terror cooperation itself looks like an area of fiction. Imaginative prospects of such cooperation have been repeatedly hyped with no consonance on where it can realistically materialise. For long, both nations failed to achieve convergence on mutual perceptions about terrorism and their sources and means to tackle them. Though Washington has moved ahead from its pre-9/11 prejudices on the Kashmir insurgency and Pakistan-origin terrorism, the terms of engagement as defined by the US to deal with South Asian terror groups continue to be hypocritical. For, Washington believes that Indian action against Pakistan-based terror groups could impinge on Pakistani sovereignty, while presuming such extra-territorial security measures as the sole prerogative of the world’s only super power.

    Though countries harbouring terrorists are a ‘terrorist state’ in American parlance, Washington’s continuing reluctance to characterise Pakistan by such epithets only vitiates South Asia’s security dilemmas. Despite appreciating that the next terror attack on the US is likely to have a Pakistani signature and that the Pakistan military plays a dual game on its two frontiers, Obama could only exacerbate the calculus by advising early resolution of the Kashmir dispute to divert Pakistani troops to the North West. Considering that the traditional American strategic outlook on South Asian security has not changed, India-US counter-terror cooperation could only become an accelerator for American interests in Southern Asia rather than serve any purpose for India’s security requirements.

    Nor are things rosy on defence cooperation, with the ten-year framework of 2005 failing to provide any inspiration. Most instances of cooperation and military-level interactions only point to an inherent US desire to reap opportunities for its defence majors. A case in example is the segment of joint-exercises, through which unprecedented levels of ‘interoperability’ between the armed forces have been achieved, but without an idea on where such synergy will be used. From anti-piracy operations to maritime interdictions under the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), New Delhi has hesitated at every step where realistic partnership with the US military is involved. Little governmental impetus has happened to rectify this anomaly even as the Pentagon devotes its energy to cajoling India’s assimilation with its military sales and supply templates, thus confining the scope of interoperability to weapons systems.

    The American hunger to push military sales through the strategic partnership however reflects inversely when it comes to high-technology trade, where a similar enthusiasm is hard to find. Washington continues to hang on to its non-proliferation stigmas on India’s demand for a liberal waiver of licensing on dual-use and high-technology items. As Obama formulates a new licensing and export-control framework to synchronise with his nuclear security plan, hindrances in high-technology trade with spin-offs in space and defence cooperation remain the weakest link in the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership (NSSP) wish-list. Another ignored item in the NSSP is cooperation on missile defence, whose framework remains ambiguous. Besides the fact that the US had turned down Indian requests for transfer of systems like Arrow-II, there is little understanding on the scope of such cooperation – whether India will seek transfer/sale of US BMD systems or could there be cooperation in joint development or as technological assistance to India’s BMD projects. Considering that India’s missile defence development is progressing at a steady pace, it is unlikely that India, like US allies, will fit into Washington’s global BMD plans. Further, Obama’s own scepticism on BMD technology and his austerity on existing programmes virtually negate the potential for cooperation in this area.

    Giving a fillip to the strategic partnership thus requires proactive action and generosity from President Obama, one that resembles President Bush’s munificence. While an ambitious joint statement of the 18 July 2005-type appears unlikely, President Obama should realise that a name-sake visit to a strategic partner comes with tremendous expectations. The usual platitudes about a ‘transformational’ relationship and ‘natural partners’ will barely move emotions anymore, especially since they could conjoin with ‘advice’ on opening dialogue with Pakistan and addressing the Kashmir dispute. To live up to his name, President Obama might need to come out with a major political largesse. By all means, his concrete support for India’s permanent membership in a reformed UN Security Council seems the only real issue left. Will Obama do what Bush couldn’t?