Friday, October 01, 2010

Mr. Obama's Passage to India
The president's trip may not accomplish very much of note.


Many American presidents have made passages to India, from Dwight Eisenhower to George W. Bush. In early November, President Obama will follow in their footsteps when he attends a major summit between the two partners in Delhi. Whether it will be a successful trip however, is still very much an open question.

President Obama set the bar high in June 2010, when he declared the U.S.-India partnership a "defining relationship of the century." In that, he was simply echoing the logic of his two predecessors, who realized that democratic India could serve as a useful counterpoint to the rise of China. India, too, has gravitated toward Washington for similar reasons.

Yet the strategic partnership envisaged in June, when the White House announced the summit, has not yet taken off, as the wish lists on the two sides differ substantially. For starters, the U.S. would like India to sign several pending agreements to facilitate the sale of American defense equipment, but India would like to move cautiously precisely because of the strategic nature of the agreements, which will cover communications and information security, geospatial cooperation and logistics sharing. Defense Minister A.K. Antony visited Washington this week to push these deals forward.

India's civil nuclear program is, still, another big sticking point. President Obama backed a reprocessing agreement in June—a major gesture, considering the conservative position he holds on enrichment and reprocessing technologies. But India has not been able to reciprocate by enacting liability legislation consistent with the relevant international regime, in which liability for nuclear damage is only for the operators, not the suppliers. The U.S. business community, eager to sell nuclear wares to India, is disappointed. It's unlikely that Mr. Obama can budge Delhi, however, given the Indian position that the new law does not, in reality, create new supplier liabilities and is consistent with the Vienna Convention on Supplementary Compensation.

On foreign affairs, the U.S. strategy for Afghanistan will loom large. President Obama's commitment to withdraw troops by next year has created concern in Delhi that the U.S. will leave before the country is fully stabilized. Delhi has also been dissatisfied with how little it's been consulted over strategic matters. To top it all off, the Wikileaks scandal earlier this year confirmed something many analysts already suspected: that Islamabad is working in collusion with the very Taliban it was supposedly fighting. The U.S. pooh-poohed the scandal publicly, but Delhi took note. Pakistan has also, in the meantime, stirred up trouble in the state of Jammu and Kashmir.

Then there's Iran, with which India has long had political and cultural ties. The U.S. would like India to be more forthright in its opposition to Iran's nuclear weapons program, but India has larger interests to protect in its neighborhood. In the event of a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, Iran may be the only country that can help India stabilize the war-torn country. India will implement the United Nations sanctions against Iran, but it will not join the U.S. inspired publicity campaign against Iran's nuclear plans.

Mr. Obama hasn't made the relationship with Delhi any easier by pandering to his domestic constituents at India's expense. He was silent on the virtues of India's large outsourcing industry for some time for fear of creating an irritant in bilateral relations. But when the campaign against Indian companies like Infosys gathered momentum, leading to enhanced visa fees and Ohio outlawing outsourcing, the president has begun to harp on the importance of creating jobs on the U.S. soil. Outsourcing is an emotional issue among job seekers in the U.S., but it is equally sensitive in India, as many businesses are meant exclusively to cater to U.S. outsourcing.

The president's trip may still yield some positive results. The U.S may abolish a black list of Indian firms, euphemistically called the "entity list," which would allow American companies to transfer dual-use technologies to India. President Obama may also support India's bid for permanent membership of the U.N. Security Council and advocate the inclusion of the country into nonproliferation groups like the Nuclear Suppliers Group. The U.S. has nothing to lose by supporting India's aspirations. If other countries block the Security Council bid, for instance, it won't be America's fault, and Mr. Obama will win hearts in India.

Underlining all of this, and complicating matters, is China. Asia's other rising power threatens Indian and U.S. interests through its support for Pakistan's nuclear program, among other things. China continues to provoke India by asserting the disputed status of Kashmir and stepping up activities on Pakistan side of the Line of Control. This puts India in a dilemma: On one hand, Delhi wants to be militarily prepared in the context of China, which suggests a closer relationship with the U.S. But neither does Delhi want to be seen as provoking China by cozying up to the Americans.

President Obama's passage to India may not be as smooth as his predecessors' journeys, but that doesn't mean it has to be devoid of achievement. It's in both countries' interests that he succeeds. The flurry of activities on both sides continues unabated for this purpose.

Mr. Sreenivasan is director general of the Kerala International Centre in Trivandrum and a member of the National Security Advisory Board in New Delhi.

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