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Obama’s visit to India: Is the glass of Indo-US strategic partnership half full or half empty?

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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  • October 25, 2010

    President Obama’s visit to India in November 2010 should further strengthen the Indo-US strategic partnership. High level visits from both sides have taken place to prepare for the visit. The US has pulled out all stops to convey that India is its valued partner and the partnership is a global partnership for the 21st century. President Obama has described India as an ‘indispensable partner’ while India has described the US as a ‘natural’ ally.

    Why is the US seeking out India for special treatment as was reflected, for instance, in the signing of the Indo-US nuclear deal? Several explanations can be given. But one of the most enduring if unstated assumptions - is that the US is indulging in a balance of power game in view of the rise of China. It wants to build a strong strategic partnership with India to balance China’s rise. However, this is only partially true, because the US is also building its relations with China, even though it remains concerned about its rise.

    The US has realised that India is helping build the US economy, the rhetoric about ‘outsourcing’ notwithstanding. Indian investments in the US are increasing rapidly and creating jobs. According to some estimates by business chambers, Indian investment in the US has created 300,000 jobs in the US, many of them during the recession years.

    There are a whole lot of impressive statistics to show that Indo-US relations are developing rapidly. Bilateral trade is growing at 20 percent per annum and has reached $44 billion. It has tripled since President Clinton’s visit in 2000. Trade in services is almost fifty percent of the total trade. India exported $22 billion worth of services to the US in 2008 and imported $10 billion. This is, by all standards, an appreciable achievement. India is already the US’s 14th largest trading partner and will soon join the top ten list. A large number of initiatives have been taken in agriculture, health, education, environment and clean technologies to impart solidity to the relationship. If these materialise, India will benefit in its quest for food and energy security.

    With impeding cuts in the US defence budget, US defence manufacturers are looking for opportunities in India. Undoubtedly, Indo-US defence cooperation has grown tremendously in the last few years. Over fifty joint exercises have been held. India has already decided to buy $2,5 billion worth of defence equipment including C-130J and P-8I aircraft. Two US companies have bid for the 126 advanced fighter aircraft. New defence deals will create new jobs in the US. However, the defence relationship so far remains a buyer-seller relationship.

    The Indo-US civil nuclear deal paves the way for nuclear energy renaissance. US nuclear suppliers are unhappy about the newly passed Indian nuclear liability bill, but the chances are that this problem will be sorted out as India takes a decision on signing the Convention on Supplementary Compensation for Nuclear Damage. If all goes well, India will emerge as a major force in the nuclear energy arena. This will create new, high tech capabilities in India. New jobs will be created here.

    In the backdrop of the above developments, can one say with confidence that Obama’s visit will take the partnership to a higher trajectory?

    A few years ago, after the US decided to sign the 123 agreement with India, it was said that both countries had finally begun to look at each other independent of Pakistan. But, Pakistan is back in contention. The growing US-Pak relationship has the potential of clouding the Indo-US relationship. US officials insist that India should see the bilateral relationship in a global context, and not through the lens of Afghanistan and Pakistan. India cannot ignore the US contribution towards strengthening the Pakistani army. The infamous hyphenation is back, at least in Indian eyes.

    During the recently concluded US-Pakistan strategic talks in Washington, the US announced additional aid of $2 billion to Pakistan over 2012-16. The joint statement issued at the end of the dialogue committed both counties to “cultivating a strategic, comprehensive, and long-term partnership”. The joint statement further said, “The United States and Pakistan renewed their resolve to promoting peace, stability, and transparency throughout the region and to eliminate the threats posed by terrorism and extremism.”

    Foreign Minister Qureshi tried his best to persuade Obama to take up the Kashmir issue during his forthcoming trip to the region. He said publicly, “President Obama has always understood the importance of a Kashmir solution. His coming visit to the region is the time to begin to redeem the pledge that he made earlier”. It is interesting that Secretary Clinton wisely did not get drawn into the Kashmir issue publicly despite Qureshi’s urging.

    The Indian worry is that Pakistan continues to get sophisticated weapons from the US in the name of counter terrorism. A number of these weapon systems like the F-16s can only be used against India. The US turns a blind eye to India’s protestations. The US has also assured Pakistan that any settlement in Afghanistan will be discussed with Pakistan. Pakistan is wooing the US for a nuclear deal similar to that with India. The US has not yet agreed but who knows when it might yield to Pakistani pressure. Or else, it may decide to overlook the Pak-China nuclear deal in the Nuclear Suppliers Group.

    The irony is that US relations with Pakistan are strengthening despite numerous revelations about how Pakistan is playing a double game in Afghanistan and the involvement of Pakistani agencies in the planning and execution of the Mumbai attacks. The US appeasement of Pakistan only shows how desperate the US position is in Afghistan.

    China will be the major factor, though unstated, in how US-India relations grow in the future. India will like to have some clarity during President Obama’s visit on US relations with China. Any further indication that the US wants China to play a role in South Asia will not go down well with India, particularly at a time when China has become so assertive vis-à-vis India.

    What to expect?

    So, what can India expect from President Obama’s visit? Clearly, India has to realise that it will not get all that it wants from the US. Complete convergence of strategic interests between the US and India is unlikely and even unnecessary.

    India should not expect that the US will adjust its policies towards Pakistan, Afghistan and China to suit India’s interests. Here there will always be some divergence which cannot be wished away. Such a realisation will help keep expectations at a reasonable level.

    Both sides should treat the visit as a process of consolidation of bilateral ties and not expect big ticket items like the Indo-US nuclear deal.

    If India can get the US to reform its antiquated entity list, that will open the gates for high technology trade. There are some indications that the US is contemplating the reform of its entity list to give relief to India.

    Despite the impressive growth in bilateral trade, the over all volumes of trade and investment are still low. That should change. The trade in high technology should get a fillip.

    There is considerable potential in defence cooperation. The US should shed its inhibitions about technology transfer and co-production of high-tech defence items and bring these at par with Indo-Russian defence cooperation. If India really needs high-tech communications equipment, then it will have to look at the US demands for finalisation of the Communications Interoperability Security Memorandum Agreement and BECA more carefully. India will have to realise that the US is unlikely to drop its insistence on these ‘foundation’ agreements. The US has signed these agreements even with Japan and the UK. There will be no exception for India. After all India had to agree to the End User Monitoring Agreement some years ago. The ball is very much in India’s court.

    India and the US are both space powers. India’s achievements in space will define its status as a world power. India can join hands with the US in developing key space technologies with potential in civilian areas at least. Perhaps India and the US could think of one big ticket item, such as cooperation on a futuristic project on developing space-based solar power. This could be a part of India’s recently launched solar mission.

    If the visit is seen from the Pakistan angle, the goals of Indo-US cooperation will seem half empty. Otherwise it may appear to be half full.

    Some tough questions will be raised during the visit. But the President is a consummate charmer. He has a positive image in India. He will no doubt unfold his charm on the Indian public. But, he will have to be mindful of the numerous minefields strewn along the way. His comments on ‘outsourcing’ have disappointed Indian industry. He had made some comments on Kashmir during his election campaign. If the visit is to be a success, he will need to make some amends to mitigate his comments on ‘outsourcing’ and avoid talking about Kashmir. He would need to be sensitive to Indian concerns on Afghanistan and China’s role in South Asia.