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Ups, Downs and Ups in Obama’s Approach towards India

Professor Chintamani Mahapatra is Chairman, Centre for Canadian, US and Latin American Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
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  • February 05, 2010

    Predictability in India-US relations ended with the demise of the Soviet Union. Periodic ebb and flow largely underlined the nature of bilateral interactions during the eight years of the Clinton administration. The first eight years of the 21st century, on the other hand, witnessed the flowering of an entirely new kind of strategic partnership between the United States and India under the Bush Administration. The steady growth of bilateral ties between the two countries once again came to oscillate when Barack Obama entered the White House as the 44th President of the United States.

    While it is premature to draw conclusions on Obama’s policy towards India, his first year in office certainly did not carry forward his predecessor’s initiatives towards India. During the early months of his administration, India rarely figured in the priority list of President Obama. The underlying logic was rather palpable. India posed no threat to US interests. It was a victim and not a perpetrator of terrorism. India was not a signatory to NPT and CTBT, but had in no way indulged in proliferation of WMD. The Indian economy was not large enough to positively or negatively affect the US economy during the recession. Lastly, India contributed little towards US strategy in Iraq or Afghanistan in terms of military cooperation. Consequently, the Obama Administration did not show any hurry in appointing its new Ambassador to New Delhi.

    Worse still for bilateral relations were unsought advice from President Obama on how to resolve the Kashmir issue and airing of views by his officials on the need for India to sign the NPT, CTBT and the future FMCT. The worst came when an attempt was made to bracket India along with Afghanistan and Pakistan in a new strategy to combat al Qaeda and Taliban extremists—the so-called Af-Pak strategy. What annoyed unofficial India was the Obama Administration’s announcement of a new policy to penalize American companies outsourcing jobs to India and President Obama’s warning to American children to be aware of Indian and Chinese students performing better than them.

    US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who made her first maiden foreign tour to Asia, skipped India while visiting China and Indonesia. Earlier, Vice President-elect Joe Biden visited Islamabad but did not find time to stop over in New Delhi. Barack Obama visited Cairo and addressed the Muslim world, but did not mention a word about India which houses the second largest Muslim population in the world.

    All these developments generated conjectures about the end of the honeymoon in India-US relations which lasted during the eight years of the Bush administration. Would President Obama undo what President Bush painstakingly constructed during his two-terms in office? By the time Obama occupied the Oval Office, India-US relations had advanced to the point of a new paradigm in the relationship. Military-to-military cooperation between the two countries had expanded vertically and horizontally. The US-India civilian nuclear cooperation agreement had been concluded against colossal hurdles removing a decades-old irritant in bilateral relations. Would Obama, under the influence of nonproliferationists, allow the 123 agreement to decompose?

    Dissatisfaction in certain quarters and misgivings in others over the emerging trend in the Obama Administration’s moves toward India or inactions in certain areas got a fleeting respite when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a five-day long trip to India almost half a year after Obama’s inauguration.

    Hillary’s Significant Journey

    After months of a jaded India policy, the Obama Administration sprang a satisfying surprise by sending Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to India on a five day visit in July 2009. This visit was as important as the five day path breaking tour of India by President Bill Clinton in March 2000. This was the first time ever that a US Secretary of State came to India for such a long duration of time; interacted with a cross-section of civil society and government officials and signed three significant agreements. One of the newest initiatives of Secretary Clinton during her visit was to go beyond traditional meetings with government officials and engage in public diplomacy. Significantly, she chose to land in the nation’s finance capital, Mumbai, and first interacted with the country’s business leaders, such as Mukesh Ambani and Ratan Tata.

    In order to facilitate arms trade, she persuaded India to conclude an “end-use-monitoring” agreement. It was necessary to enable US corporations to do business in India—one of the largest arms procurers in the world today. Secretary Clinton no doubt had at the centre of her attention India’s plan to buy 126 multi-role fighter aircraft, with US companies, particularly Lockheed Martin and Boeing, showing interest to sell their aircraft to India.

    Like the 126 deal, implementation of the 123 agreement also involves billions of dollars of business, which is so crucial at a time of recession. The US nuclear industry as such has been in doldrums and the Indian nuclear energy market is worth more than $30 billion. Successful US-India nuclear energy cooperation, moreover, reportedly has the potential to create about 20,000 jobs in the United States.

    While there were anxieties in certain Indian quarters that the Obama Administration could soft-pedal the 123 agreement and some even went to the extent of reading the G-8 summit statement on non-proliferation as additional pressure on India to sign the NPT and CTBT, Secretary Clinton made it amply clear during her visit that the Obama Administration was very much interested in timely implementation of the 123 agreement. India, on its part, announced two places—Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat—as nuclear energy parks earmarked for US companies to set up power generating nuclear reactors.

    Educational and agricultural cooperation were two other important highlights of the Clinton initiatives to make US-India relations broader and deeper. Her interactions with college students in Mumbai and Delhi were unprecedented American efforts to engage directly with the Indian public. These steps were intended to generate goodwill for the United States among the Indian public. Her proposal relating to agricultural cooperation also contained similar goals.

    On the whole, it was a visit that set to rest many doubts about the Obama administration’s approach towards India. The apprehensions that this administration would not walk the extra mile to further elevate the relationship with India, from where its predecessor had left, proved to be misplaced.

    Significantly, even before Secretary Clinton left India for Thailand, India’s Army Chief General Deepak Kapoor set foot in Washington, DC. He was scheduled to visit several US military training institutions, operational centres, including the headquarters of the Central Command. His itinerary was impressive and his schedules included meeting the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, and US Army Chief George Casey as well as Defence Secretary Robert Gates. He discussed various issues with US defence officials, including the Af-Pak strategy, joint military training and exercises, exchanges of military officers and trade in defence equipment.

    The Army Chief’s seven day visit to the United States would certainly strengthen cooperation at the highest levels of defence policy making bodies. The ongoing struggle against terrorism in Pakistan and Afghanistan, proliferation threats surrounding India in East Asia and West Asia, and several other security concerns spanning the globe make it imperative for India and the United States to coordinate their defence strategies and build institutional cooperation to meet the common threats.

    Manmohan Singh – The First State Guest

    The next milestone in India-US relations under the Obama Administration was the Singh-Obama summit in Washington. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was invited by President Barack Obama as the first state guest of his administration. This is the highest honour given to a foreign dignitary by an American President who takes charge after winning the presidential election.

    This honour signalled the importance the Obama Administration attached to its India policy. What then was the outcome of the summit? First of all, in a joint press conference, President Obama said that “as nuclear “powers” the two countries would fight proliferation of nuclear weapons and work towards the establishment of a nuclear weapon free world. Right in front of the media and in the very presence of the Indian Prime Minister, referring to India as a nuclear power lent legitimacy and credibility to the de facto status of India as a nuclear weapon power.

    Secondly, the two leaders stated their commitment for an early and full implementation of the 123 agreement. As was made known subsequently, an agreement on reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel was on the last legs of negotiations when Prime Minister Singh landed in Washington.

    Thirdly, a new bilateral initiative to forge agricultural cooperation even in third countries and the announcement of a new “Obama-Singh” initiative to expand educational exchanges were strategic in nature aimed at strengthening the long term strategic partnership.

    While bilateral cooperation in counter-terrorism would continue, it was clear during the summit that differences in methods and approaches would remain diverse. Obama made it quite clear that Pakistan would continue to be the frontline state in his administration’s war against the Taliban and al Qaeda.

    Last, but not the least, the summit seems to have set at rest concerns that the Obama Administration was seeking to outsource the solution of South Asian problems to China. This was the impression created by a joint Obama-Hu Jintao statement during Obama’s China trip. But President Obama made an unambiguous statement that his administration sees in India an emerging global player and an Asian leader and vowed to cooperate with India in maintaining peace and stability in Asia.

    The Obama administration’s earlier statements on Kashmir and its attempt to bracket India with Afghanistan and Pakistan and the statement in China did produce certain disquiet and concern in India. But the Obama-Singh summit appears to have removed these misunderstandings, if any.


    The first year of the Clinton Administration had also brought no good news for India. American official statements on Kashmir, delay in receiving the credential from the Indian ambassador, activities of the non-proliferation lobby and invocation of Special and Super 301 clauses against India did not augur well for India-US relations. Though the eight years of the Clinton Administration witnessed new heights and a new abyss in bilateral relations, it ended with a new architecture of relationship.

    Clinton’s successor, George W. Bush, gave a proper shape to this architecture. The very first year of the Bush Administration provided adequate evidence to suggest that a new paradigm of bilateral ties would be in place. After consistent improvement in India-US relations during the eight years of Bush Administration, the early months of Obama Administration proved disappointing and raised concerns about a possible return to the bad old days of the relationship. But before the end of the first year, President Obama gave enough hints that the new paradigm of Indo-US relations is here to stay.