LONDON — Barack Obama’s visit to India last week ended on a high note. After downplaying expectations for some months now, the U.S. president made all the right noises in his address to the Indian Parliament.
The most significant was his declaration that the United States will back India’s bid for a permanent seat on an expanded U.N. Security Council. It was a major policy shift that India has long been clamoring for and Washington has been reluctant to offer.
In looking “forward to a reformed Security Council” that includes India as a permanent member, he warmed the hearts of Indian policymakers who have long viewed American support as a litmus test. There was no hesitation in Obama’s gesture, which was probably the strongest endorsement the U.S. has given yet to any state for permanent U.N. membership.
On Pakistan, too, Obama was deferential to Indian sensitivities. He maintained that “it is in the interest of India and Pakistan to reduce tensions between themselves, and the U.S. cannot impose solutions to these problems.” He also made it clear that “there can be no haven for terror,” suggesting that the U.S. “will continue to insist that Pakistan’s leadership bring the (2008) Mumbai attackers to justice.”
The real focus of Obama’s visit was, economic. Obama realizes that America’s economic revival is the key to his re-election in 2012. His media managers have termed his Asia trip important for developing linkages with the booming economies of Asia.
This was reflected in Obama’s comment that “when American people ask me why you are visiting India, I want to say that India just created 50,000 jobs, so we should not be talking about protectionism.” Outsourcing has been a problem area and the Obama administration’s handling of it has irked the Indian corporate sector. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh argued that “Indians are not in the business of stealing jobs from the U.S.”
During Obama’s visit, more than 20 deals worth $10 billion were signed by the corporate sectors of the two states. These deals included the sale of military transport aircraft, civilian airplanes, mining equipment and jet engines. Trade barriers and infrastructure bottlenecks were raised by Obama as problems for greater American investment.
Other key agreements signed by Delhi and Washington during Obama’s visit include a pact on setting up a joint clean energy research and development center, memoranda on a Global Center for Nuclear Energy Partnership, cooperation on a global disease protection center, and a pact on technical cooperation in monsoon studies.
India and the U.S. also agreed to work closely on agricultural development and women’s empowerment in Afghanistan as well as on joint efforts to promote a reliable information and communications infrastructure, with a goal of free, fair and secure access to cyberspace.
The two states decided to put in place a four-part export control reform program that includes American support for India’s membership in multilateral export control regimes.
In line with Obama’s declaration that India is no longer a rising power but has already “arrived,” both countries have announced a dialogue on the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, which will expand current consultations to include East Asia, West Asia and Central Asia. This is also a signal to an increasingly assertive China that other states in the region will respond to Chinese projection of power.
After all the hype surrounding Obama’s visit, both sides must be relatively satisfied with the outcome. The U.S.-India relationship, which Obama described as “one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century,” still lacks a larger vision. Both sides have a litany of issues they would like the other side to work on. In the absence of a strategic worldview, this becomes a mere exercise in splitting differences. Moreover, while Obama has managed to make the right noises in Delhi, it remains to be seen what he will be able to deliver.
The expansion of the Security Council won’t happen anytime soon, as there is no consensus among the five permanent members on this. China remains opposed to any new member from Asia sitting at the high table. The process is complicated and will take a long time to reach fruition.
So, in many ways it was a cost-free option for Obama to declare his support for India’s membership and then wait and see what happens. On the issue of Pakistan, Obama is intent on getting out of Afghanistan as soon as possible, but the key to American withdrawal is in the hands of the Pakistani military. The Pakistan army’s refusal to abandon all support of cross-border terrorism — in India and Afghanistan — remains the biggest hindrance in achieving regional peace and stability.
It’s not clear if Obama and Delhi are on the same page on this crucial issue. Pakistan continues to use various ploys at its disposal in refusing to redeploy forces away from the border with India to fight militants in the frontier region near Afghanistan. Many in the U.S., including David Petraeus, the top commander in Pakistan, are sympathetic to Pakistan’s position and have suggested putting more pressure on India to settle its problems with Islamabad.
The success of Obama’s visit will depend on how Washington treats Indian concerns in the coming and months. The visit was the easy part.
Harsh V. Pant teaches at King’s College London.
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