November 06, 2010

US-India ‘strategic partnership’ needs a re-definition

Harsh V Pant

The hype surrounding the visit of US President Barack Obama has already built up considerably.

Officials on both sides have been busy laying the groundwork for the visit. The Indian foreign secretary, Nirupama Rao, was in Washington recently and the US under secretary of state for political affairs William Burns visited Delhi last week to put in place an agenda for the visit that can match the outcome of the visit by Obama’s predecessor George W Bush. But the context of Obama’s visit is entirely different.

Obama will be visiting India at a time when there is great political turmoil in Washington and the president’s authority is rapidly eroding. The losses suffered by the Democratic Party in this week’s mid-term elections have been huge and a serious blow to Obama’s political profile. Obama, who muscled through Congress perhaps the most ambitious domestic agenda in a generation in the form of health care legislation, finds himself vilified by the right, castigated by the left and abandoned by the middle. He will face a Congress that will be less friendly to the president than the one he has dealt with over the last two years.

By failing to stay connected with the desires and aspirations of those who voted for him in large numbers, Obama seems to have achieved the rare feat of simultaneously disappointing those who considered him the very embodiment of a new progressive movement and those who expected him to govern from the middle ushering in a post-partisan age. Two years down the line, he remains a mystery to most Americans.

Just after the Republican Scott Brown captured the Massachusetts Senate seat held for decades by Ted Kennedy, costing Democrats their filibuster-proof control of the US Senate, Obama had suggested that he would rather be a really good one-term president than a mediocre two-term one. He is now realising that being a really good one-term president is not all that easy either.

On foreign policy front too, there are few achievements that the Obama administration can boast of. Based on an erroneous faith in his own power of persuasion, Obama had believed that he could overcome differences if he just sat down with the world’s most recalcitrant figures — whether they be the mullahs in Iran, the Communist Party in China or the Palestinian interlocutors. But the rest of the world took this as a sign of American weakness, a result of the changing economic balance of power from Washington to Beijing.

As for US-India ties, there is a sense that divergences are just too great for Obama’s visit to produce anything really substantive. In a letter sent to the Manmohan Singh, Obama has reportedly conveyed what his expectations are for the visit, expressing hope that the civil nuclear liability law would be re-examined in light of the US nuclear industry’s concerns and other issues like the purchase of C-17 aircrafts and market access to US agricultural products could be looked at seriously by India.

The Indian armed forces have made their reservations clear about the defence pacts that the US is keen on, like the Logistics Support Agreement (LSA), Communication and Information Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA) and Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-Spatial Cooperation (BECA). There will be many more rounds of discussions before anything concrete emerges on these proposals.
NSG membership

The Obama administration is divided on going ahead with supporting India’s UNSC candidature. The kind of explicit commitment India wants, the US will find it difficult to deliver though this is a relatively easy thing to do, given that there is unlikely to be any move on UNSC expansion anytime soon. The US may agree to help India with the NSG membership as a sweetener.

The Obama administration remains troubled by India’s civil nuclear liability law. Though India has signalled that it is ready to sign the CSC in an attempt to alleviate some of the US concerns, the US officials have been very explicit about their disappointment with some even suggesting that the new Indian law might sound the death knell of the US-India strategic partnership.

India, for its part, wants US to further liberalise its export controls, in particular seeking the removal of ISRO and DRDO from the US Entity List. Delhi wants a clean and complete deletion of all Indian entities from the List of the US Bureau of Industrial Standards but the US seems unwilling to go that far.

And then let’s not forget Af-Pak where there is nothing that the US is in a position to offer at this time that can satisfy India’s growing anxieties. Though the US has rejected Pakistan’s calls for US mediation on Kashmir, there has been no cessation of US military assistance to Pakistan.

For all the rhetoric, the US-India relationship has lost momentum in the last two years. There is no strategic outlook that is driving this relationship at the moment. Both New Delhi and Washington are merely interested in tactical manoeuvring vis-à-vis each other.

It is ironic that both sides can with some justification claim at this point that issues important to them are not being given due importance by the other side. The two sides will definitely try to put the best possible gloss over the outcome, but there are just too many divergences at this point to make Obama’s visit significant in a major way. And this is rather unfortunate as the US and India need each other at this time of rapid structural change in global politics and economics being ushered in by the rise of China.

Perhaps, it is time to give some concrete meaning to the much overused phrase — ‘strategic partnership.’

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