India grapples with the Obama era

Posted in United States , India | 23-Feb-09 | Author: M K Bhadrakumar| Source: Asia Times

Richard Holbrooke (L), U.S. envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, shakes hands with India's Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee before their meeting in New Delhi February 16, 2009.

What prompted the spokesman of India's ruling party, Congress, to recommend that the Bharat Ratna - the "Jewel of India" - be bestowed on George W Bush, we might never know. India has conferred its highest civilian honor on only two foreigners, one of whom was Nelson Mandela.

The Congress politician apparently got carried away on a balmy winter day with nostalgia hanging heavily in the air, as he faced a select audience of Delhi's elite, who formed the gravy train of India-US "strategic partnership" in the Bush era.

Ironically, even as he spoke last Friday, a delegation was setting out from the United States for India to pay homage to Mahatma Gandhi, the great apostle of non-violence, who inspired Martin Luther King, who in turn remains a constant source of inspiration for US President Barack Obama.

The bizarre coincidence was driven home when at a special ceremony at the US State Department marking the visit, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, "India is a reminder that the struggle for civil rights and justice has always been and continues to be a global mission; it knows no borders."

The two unconnected events underscored the dilemma facing India's policymakers as the Obama era gets under way. Indeed, it is an extraordinary statement that the first American delegation to visit India after Obama took office should be a "Gandhian" delegation. Is Obama "demilitarizing" India-US strategic cooperation? "Mil-to-mil" cooperation was at the core of US-India relationship during the past eight-year period. In recent years, India conducted more than 50 military exercises with the US.

All dressed up, nowhere to go
Yet a pall of gloom has descended on New Delhi's elite. There is a pervasive nostalgia for George W Bush. The Bush administration officials claimed that the US regarded India as the preponderant power in South Asia and as a key Asian player that would shape up to be a viable counterweight to China militarily. The expectation was that the US would extricate India from the morass of its South Asian neighborhood by arm-twisting Pakistan.

Under constant encouragement from the Bush administration, the Indian elite placed faith in the country's emergence as a global player. They began working "shoulder to shoulder" with the US, just as Bush's officials urged. Now, Indian strategists find themselves awkwardly placed - all dressed-up but there's nowhere right now for them to go.

Three factors have shaken up the Indian complacency. First, Indian strategists seriously underestimated the military stalemate that was developing in the war in Afghanistan and the consequent acute dependence of the US on Pakistan's cooperation. This may sound surprising, but the knowledge of Afghan affairs remains shockingly poor among Indian strategists.

Two, Indian strategists underestimated the gravity of the global financial crisis that erupted last year. They couldn't comprehend that the crisis would fundamentally change the world order. Even hard-nosed Indian strategists placed a touching faith in the "New American Century" project.

Three, the Indian establishment failed to grasp what Obama meant when he spoke of "change". The Indian skepticism about Obama's capacity to change US policies remained fairly widespread. The Indian establishment concluded that Obama would ultimately have to work within the box, hemmed in by America's political, foreign policy and security establishment. It failed to see that the US's capacity to sustain its global dominance was itself weakening and that necessitated radical changes in Obama's policies.

From this perspective, the past week offered a reality check. The visit by the newly appointed US Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, to the region underscored that Islamabad's support for the US war strategy in Afghanistan has become critical. The war is at a crucial stage and salvaging it appears increasingly difficult.

More to the point, given the overall fragility of the political situation in Pakistan, a stage is reached beyond which the US cannot "pressure" Pakistan. Therefore, in a change of approach, the US will have no choice but to work with Pakistan. In the coming period, as Holbrooke gradually opens the political track leading to an Afghan settlement, need of Pakistan's cooperation increases further.

Meanwhile, the revelation that the US Predator drones operate out of Pakistani bases underlines how closely Washington and Islamabad have been working. The US's acquiescence in the release of AQ Khan revealed the great latitude towards Pakistan's concerns. The Indian strategists who fancied that New Delhi was Washington's preferred partner in South Asia are stunned. Clearly, India is nowhere near as valuable an ally as Pakistan for the US for the present.

Looking ahead, Obama's decision on Wednesday approving a troop buildup in Afghanistan constitutes a defining moment. He has put his presidency on the firing line. From this week onward, Obama's war has begun. The war can well consume his presidency. Either he succeeds, or he gets mired in the war. Yet, the new US strategy is still in the making. Delhi takes note that it is at such a crucial juncture that the Pakistani army chief, General Parvez Kayani, has been invited to go across to Washington for consultations.

The message is clear: Washington will be in no mood to antagonize its Pakistani partner and Delhi is expected to keep tensions under check in its relations with Islamabad.

Dollar courting yuan
But there is another aspect in Obama's new foreign policy that worries India even more. Obama's China policy renders obsolete the Indian strategic calculus built around the US containment strategy. Hardly two to three years ago, the Bush administration encouraged India to put faith in a quadrilateral alliance of Asian democracies - the US, Japan, Australia and India - that would strive to set the rules for China's behavior in the region.

According to reports, State Department officials had originally proposed that India be included in the itinerary of Clinton's current first official tour abroad, but she struck it out. As things stand, Clinton meant every word of what she wrote last year in her Foreign Affairs article that "our [US] relationship with China will be the most important bilateral relationship in the world in this century".

In a major speech at the Asia Society in New York last Friday before embarking on her tour of Asia, Clinton said, "We believe that the United States and China can benefit from and contribute to each other's successes. It is in our interests to work harder to build on areas of common concern and shared opportunities". She argued for a "comprehensive dialogue" and a "broader agenda" with China.

The Washington Post cited State Department officials as saying, "It is symbolically important that Clinton is the first secretary of state in nearly 50 years to intensely focus his or her maiden voyage on Asia". The story is easily comprehensible. The US needs to have new opportunities to export more to China; it should persuade Beijing to accept a realistic dollar-yuan exchange rate; and, it should convince China to keep investing its money in America. But what is unfolding is also a phenomenal story insofar as a new chapter in their mutually dependent relationship is commencing where the two countries become equal partners in crisis. This was simply unthinkable.

Dennis Blair, the newly appointed director of national intelligence, in his testimony before the US senate intelligence committee on January 22, struck a fine balance when he said,
While the United States must understand China's military buildup - its extent, its technological sophistication and its vulnerabilities - in order to offset it, the intelligence community also needs to support policymakers who are looking for opportunities to work with Chinese leaders who believe that Asia is big enough for both of us and can be an Asia in which both countries can benefit as well as contribute to the common good.
However, this is precisely where a serious problem arises for India. In the Indian perception, South Asia and the Indian Ocean just aren't "big enough" for India and China.

Dragon encircles peacock
This was rubbed home when Chinese President Hu Jintao arrived in Port Louis, Mauritius, on Tuesday on the final lap of his latest odyssey to Africa. Hu nonchalantly handed out a generous US$1 billion aid package for Mauritius, which India traditionally regarded as its "sphere of influence" in the Indian Ocean. No doubt, it was an audacious gesture by Beijing to a country the majority of whose 1.3 million population are people of Indian origin - at a time when China too faces an economic crisis and analysts say anywhere up to 40 million migrant workers may lose their jobs this year.

Arguably, Beijing regards Mauritius as a value-added platform between China and Africa from where its entrepreneurs could optimally perform. But Hu has convinced the Indian strategic community about China's "encirclement" policy towards India. A leading Indian right-wing daily commented that Hu's visit was "anything but ordinary ... It underscores Beijing's relentless thrust to secure a permanent naval foothold in the western Indian Ocean ... That, of course, would only come at the expense of the Indian navy, which has been the principal external security partner of Mauritius all these decades".

It is precisely such hubris that gets punctured by the shift in the Obama administration's new priorities in the Far East and southwest Asia. A difficult period of adjustment lies ahead for Indian policymakers. India needs good relations with the US. At any rate, the India-US relationship is on an irreversible trajectory of growth. There is a "bipartisan" consensus in both countries that the relationship is in each other's vital interests. But the US's current strategic priorities in the region and India's expectations are diverging. Given the criticality of Pakistan in the US geo-strategy, Obama administration will be constrained to correct the Bush administration's "tilt" towards India.

Kashmir beckons
New Delhi pulled out all the stops when rumors surfaced that Holbrooke's mandate might include the Kashmir problem. Obama paid heed to Indian sensitivities. But at a price. It compels India to curtail its own excessive instincts in recent years to seek US intervention in keeping India-Pakistan tensions in check.

In short, New Delhi will have to pay much greater attention to its bilateral track with Pakistan. And, of course, Pakistan will expect India to be far more flexible. Rightly or wrongly, Pakistan harbors a feeling that India took unilateral advantage from the relative four-year calm in their relationship without conceding anything in return.

In a sensational interview with India's top television personality, Karan Thapar, on Thursday night, Pakistan's former foreign minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri confirmed what many in New Delhi suspected, namely, that through back channel diplomacy, Islamabad and New Delhi had reached a broad understanding on contentious issues such as Sir Creek, Siachen and Kashmir as far back as two years ago.

The Indian prime minister was expected to visit Pakistan to conclude some of the agreements but the Indian side apparently began developing cold feet and it is "sheer bad luck", as Kasuri put it, that the momentum dissipated.

To quote Kasuri, "If the Prime Minister of India had come when we [Pakistan] thought he would, we would have actually signed it, and that would have created the right atmosphere for resolution of other disputes, particularly the issue of J&K [Jammu and Kashmir]. We needed the right atmosphere."

In other words, there is always a lurking danger that at some point, Holbrooke may barge into the Kashmir problem by way of addressing the core issues of regional security. The Bush administration had been kept constantly briefed by New Delhi on its back-channel discussions with Islamabad regarding Kashmir. Retracting from any commitments given to Pakistan becomes problematic at this stage.

At the same time, the Indian government has done nothing so far to sensitize domestic public opinion that such highly delicate discussions involving joint India-Pakistan governance of the Kashmir region have reached an advanced stage.

Thus, in a manner of speaking, with Holbrooke's arrival in the region this past week, the clock began ticking on the Kashmir issue. Pakistan will incrementally mount pressure that Obama must insist on India moving forward on a settlement of the Kashmir problem in the overall interests of peace and regional stability.

And New Delhi will remain watchful. Holbrooke's visit to New Delhi on Monday was kept low-key. The Indian media fawned on any mid-level official calling from the Bush administration, but Holbrooke was tucked away as if under quarantine. And no wonder; there could be many among New Delhi's elite who feel nostalgic for the tranquility and predictability of the Bush era.

Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.