Clinton delivers unwanted tidings to New Delhi
United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton landed in the western Indian city of Mumbai on Friday for the Barack Obama administration's first high-level political consultation with India since assuming office in January.
Clinton had no pressing engagements in Mumbai, but she took time to reach out to Delhi on Sunday. She underscored that the Obama administration looks forward to a broad-based relationship with India that goes beyond the highly militarized "strategic partnership" that the George W Bush administration sought and Delhi got used to.
Obama seeks a "greening" of the US-India partnership, whereas Indian strategists are schooled in the eight-year cherished belief that the future of the US-India partnership lay in the two countries striding "shoulder-to-shoulder" in terms of a shared "vision".
From the Indian end, the "vision" meant that the US recognized India's primacy as the number one military power in the Indian Ocean region and built it up as an Asian counterweight to China. The "vision" had a dream run during the Bush era. India has held something like 50 military exercises with the US during the past five-year period.
But Obama's priorities lie elsewhere. The America he inherited has different priorities. The world, too, has changed following the global downturn. Clinton is on a formidable diplomatic mission as the harbinger of startling tidings to Delhi. Rhetoric has been completely lacking in her repertoire.
Her irrepressible predecessor, Condoleezza Rice, would have seized the moment, with her schoolgirlish enthusiasm and brilliant smile, to insist that her messianic mission was aimed at making India a world-class power. Indians anxiously scoured the weekend papers and sorely missed the Ricean turns of phrase.
Clinton was not lacking in charm - or enthusiasm - as she walked around rain-swept Mumbai observing the wonderful work done by social activists who championed the emancipation of downtrodden Indian women, or as she held the hands of movie stars who double as educationists, and as she laughed and talked with the captains of Indian industry who have made India's economic growth happen. In a manner of speaking, it is symbolic that Clinton chose Mumbai for her first halt - a city that insolently mocks Delhi for its pretentious airs.
The US-India relationship is a bit like a marriage where one partner simply needs some space. For the US, the centrality of Pakistan in its regional policies in Central Asia and the Persian Gulf in the coming period is a compelling reality. Therefore, Clinton chose to give an interview to the Pakistani media (even ahead of any Indian media interaction) so that Islamabad did not need to fear the outcome of her India visit. Clinton said:
Well, I think if you go back and look at the history between the United States and Pakistan, we were not always as sensitive or understanding of the needs of the Pakistani people. We were not always constant in our support and our friendship for Pakistan ... So it's been, I would argue, a relationship that hasn't been as constant and as effective as we would want it to be ... I mean, we are just human beings; we know that. But we want to be as honest in admitting them as possible, learning from them, and then trying to move forward ... Our goal is to be there as a constant friend and a country that Pakistan ... can rely on to build up more trust and understanding between us, and to be of assistance when asked by Pakistan.
Yet, she proceeded to India first. The Indians are intrigued. They were hoping to present Clinton with a list of convincing reasons why the US and India should collaborate as partners in pressuring Pakistan to amend its record of breeding international terrorism and proliferating nuclear technology. But Clinton made it clear that Washington is pretty pleased with Pakistan's performance in the "war on terror" and that the Pakistani nuclear inventory was securely fastened, no matter Islamabad's past behavior - and that's all that mattered today.
Indians will be wrong to take this amiss. The heart of the matter is that the US cannot allow any third party to interrupt the crucially important business of its close collaboration with Islamabad to stabilize Afghanistan through dialogue with the Taliban. As the spokesman of the Pakistani military recently told CNN in an interview, it is the Pakistani intelligence that can bring hardcore Taliban leaders Mullah Omar and Jalaluddin Haqqani to the negotiating table with the US.
Furthermore, as the great game accelerates in Central Asia and if the situation around Iran assumes criticality, Pakistan is becoming a key partner. Pakistan's brusque integration into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is self-evident. Indians, unfortunately, missed the plot. Up until last year, strategists in Delhi even fancied notions of an Indian military deployment in Afghanistan.
The Indians' deeply entrenched suspicion about Chinese intentions corrode their judgment and prevent them from connecting the dots that separate the Hindu Kush and the Pamirs and the Silk Road. They fail to comprehend the great game. Over the weekend, a prominent Indian commentator showed incredible naivety to argue New Delhi should use its influence with northern Afghan tribes - Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras - to muddy Uyghur ethnic tension in Xinjiang.
What perturbs Indian strategists, haunted by the specter of Kashmir, is how Pakistan might take advantage of the US. Clinton came dangerously close when the Pakistani interviewer probed her. "I think that the disputes between India and Pakistan, which are historical and long-standing, should be looked at with fresh eyes ... The United States stands ready to support the steps ... but it's not just the government, but the people ... Well, it [Kashmir] certainly should be on the agenda of discussion between India and Pakistan." (Emphasis added.)
On balance, however, India's testiness as it awaited Clinton was of its own making. Its regional policy is touching a low point today and its regional influence in Central Asia is almost negligible. The top items on Clinton's agenda are to secure an investment protection agreement and an end-use monitoring deal with Delhi that accords with US legislation making sure sales of military equipment are used for the purpose stated.
Meanwhile, the US signed a technology safeguards agreement that is a requisite first step (pending negotiation of a commercial space launch agreement) towards allowing India to launch US satellites or third-country satellites that have US equipment on board. The US has a similar agreement with China.
The irony is that New Delhi has done all it could in recent years to harmonize its regional policies with those of the US. Its response to the new cold war has been to keep a calibrated distance from its traditional ally, Russia. Its response to the US-Iran standoff over Tehran's nuclear program has been to atrophy India's close and friendly ties with Iran. Its response to the US's containment strategy toward China has been to identify with the strange idea of a quadripartite alliance with the US, Japan and Australia.
In comparison, Pakistan zeroed in on the potentials of US intervention in Afghanistan and the implications of the great game in Central Asia for the US's geo-strategy - especially the role of Islamist elements. An extremely rewarding relationship has followed since 2001, as naturally as daybreak. For a while, Pakistan got worked up that George W Bush might be tilting toward India when he signed a nuclear deal for the civilian use of nuclear power. But as Clinton's visit shows, the nuclear deal has become controversial.
The Obama administration is determined to bring the nuclear deal within an overall architecture of global nuclear non-proliferation. As a first step, the US got its Group of Eight partners at the recent summit meeting in Italy to accept that countries such as India that reject the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), ought to be denied all ENR (enrichment and reprocessing) technology.
Where Delhi estimated that the nuclear deal amounted to a tacit US acceptance of its nuclear-weapon status, the opposite seems to be happening - a tightening of screws. While India hoped that the massive business opportunities in the Indian nuclear market would prompt avaricious Americans to jettison their non-proliferation agenda, Washington will have it both ways - lucrative business as well as a reinvigorated NPT regime. Clinton sought fresh Indian reassurances to import US nuclear reactors worth billions of dollars in the near term. The Indians sound self-righteous by claiming the US is rolling back the nuclear deal. Actually, the Bush administration was transparent that the US hoped to bring India into the nuclear non-proliferation regime. But Indian discourses almost uniformly pillory Obama as the villain of peace.
Where does the US-India relationship go from here? The unveiling during Clinton's visit of a new strategic dialogue architecture intended to take US-India relations to a higher level of "3.0" - to use Clinton's phrase - covering non-proliferation, security, education and health and development - underscores the Obama administration's commitment to the partnership with India. Indeed, Washington has little reason to be apprehensive about the prospects of the US-India relationship.
New Delhi has few options and less inclination to shift from its US-centric foreign policy. India's political class, especially the ruling Congress party's "GenNext", is largely "pro-US". The main opposition Hindu nationalist party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, and its affiliates too are "pro-US". The left parties, which clamored for an "independent foreign policy", are yet to recover from their huge defeat in the recent parliamentary poll. The Indian corporate media and the middle class root for "Amrika".
En route to Delhi, Clinton thoughtfully interacted with Indian corporate czars in Mumbai who keenly await the end-user deal to break into weapons production in collaboration with the US military-industrial complex. No doubt, Washington knows a thing or two about how India's political economy works.
Last but not least, the US can always count on the umbilical cords of social kinship that tie Delhi elites to the Indian diaspora in North America. Thus, the saga of the US-Indian relationship remains seamless. Differences over climate change or the Doha round are transient. Obama should know the US is irreplaceable as 21st-century India's number one strategic partner.
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.