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Altered Fundamentals

Despite honour of the first state visit, India is peripheral to the US strategy, as demonstrated by the recent U.S.-China Joint Statement that has only accentuated Indian anxieties

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Altered Fundamentals
Altered Fundamentals

India’s Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, will return to the White House on November 24, 2009, for the first state visit of the Obama administration. That fact itself is newsworthy. Both Washington and New Delhi will portray this event as evidence of the mutual commitment to sustaining the bilateral partnership that was transformed by President George W. Bush’s civilian nuclear agreement. The Obama team will go to great lengths to emphasize that Democrats too view India as an important country. Accordingly, it will match, if not exceed, in exquisite detail all the courtesies previously shown to Singh during his July 2005 visit to Washington.

But symbols alone will not be the hallmark of this occasion. Ever since Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited India earlier this year, both countries have been fleshing out their five-pillared strategic dialogue: Expect, therefore, to find announcements about diverse new initiatives in such areas as agriculture, climate change, counterterrorism, economic cooperation, education, energy, public health, space, trade, and the like; if both sides are lucky, they might even be able to complete their negotiations over reprocessing U.S.-origin nuclear materials in time for the summit. These achievements have not come easily. The Obama administration is consumed by the domestic challenges of overcoming the economic crisis and managing healthcare reform while simultaneously addressing tricky foreign policy issues such as the war in Afghanistan, Iran’s nuclear program, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and reengaging Russia and China.

In these matters, India is viewed by the White House as mostly peripheral: important in itself no doubt, but no longer a pressing geopolitical priority. The decision to exclude mentioning India in Obama’s recent Tokyo speech, where he articulated his vision for Asia, confirms this point. Thus although both countries are comfortable conceiving their ties as a “global partnership,” there is an important difference in what both believe is necessary to maintain global order.

During the Bush administration, however, American and Indian perceptions were convergent on this score. Although the United States and India disagreed about much in the realms of, for example, multilateral trade expansion, democracy promotion, and the value of international institutions, these often profound differences were mitigated by their common strategic conviction that preserving the balance of power in Asia was indispensible to maintaining a stable international order.

While the global partnership between Washington and New Delhi during the Bush years was premised on such convergence, the Singh government now has to confront the reality of altered preferences pertaining to high politics in Washington. If speeches by various administration officials are any indication, the Obama administration has given notice that it has a very different view of the international system and, by implication, different priorities. Starting, for instance, from an assumption that the principal instrument for securing American interests globally is not the balance of power, but rather amorphous versions of cooperative security, Obama’s vision leaves New Delhi somewhat adrift.

Recognizing that the success of cooperative security ultimately depends on the presence of an underlying harmony of interests, India fears that the president’s approach will ultimately fail because of the deep rivalries between many Asian states. If peace and security are to be preserved in such an environment, power will continue to remain central, and only robust American power, supplemented by strong local partnerships, will be effective. Consequently, Indian policymakers have sought to emphasize the need for the United States to regain and reassert its strength along multiple dimensions, while simultaneously committing to empowering its friends and allies both symbolically and materially. Where New Delhi is concerned, this implies various things ranging from supporting India’s candidacy for permanent membership in the UN Security Council to increasing India’s access to advanced civilian and military technologies. Absent such efforts, collective security will not only prove to be a mirage, but it could also undermine Indian wellbeing, and with it the US-Indian global partnership desired by both sides.

It is unclear today whether the Obama administration appreciates these concerns. Its efforts to develop a “strategic partnership” with Beijing, which remains a geopolitical competitor of both the United States and India, raise unsettling questions about the president’s vision of global order. Many of these uncertainties would be easy to brush aside were it not for the rising Indian fears that the administration’s conception of cooperative security disguises what may become an evolving Sino-American condominium that places New Delhi at a deep disadvantage. The recent claim in the U.S.-China Joint Statement that both countries “support the improvement and growth of relations between India and Pakistan” only accentuates Indian anxieties since India has long opposed third-party intervention in the India-Pakistan dialogue. When supplemented by the myriad challenges of cooperation in such areas as climate change and trade and investment, the net effect has been to elevate mutual disagreements and bring them to the center of bilateral interactions—now without the cushion previously provided by the strong convergence on matters of geopolitics and national security. Both Obama and Singh, therefore, will have to make considerable efforts to sustain this partnership as it evolves in the face of altered fundamentals.

This reality often evokes counsels of despair among many in Washington and New Delhi. However justified these may be, there are still three reasons for hope. First, there is undoubtedly a convergence between U.S. and Indian interests on the central problem of international politics today: preserving a systemic balance of power that favors freedom. Even if the Obama administration presently chooses to disregard, or underplay, the necessity for preserving this balance, international political competition ensures that the demands of balancing will never permanently forsake the United States.

Second, both countries can still cooperate on many issues of high politics, even if the current administration appears disdainful about geopolitical balancing. Defeating terrorism and stabilizing Pakistan, arresting further proliferation, preserving security in the global commons, and, above all, aiding the United States in Afghanistan, offer opportunities for sustaining the bilateral partnership. And because India’s interests are at particular stake here, especially in Afghanistan, Prime Minister Singh ought to propose a bold, enlarged contribution to this war-torn country consistent with the priorities already agreed to with Washington.

Third, the gains from cooperation in areas of low politics should not be scoffed at because they promise to make a real difference to the lives of millions of ordinary Americans and Indians. Although likely to be spearheaded by the private sector in both countries, these activities still require assistance from both governments. To the degree that cooperation can occur in the areas of agriculture, education, energy, healthcare, science and technology, and women’s empowerment, they will contribute to strengthening the US and the Indian economies and, by implication, their national power.

Manmohan Singh’s visit to Washington, then, comes at the right time to insure against despondency. The bilateral discussions with Obama will provide him the opportunity to stress the geopolitical imperatives that brought both countries together, but equally importantly to warn of the dangers to Asian stability that could arise from American neglect of its friends and allies. In the end, both parties need to cooperate as meaningfully as possible until Washington wakes up from its present reverie, to rediscover the importance of preserving the balance of power in international politics.

Ashley J. Tellis is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the author of  Reconciling with the Taliban? Toward an Alternative Grand Strategy in Afghanistan. Rights:  Copyright © 2009 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization. YaleGlobal Online

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