Obama’s Visit To India


Obama’s Visit To India

Jay Shah


jayshahU.S. President Barack Obama begins a four-day visit to India today (on Nov. 6), heading a 375-member entourage of security personnel, policymakers, business leaders and journalists to demonstrate to the world that the U.S.-Indian relationship is serious and growing.

Obama will begin his visit in the financial hub of Mumbai, where he will make a symbolic show of solidarity with India on the counterterrorism front by staying at the Taj Mahal Palace hotel, which came under attack in 2008, and highlight corporate compatibility between the two countries. Obama will spend the rest of the trip in New Delhi, where he will address a joint session of Parliament, a reciprocal gesture following Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s address to Congress in November 2009.



Most Indians and Americans think and hope that Indo-US relations could be much better and closer than what it is now. However, regardless of what one may want the relations to be like, the geopolitical needs of both the countries are different and there are and will be numerous issues on which India and America will have to agree to disagree on. How did the biggest and largest democracies of the world drift apart and failed to build close and deep relationship is a matter of historical, political and geopolitical analysis and beyond the scope of current article.



But in spite of that, there is little doubt that the United States and India are sounding a much deeper and strategic relationship, as illustrated by their bilateral civilian nuclear agreement, growing business links, arms deals and a host of military exercises taking place over the next several months. Still, very real and unavoidable constraints on ties remain in place, constraints that will hamper this already uneasy partnership from developing into a robust alliance.

The immediate hindrance lies in the U.S. strategic need to bolster Pakistan to shape a U.S. exit strategy from Afghanistan and try to shore up the balance of power on the subcontinent. In the longer term, however, India could use the threat of Chinese expansion in Beijing’s perceived sphere of influence to enhance its relationship with Washington.

Strategic Motivations


India does not make friends easily (or has failed to recognize and make friends easily), particularly friends with militaries capable of reaching the subcontinent. India grew closer to the Soviets during the Cold War out of fear of the U.S. relationship with Pakistan, but only because Moscow’s military reach into the subcontinent was limited. After the Soviet Union collapsed, India was left without a meaningful ally, all the while becoming deeply resentful of the blind eye Washington turned toward the rise of Pakistan’s Islamist proxies in Kashmir and Afghanistan.



The 9/11 attacks finally created an opportunity for a U.S.-Indian relationship to materialize. Both countries had common cause to cooperate with each other against Pakistan, neutralize the jihadist threat and embark on a real, strategic partnership. For the United States, this was the time to play catch-up in balance-of-power politics in South Asia. The U.S. interest at any given point on the subcontinent is to prevent any one power from becoming strong to the point that it could challenge the United States, while at the same time protecting vital sea lanes running from East Asia to the Persian Gulf via the Indian Ocean basin. The United States has the naval assets to guard these maritime routes directly, but as it extends itself more and more worldwide, its need for regional proxies grows. Though India’s capabilities remain quite limited given its domestic challenge, it is an aspiring naval power with a deep fear of Chinese encroachment and Islamist militancy.


India also has a massive consumer market of 1.2 billion people and has the United States at the top of its list of trading partners. A roughly balanced and diversified relationship exists between the two economies, even as protectionist tendencies run heavily on both sides of the trade divide. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the United States exported $16.4 billion worth of goods and services to India, mostly aircraft, fertilizers, computer hardware, scrap metal and medical equipment, while India exported $21 billion worth of goods and services to the United States, mostly information technology services, pharmaceuticals, textiles, machinery, gems and diamonds, iron and steel products, and food products. India thus makes a strong candidate for a regional U.S. proxy.



But this is where a fundamental U.S.-Indian disconnect arises. India is far from interested in molding itself into a proxy of the global hegemon. India’s self-enclosed geography and internal strengths permit it to remain fiercely independent in its foreign policy calculations, unlike much weaker Pakistan, which needs an external patron to feel secure.

The United States has been caught off guard every time New Delhi takes a stance that runs counter to U.S. interests, something that has happened despite the U.S. charm offensive toward India that revved up in 2005 with a civilian nuclear deal. India has refused to comply with U.S. sanctions on Iran, still has reservations about allowing U.S. firms into the Indian nuclear market after the bilateral nuclear deal, and protests what New Delhi perceives as U.S. interference in the Kashmir dispute. As a former Indian national security adviser put it, India is happy to have its partnership with the United States, but Washington is going to have to get used to hearing “no” from India on numerous issues.



The Pakistan Problem

The much more urgent misalignment of interests hindering the U.S.-India relationship concerns Pakistan and the future of Afghanistan. In 2001, when al Qaeda struck the United States and Pakistan-backed militants attacked the Indian parliament soon after, India sensed an opportunity. The Cold War shackles on ties were broken as the urgency of a broader Islamist militant threat drove New Delhi and Washington together. India hoped the bond would sustain itself, keeping Pakistan isolated over the long term, but it was only a matter of time before U.S. efforts to balance India against Pakistan disappointed New Delhi.


The United States has now reached a saturation point in its war in Afghanistan. While short-term military victories have provided Washington useful political cover as they do in all unpopular wars, they obscure the core disadvantage occupiers face against the insurgents when it comes to on-the-ground intelligence, corruption, population control, and the insurgent luxury of choosing the time and place of battle. Washington is thus shaping an exit strategy from Afghanistan. This necessarily will involve some sort of accommodation with the Taliban that only one power in the region has the relationship to orchestrate: Pakistan.

Pakistan has every interest in having the United States as its patron and keeping it involved in the region, but not to the extent that U.S. military activity in the Pakistani-Afghan borderland risks severely destabilizing the Pakistani state. For its part, the United States does not want India to become the unchallenged hegemon of the subcontinent at the expense of a much weaker Pakistan. This means that in return for Pakistani cooperation in tying up loose ends in the jihadist war, Pakistan will expect the United States to facilitate a restoration of Pakistani influence in Afghanistan. This would extend Pakistan’s strategic depth, stifling any Indian attempt to develop a foothold in the region that could see Pakistan wind up in a pincer grip.



This naturally upsets New Delhi, which maintains that Islamabad will continue to compensate for its military weakness by backing militant proxies to target the Indian state, something Washington is ignoring to achieve its goals in Afghanistan. India sees a Taliban political comeback in Afghanistan as setting the stage for Pakistan-backed militants to regroup. More worryingly for New Delhi, a number of these militants have been drawn into a much more unpredictable, lethal jihadist network that makes it harder for New Delhi to blame Pakistan for terrorist acts in India.



India’s strategic interest calls for taking advantage of Islamabad’s sour relationship with the current Afghan government to build a foothold in Afghanistan with which to create an additional lever against Islamabad along Pakistan’s northwestern rim. India has done so primarily through a number of development projects. Besides being one of the top five bilateral donors to the war-torn country, India has thousands of laborers in Afghanistan building schools, hospitals, roads and power plants. One of the most notable projects India has been involved in is the funding and construction of a 218-kilometer (about 135 miles) highway from Zaranj in Afghanistan’s southwestern Nimroz province to Delaram in Farah province.



Since Afghanistan forms a land bridge between South Asia and Central Asia, where vast amounts of energy and mineral resources are concentrated, India has a deeper interest in developing the necessary transit links to access the Central Asian energy market, which the Chinese already have tapped into extensively. India cannot rely on its Pakistani rival to allow Indian goods to flow overland. Under a current arrangement, Afghan goods to India must pass through Pakistan. But Pakistan does not allow Indian goods to transit Pakistan overland to Afghan markets. Instead, India relies on its favorable trading terms with Iran to transport Indian goods via the Iranian port of Chabahar to Afghanistan and on to Central Asia. In creating transit infrastructure in Afghanistan, like the Zaranj-Delaram highway, and between Afghanistan and Iran, India is developing alternative trade routes in the region that will allow it to bypass Pakistan.



The Question of Indian Troops for Afghanistan

Whether India should elevate its support for Afghanistan, to include deploying Indian forces to the country, has been the subject of quiet debate among Indian defense circles. The public rationale given for such a plan is that insurgents have targeted Indian laborers involved in reconstruction projects in Afghanistan, and that the small contingent of Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) in Afghanistan has proven insufficient to protect the laborers. In addition to regular attacks on Indian construction crews, the 2008 and 2009 bombings on the Indian Embassy in Kabul highlighted the threat that Pakistan could use its militant connections in Afghanistan to try and drive India out of the country.



Those arguing for an Indian military deployment to Afghanistan believe that placing Indian troops in the country would sufficiently alarm Pakistan to divert forces from its east, where Pakistani forces are concentrated in Punjab along the Indo-Pakistani border, to its northwestern border with Afghanistan. This (they hope) would shift some of the focus of Pakistani-Indian conflict away from Kashmir and the Indian homeland. Those calling for Indian troops are making a dangerous assumption, however, that the United States will remain in Afghanistan for the long haul and will be there to contain attempts by Pakistan to act against Indian military overland expansion in the region.



There are a number of reasons why this troop scenario is unlikely to play out. The most obvious constraint is the enormous logistical difficulty India would have in supplying troops in Afghanistan. If India cannot convince Pakistan to allow overland trade to Afghanistan, it can certainly rule out Pakistan agreeing to an Indian military supply line to Afghanistan. India is also extremely risk-averse when it comes to military deployments beyond its borders. It already is struggling with a counterinsurgency campaign in Kashmir and in Naxalite territory along the country’s eastern belt and remembers the deadly fiasco that followed the Indian deployment of forces to Sri Lanka to counter the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in the late 1980s. And Indian troops in Afghanistan would make prime targets for hardened jihadists receiving support from Pakistan.


At the same time, India is unwilling to bow to Pakistani pressure by downgrading its presence in Afghanistan. An inevitable U.S. drawdown from the region and a Pakistani return to Afghanistan translates into a bigger security threat for India. The more India can dig its heels in Afghanistan, primarily through reconstruction projects, the better the chances it will develop some say in Afghan affairs with which to check Pakistan’s regional ambitions. For its part, Pakistan will continue to demand that the United States use its leverage with New Delhi to minimize the Indian presence in Afghanistan and hand over the task of shaping the future Afghan government to Islamabad.



Though little of this discussion will hit the headlines, the disconnect in U.S.-Indian strategic interests — in which India wants the United States to sustain pressure on Islamabad and serve as a check on Pakistan-backed militancy while Washington needs to bolster Pakistan to withdraw from Afghanistan and maintain some balance in the region between the two nuclear rivals — will put a cloud over Obama’s high-profile visit. India might even have to share the spotlight during Obama’s tour, as rumors are circulating that the U.S. president may make a surprise visit to Afghanistan to show his dedication to the war effort. The U.S. administration has debated whether the president could make such a trip without stopping over in Pakistan to reduce the fallout that could emerge from having Air Force One bypass Pakistan in an Afghan-India trip. The delicate nature of these issues illustrates just how high-maintenance the region is for the United States, and how urgent Washington’s need is to keep relations with Pakistan on steady footing.

Leveraging a Mutual Concern Over China

While Pakistan and Afghanistan are pulling India and the United States apart, China could keep the emerging U.S.-India partnership from derailing. China’s insatiable appetite for resources, heavy reliance on export trade and overarching need to protect those vital commercial supply lines has driven Chinese naval expansion into the Indian Ocean Basin, namely through ports in Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan and overland linkages through Pakistan and Myanmar on India’s flanks. Indian fears of Chinese encirclement have prompted New Delhi to modernize and expand the Indian navy. Just as the United States is interested in bolstering Japan’s naval defenses, Washington (along with Japan) views Indian military expansion in the Indian Ocean as a useful hedge against China.



India has watched with concern as China has become more aggressive in asserting its territorial claims in Arunachal Pradesh and Kashmir and has broached the suspect of more robust military assistance to Pakistan during its present time of need. Moreover, while India’s Nepal policy has largely been on autopilot, China has quietly built up its clout in the small Himalayan kingdom, threatening to undermine New Delhi’s influence in a key buffer state. China also has attempted to create a closer relationship with the junta and ethnic factions in Myanmar, where Beijing seeks oil and natural gas pipelines that will give some of its energy imports an overland route that will allow it to replace the Strait of Malacca.

Meanwhile, the United States is engaged in a standoff with China as it tries to end Beijing’s currency manipulation policies while Beijing is unwilling to comply due to the social and political costs of rapidly reforming its financial system. As bilateral trade tensions continue to simmer, China has sought to take advantage of the U.S. preoccupation with wars in the Islamic world to assert itself in areas of strategic interest, including the South China Sea and East China Sea and in territories it disputes with India. China’s sovereignty claims and military capability in the South China Sea are of particular concern to the United States. This level of assertiveness can be expected to grow as the People’s Liberation Army Navy continues to increase its clout in political affairs, though Beijing knows it must avoid provoking an outright confrontation with the United States.



Though U.S. attention is currently absorbed in trying to work out an understanding with Pakistan on Afghanistan (an understanding that will severely undermine the U.S.-Indian relationship in the near term,) it is only a matter of time before U.S. attention turns back toward countries like China whose interests potentially are on a collision course with U.S. interests. As U.S. attention on China increases, India can highlight its own fears of Chinese expansion in South Asia to bolster the Indian relationship with Washington, especially if China is able to maintain its internal stability long enough to sustain a bold foreign policy.


The China factor could prove particularly useful for New Delhi to voice its concerns over more pressing threats, like Pakistan, as India and the United States attempt to work out the kinks of their bilateral relationship. Ultimately, India and the United States will have to agree to disagree on a number of issues, relying on high-profile state visits to keep up appearances. But a mutual concern over China may help reduce some of the current tensions between New Delhi and Washington over Pakistan in the future.

Posted in: Opinion

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