The Obama administration fumbles relations with India
May 10, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 32 • By DANIEL TWINING
In 1998, President Bill Clinton flew over Japan without stopping on his way to spend nine days in China. This led to acute concern in Tokyo over “Japan passing”—the belief that Washington was neglecting a key Asian ally in favor of the region’s rising star, China. Twelve years later, Indians worry that the same thing may be happening to them, despite the transformation in U.S. relations symbolized by the 2008 nuclear deal.
A decade ago, new hopes for the relationship were embodied by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s declaration that India and America were “natural allies”—a formulation embraced by President Clinton in 2000 when he became the first American head of state to visit India since Jimmy Carter. President George W. Bush assumed office with a view of India as a future world power, a frontline Asian balancer, and a pluralistic democracy with which America should naturally cooperate in world affairs. But New Delhi’s exclusion from an international nuclear order constructed by Washington and its allies stood in the way of normal relations.
Hence the Bush administration’s revolutionary campaign starting in 2005 to integrate India into the global nuclear club. India proved itself worthy of this sea change in its relations with America and the world. To overcome parliamentary opposition to the nuclear deal, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh submitted his government to a high-stakes confidence vote—the first time an Indian government had put its survival on the line over a question of foreign policy, no less one involving strategic partnership with India’s longtime nemesis, the United States.
By enacting the nuclear deal, Singh argued, India would finally assume its seat at the top table of world politics—with American sponsorship. Nuclear cooperation opened vast new areas for collaboration between India and the United States in defense, civilian space, high-tech trade, and other areas. This was the transformational legacy that President Bush, with strong bipartisan support, bequeathed to President Obama.
But signs of trouble in U.S.-India relations emerged early on Barack Obama’s road to the White House. As a senator, he offered a killer amendment to restrict nuclear fuel supply to India during consideration of the civilian-nuclear agreement, which India’s friends in Congress had to work hard to defeat. During the campaign, Obama toyed with appointing Bill Clinton as special envoy for Kashmir—alarming Indians in the way that Americans might be alarmed if the European Union offered to send a former head of state to mediate between Mexico and the United States over the status of Texas. Following Obama’s election, Indian officials lobbied hard to exclude India from Richard Holbrooke’s Afghanistan-Pakistan portfolio, anticipating inevitable U.S. pressure on India to make concessions to Pakistan—even as elements of Islamabad’s security apparatus were deemed complicit in the November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai.
Obama had also pledged, if elected, to push for U.S. ratification and global entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. This issue divided Washington and New Delhi in the 1990s, especially when the United States and China ganged up on India at the United Nations to press it to accept a test ban that would guarantee its permanent inferiority to its larger neighbor. India’s worries were intensified when the Obama administration excluded India from its inaugural list of foreign policy partners and priorities, despite references to six other Asian powers. Indian diplomats were dumbfounded when Prime Minister Singh was not among the first two-dozen world leaders to receive an introductory phone call from President Obama. India did not feature in the inaugural trips to Asia by either President Obama or Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
In the ancien régime, President Bush himself was sometimes called the desk officer for India, which gave an array of senior officials good reason to prioritize the relationship. Today, no senior official holds a particular brief for India; Secretary Clinton’s clear affinity for the country and strong political support from Indian Americans have not been matched by a strategic vision for upgraded relations. At the National Security Council, a China hand oversees all Asia relations; at the State Department, the ranking South Asia official is a former U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka. Indian elites recall the days when their country was at the top of Washington’s agenda with the lament, “We miss Bush.”
China’s elevation over India in Washington’s hierarchy of foreign policy priorities ignores the advantages to American interests that would accrue from India’s success. For one, India puts the lie to the myth that China’s model of directed authoritarian development is the wave of the future. This year, India’s economy is projected to grow about as fast as China’s, and its trend rate of economic growth is expected to surpass that of its Asian neighbor over the coming decade. Moreover, domestic consumption comprises two-thirds of India’s GDP but well under half of China’s, giving India a more sustainable, less export-dependent economic foundation for growth.
In two decades, India’s population—70 percent of which is under age 35—will surpass China’s to make it the world’s most populous country. Its rapidly expanding middle class—currently the size of the entire U.S. population—should constitute 60 percent of its 1.3 billion-plus people by 2020. While India’s 400 million-strong labor force today is only half that of China, by 2025 those figures will reverse as China’s aging population “falls off a demographic cliff,” in the words of Nicholas Eberstadt, with dramatic implications for India’s economic trajectory.
The character of a country’s foreign policy cannot be separated from the nature of its internal rule. As one Asian statesman has asked, why does no one in Asia fear India’s rise even as they quietly shudder at the prospect of a future Chinese superpower? The United States has an enormous stake in the emergence of a rich, confident, democratic India that shares American ambitions to manage Chinese power, protect Indian Ocean sea lanes, safeguard an open international economy, stabilize a volatile region encompassing the heartland of jihadist extremism in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and constructively manage challenges of proliferation, climate change, and other global issues.
India is the kind of revisionist power with an exceptional self-regard that America was over a century ago. America’s rise to world power in the 19th and 20th centuries is, in some respects, a model for India’s own ambitions, partly because both define their exceptionalism with reference to their open societies. As analyst Pratap Bhanu Mehta puts it, Indians have “great admiration for U.S. power” and want their country to “replicate” rather than oppose it. How many other countries—including America’s closest allies—share these sentiments? It is therefore past time to put to bed the myth that America somehow has more in common with China, or needs Beijing’s interest-based cooperation more than New Delhi’s on issues as diverse as Afghanistan and Pakistan, terrorism, the international economy, and nonproliferation.
Despite the many affinities between the United States and India, the Obama administration risks putting India back into its subcontinental box, treating it as little more than a regional power, while it elevates China, through both rhetoric and policy, to the level of a global superpower on par with the United States. President Obama’s early flirtation with a Sino-American “G2” condominium raised alarm bells from Brussels to Bangalore. More recently, Indian officials were astonished and outraged when President Obama and Chinese president Hu Jintao, at their November 2009 Beijing summit, issued a joint statement encouraging China to lend its good offices to resolve conflicts in South Asia. For Indians, China’s growing footprint in their neighborhood is a problem, not a solution.
China has armed Pakistan with nuclear weapons and advanced ballistic missile technology, neutralizing India’s conventional superiority over a neighbor with which it has fought four wars. The top recipients of Chinese military aid are all India’s immediate neighbors in South Asia. China has built strong military-to-military ties with Burma, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka as part of what Indians see as a strategy to tie India down, Gulliver-like, in its region. China is developing a range of deep-water ports in the Bay of Bengal, the Arabian Sea, and Indian Ocean islands like Sri Lanka and the Seychelles, portending the projection of blue-water naval power in what India considers its home seas. Despite resolving land border disputes with its other neighbors, China has taken the opposite tack with India, pressing its claims to vast tracts of Indian territory through strident rhetoric, punitive administrative measures in institutions like the Asian Development Bank, and localized military skirmishes.
One explanation for the Obama administration’s missteps on India is that the president and his senior officials do not have a strategic vision of India’s geopolitical importance within the wider Asian balance of power. This is ironic, because leaders in India, China, and Japan clearly do. Indian strategist C. Raja Mohan insists that India “will never play second fiddle to the Chinese” and has “always balanced China.” Indian diplomat Venu Rajamony, explaining why China’s leaders began taking India seriously as a great power, attributes it to the Bush administration’s “doing a China on China”—forging a breakthrough strategic partnership with India that shifted the international balance of power in the mid-2000s, just as the U.S. opening to China in the 1970s tilted the global balance against the Soviet Union.
For their part, Chinese observers complained in the state-run media that India went “from a potential partner of China and Russia to an ‘ideal ally’ for the United States in its containment of China.” One Chinese newspaper editorialized that “the United States and India joined hands to contend with China” because “only India can rival China economically and politically in Asia.” Japanese leaders have identified strategic partnership with India as essential to maintaining regional equilibrium as China rises. In the long term, says a senior Japanese diplomat, “India is the key counterweight to China in Asia.”
For President Bush, strong Indo-U.S. relations were central to sustaining what the 2002 National Security Strategy called “a balance of power that favors freedom.” Bush administration officials believed Washington’s strategic investment in India was essential to shape not only a balance of material power but an ideational balance conducive to the values of open societies. “By reaching out to India,” declared Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns in 2007, “we have made the bet that the planet’s future lies in pluralism, democracy, and market economics rather than in intolerance, despotism, and state planning” of the kind that characterizes China. Because of these natural affinities, even a strong India, writes the dean of Indian strategists, K. Subrahmanyam, would “prefer a preeminent United States to a preeminent China.”
President Obama’s India policy, however, has not been rooted in either a geopolitical or values-based calculus. Instead, his administration until recently has pursued a China-centric Asia policy grounded in the belief that cooperation between Washington and Beijing is essential to delivering solutions to the big global challenges—and, implicitly, that intensified strategic relations between Washington and New Delhi risk undermining an American policy of “strategic reassurance” toward China.
“Strategic reassurance” hasn’t worked out. Sino-American relations have deteriorated dramatically over the past year, and China now has become President Obama’s biggest great-power headache. Beijing almost daily tests the limits of American patience on matters from trade to currency to human rights to Internet freedoms to Iran sanctions to Taiwan arms sales. In light of this troubling turn in Sino-U.S. relations, President Obama reportedly came to a certain meeting of minds with Prime Minister Singh, in a one-on-one Oval Office conversation last November, about the dangers an overweening China posed to both Indian and American interests in Asia. Yet even if their threat perceptions are once again converging, Indo-U.S. relations still lack an overarching strategic vision and a senior U.S. government champion. The relationship remains buffeted not only by America’s continued focus on solving the Chinese puzzle, but also by the calculations of U.S. officials determined, with Pakistan’s help, to wind down the war in Afghanistan.
The Obama administration is right to frame the challenges of Pakistan and Afghanistan in their regional context. But India can be part of the solution rather than part of the problem, as administration officials sometimes imply. New Delhi has enormous equities in the construction of a democratic state in Afghanistan. As one of Afghanistan’s largest bilateral donors, it is building infrastructure, training Afghan civil servants, and constructing schools and health clinics. For its efforts, India has suffered repeated terrorist attacks against its embassy in Kabul and Indian workers around the country—attesting to how important its support for building the new Afghanistan is perceived to be by the enemies of that project. New Delhi has long wanted to do more in Afghanistan, including training security forces, but Washington’s Pakistan-centric bureaucracy remains resistant.
For their part, Indian officials are aghast that Washington might willingly pursue a strategy of reconciliation with the Taliban that, rather than ensuring its decisive defeat, instead brings it into government from a position of strength. Many Indian elites have concluded that the United States has shifted from a victory strategy in Afghanistan to an exit strategy—and that India should think twice in the future before trusting Washington to meet shared security objectives.
Perversely, New Delhi is in some respects a truer proponent of America’s original objectives in Afghanistan—the Taliban’s decisive defeat and the construction of a capable Afghan democracy—than some American leaders are now. Afghanistan is in India’s backyard. Indian strategists fear the Taliban’s ascendancy in Afghanistan could embolden violent extremists next door in ways that induce Pakistan’s “Lebanonization,” with the Pakistani Taliban and associated terrorist groups becoming a kind of South Asian Hezbollah that launches waves of attacks against India. India cannot rise to be an Asian balancer, global security provider, and engine of the world economy if it is mired in proxy conflict with terrorists emanating from a weak, nuclear-armed state on its border.
America is now looking to the Taliban’s original sponsor to help deliver a settlement to the Afghan conflict that allows U.S. forces to come home. This puts Rawalpindi, headquarters of Pakistan’s military-intelligence complex, in pole position and gives Pakistan further leverage against the United States to pressure New Delhi on Indo-Pakistan issues. Aside from the risks such Pakistani influence poses to Afghanistan’s future, its growing influence with Washington on the Afghan endgame raises dangers for the long-term health of Indo-U.S. relations.
The Bush administration’s de-hyphenation of India and Pakistan policy after decades of Pakistan-centricity created a range of new strategic possibilities—including the most substantial progress ever made between India and Pakistan in back-channel negotiations on Kashmir. De-hyphenation allowed the United States to improve relations with both Islamabad and New Delhi rather than treating them in zero-sum terms. Indian trust that Washington won’t favor Pakistan’s revisionist agenda in both Afghanistan and Kashmir—and that America has a stake in India’s democratic security against terrorism emanating from Pakistan—would do more to promote the normalization of Indo-Pakistani relations than putting pressure on India in ways that rekindle old sentiments about a U.S. approach that seeks not to strengthen India but, rather, to keep it down.
Today, victory in Afghanistan is essential, as are strengthening civic institutions and security in Pakistan. But democratic India is the region’s big strategic prize. India can be an essential partner for the United States in promoting a more peaceful, prosperous, and liberal world. But an untended relationship could degenerate in a way that recalls the troubled past—at a time when India’s region, wider Asia, and the international economic and political order are growing less stable in ways that threaten both countries’ core interests. “Given all the authoritarian regimes, terrorism, and the tenuous economic recovery in Asia,” asks Indian-American scholar Sumit Ganguly, “can Mr. Obama really allow U.S.-India relations to backslide into the mutual neglect last seen during the Cold War? We may be about to find out.”
Indian environment minister Jairam Ramesh has framed India’s foreign policy debate in terms of the tension between the country’s “G20 identity” as a partner of the West and its “G77 identity” as part of a bloc of developing nations that define their interests in opposition to the West. Until recently, intensive American engagement had a gravitational effect that pulled India into closer alliance. But left to its own devices, India could rekindle alliances that move it in the other direction. India will make its own strategic choices, but they will be critically shaped by the nature of American engagement.
The United States has a deep interest in India’s success as a democratic superpower—one that can shape a non-Western modernity that is inherently peaceful, pluralistic, prosperous, and attractive to the wider world. The affinities between the United States and India are striking. Both countries are threatened by terrorism, state weakness in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the rise of China, and economic protectionism. Both countries want to live in a world safe for the values and interests of open societies. Indian Americans are this country’s wealthiest immigrant community. Indians outnumber all other foreign students at American universities. India’s enormous middle class embraces an “Indian dream” charmingly similar to the American one. India’s people hold the United States in high regard—in some polls, Indians have a higher opinion of America than do Americans themselves.
But there remains a residue of mistrust from five decades of geopolitical alienation stemming from a Cold War split that put the two countries on opposite sides of the great ideological divide of that era. To prevent a new and unnatural polarization in world affairs between two great democracies that could shape the future of the international system, surely it’s time for President Obama to embrace the bipartisan tradition launched by President Clinton of investing in a potentially transformative relationship with India that could change history.
Daniel Twining, senior fellow for Asia at the German Marshall Fund, previously served as a member of the State Department’s policy planning staff responsible for South Asia.
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