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Diplomatic Negligence

The Obama administration fumbles relations with India

May 10, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 32 • By DANIEL TWINING
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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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