Time for reset of India-U.S. ties

Whichever way one looks at it, there is going to be an indeterminate fatefulness when United States President Barack Obama arrives in India. Not that Mr. Obama is god or that he is an elderly bearded man wrapped in a swirling cloak with the “finger of the paternal right hand” — as in the fourth section of the Michelangelo fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Nor is India Adam waiting to receive the spark of life.

The point is, in comparison with the U.S. Presidents New Delhi has welcomed in a generation or two, Mr. Obama is truly a brilliant intellectual with a view of the world imbued with the struggle of the mankind for survival, dignity and development. Fareed Zakaria tactfully described him as “a kind of practical idealist” who admired George Bush Sr.'s approach to ending the Cold War in an apparently cooperative way, with an emphasis on productive, constructive relations with the world powers. Mr. Obama is also someone instinctively wary of ideology and shrewd enough to balance the impulse of principle and the realities of politics — a master of the rhetoric of common ground.

The Indian strategic community did not seem to have got him right when it anticipated him as a crusader of “Asian democracy” — a code word for “containment” of China. Do not look beyond the joint statement issued after the third session of the U.S.-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue that concluded in Washington recently. It speaks of a “strategic, comprehensive and long-term partnership” between the two countries based on “shared values, mutual respect, and mutual interests.” We may expect similar rhetoric on India, too.

Passionate moralism has never been a trait of Mr. Obama's political personality and the Indian establishment has done well to leave the rhetoric of his visit almost entirely to the able hands of American officials and instead concentrate on the hardball — “real politics,” as a top Indian policymaker candidly put it. Having said that, Mr. Obama is also a man of infinite charm with a rare capacity for cheerful impersonal friendliness who, with his gargantuan self-confidence bordering almost on hauteur, can very gracefully stoop to conquer to ease jealousies or form alliances.

One thing is absolutely certain. As the dusk gently descends on Delhi in the balmy autumn evening of November 8, Mr. Obama is destined to deliver a great speech in the hallowed Central Hall of Parliament.

Indeed, Mr. Obama's visit is going to be a fateful happening in the region's tangled history and politics. So much has changed since a U.S. President last visited India in 2005. The geopolitics of the region has changed and alongside, inevitably, the U.S.-Pakistan pivotal cooperation in the Afghan endgame has crystallised, the world has changed, India has changed, and indeed the trajectory of the U.S. and India's expectations and aspirations has hugely transformed. Situating the U.S.-India relationship against this complex backdrop truly demands a “reset.” Except in a dogmatic way, it is not possible to see the future of the relationship as turning, and turning in a widening gyre of alliance equation. Perhaps, there never was such an equation. There is indeed a disconnect between our pundits and policymakers here. The Indian leadership seems willing to apply new thinking. Will our pundits be capable of appreciating that the U.S. has specific regional and global interests and its partnership can be selective?

First and foremost, India's regional environment. National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon's keynote address — in the August presence of Rashtrapathiji — at the 75th jubilee of the National Defence College underscored that a lot of creative thinking is going on to structure a forward-looking strategic vision that can help India navigate the highly volatile regional and international situation. The global vision based on the “balance of power,” which our pundits merrily espoused for a decade, has been exposed as naivety. India does not foresee the prospect of the major powers using force in their dealings with each other. This, in turn, makes the emergence of a direct conflict betwixt them or involving any of them with India highly improbable, no matter the existing discords, disputes or differences. Again, a nuclear war or confrontation between nuclear powers is not as likely, as threats which are derivatives of nuclear deterrence such as terrorism strain the very fabric of a country like India, which is secular, plural, and democratic.

In sum, Mr. Obama's visit has triggered an extraordinarily creative period in the Indian strategic thinking. How do we bring all these strands of new thinking together? Evidently, as Mr. Menon brilliantly summed up: “The challenges of a globalised world cannot be handled by twentieth century military alliances or containment strategies.”

Hasn't something fundamentally changed in the world order since the international financial crisis erupted? The emerging powers have shown unexpected resilience to pull through the crisis while the industrial world continues to languish. China and India in particular are cruising forward at great speed and are becoming evermore innovative. A transfer of wealth of historic proportions may be under way. As Paul Krguman wrote recently, this has engendered claims that the payback time is approaching for the emerging powers to transfer some of their new wealth to the ailing U.S. economy. China already figures in the U.S. cross hairs and India needs to carefully figure out when its turn might come. There is a lot of churning going on at the moment, as the meeting of the G-20 Finance Ministers in the South Korean city of Gyeongju underscored. The U.S. displayed its determination to push for “fair” exchange rate rules and for setting numerical targets for trade balance, while India and China promptly rebuffed the move. The paradox is that whereas the G-20 has emerged as the most important forum for global economic policymaking since the financial crisis, it is increasingly finding it difficult to agree on anything but the broadest brushstrokes.

The Indian strategic analysts who visualise an alliance of Asian democracies or conjecture a U.S.-India axis patrolling the “global commons” are not seeing the writing on the wall — that the number one priority for a highly focussed leader like Mr. Obama is going to be global issues such as trade balance and exchange rates, and climate change, which are of immense concern to his agenda of regenerating the ailing American economy. Mr. Obama would like to know how India sees its interests and explore if tangible benefits can be derived to generate new jobs in America. He can anticipate that the Seoul heads of government meeting in November may turn out to be a damage limitation exercise rather than a leap forward toward a monumental agreement on rebalancing the global economy. In short, trust an extraordinary cerebral mind like Mr. Obama's to be able to comprehend the meaning of India's rise. That he empathises with India is not in doubt, but these are hard times.

The lobby of American arms manufacturers played up China's growing diplomatic and military clout and the angst of our pundits poured out on newspaper columns. But let us hear first how the U.S. proposes to deal with China's rise. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said last week: “The relationship between China and the U.S. is complex and of enormous consequence, and we are committed to getting it right … In the 21st century, it is not in anyone's interest for the U.S. and China to see each other as adversaries. So, we are working together to chart a positive, cooperative, and comprehensive relationship for this new century … And we do look forward to closely working with China, both bilaterally and through key institutions as it takes on a greater role and, at the same time, takes on more responsibility in global and international affairs.”

She highlighted, “We will welcome President Hu Jintao to Washington in early 2011 ... The United States is committed to making this visit a historic success.” Our pundits should do some honest introspection. Surely, there's some political symbolism in that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh scheduled four meetings with the Chinese leadership in the weeks straddling Mr. Obama's visit — “stop in India” during his “major trip to Asia,” as Ms Clinton quaintly put it.

Similarly, it has been crystal clear that the U.S. is involved in a clausewitzean war in Afghanistan. The David Headley saga is a stunning reminder that realpolitik can trump soap operas of the “concert of democracies.” Alas, our discourses are again missing the plot to imagine that our discord with Washington is merely a question concerning the Taliban or the Haqqani network. It's much more profound and it is long-term. Pakistan will be a pivotal relationship for the U.S. in the “new great game” once Gwadar shapes up as the port head of the Silk Road (protected by NATO), unlocking the multitrillion dollar mineral wealth of Central Asia and Afghanistan. A reset of India-U.S. ties has become necessary for deepening the partnership despite such glaring differences.

(The writer is a former diplomat.)

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