The U.S. is walking the walk

PERCEPTION: U.S. President Barack Obama's 'underwhelming performance in East Asia risks overshadowing his more commendable performance in South Asia'. Here he is addressing Parliament in New Delhi on November 8, 2010. (From left). Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Vice-President and Chairman of the Rajya Sabha Mohammad Hamid Ansari, and Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar.   | Photo Credit: JIM WATSON

President Barack Obama's 10-day tour through Asia is being deemed a disappointment in some Washington circles after the President failed to secure a free trade with South Korea, or forge a consensus on issues of currency manipulation and trade imbalances. However, the President's underwhelming performance in East Asia risks overshadowing his more commendable performance in South Asia, where President Obama announced that America now supports a permanent seat for India at the United Nations Security Council. The policy change was warmly received in New Delhi, where politicians have been lobbying the U.S. for such an endorsement for years (not even the Indophile Bush administration was willing to offer one). And while there is little likelihood that India's Security Council aspirations will be fulfilled anytime soon, President Obama's announcement at least temporarily silenced critics who had begun to question the President's commitment to the U.S.-India partnership.

UNSC seat

The announcement is not without controversy. Pakistan, as expected, has condemned the decision. The Chinese are, at best, unenthusiastic. The logistical and diplomatic hurdles are the most imposing, however. The notion of expanding the Security Council at all is deeply contentious. Passing the necessary U.N. Charter Amendment, which requires two-thirds support in the General Assembly, will be a daunting challenge. Any of the five permanent veto-wielding members, with little incentive to dilute their privileged status, can nix a reform proposal with one vote. While the U.S. has also supported a permanent seat for Japan, there is no consensus in Washington or New York on who else deserves a seat at the U.N.'s pre-eminent decision-making body. Basic questions such as how many new seats will be made available and whether or not new members will receive veto power are still being pondered.

Moreover, China could well veto an Indian bid if it ever came to a vote (Russia, Britain, and France, the other three veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council, have endorsed an Indian seat). India and China enjoy cordial diplomatic ties but relations on the ground are characterised by deep mistrust. Disputes over Kashmir, contested border areas, cyber-espionage, and China's growing presence in the Indian Ocean have bubbled to the surface in the past two years.

Cold War politics

There are opponents in Washington as well, despite the fact that congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle swiftly backed the President's announcement. Sceptics point to a 60-year record of U.S.-Indian disagreements on contentious global issues. Indeed, the respective voting records of Washington and New Delhi at the U.N. General Assembly and the Security Council (where India periodically appears as a rotating member) do not compare favourably.

However, many of these disagreements were formed in the morass of Cold War politics. In most cases, gaps in the two countries' positions have narrowed, although they maintain independent priorities on issues such as global trade, non-proliferation, Iran, and Myanmar. Yet, without veto power, the U.S. has little to fear from an Indian seat on the Council. Even if they do disagree frequently, it is exceedingly rare that Security Council votes are decided by split decision. (The closest vote in the past five years — 10 approved, five abstained — came in 2007 to establish a tribunal over the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in Lebanon.) Thus, the U.S. has little to lose from endorsing a Security Council seat for India, and much political capital to gain in New Delhi.

The President sweetened the deal by announcing that two of India's massive State-owned military and research firms, the Indian Space and Research Organisation (ISRO) and the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), would be removed from a U.S. sanctions list, opening the door for trade in dual-use and strategically sensitive materials. Additionally, Mr. Obama, who far exceeded the modest expectations set for his trip, sealed roughly $10 billion in military deals negotiated in advance, and announced America's intention to support India's membership in four global non-proliferation clubs: the Nuclear Suppliers Group, Australia Group, Missile Technology Control Regime and Wassenaar Arrangement. Finally, President Obama made the symbolically important move of inviting India “to not only ‘look East,' [but] to ‘engage East'.” The statement was compensation to Indians who were perturbed by the Obama invitation last year to China to play a greater role in South Asia.

What India feels

India's population is steadfastly pro-American and, with few exceptions, its mainstream political parties all support stronger U.S.-Indian ties. Yet, bilateral relations over the past decade have largely been a story of Washington courting New Delhi. The U.S. had an obligation to dispel Indian doubts about America's reliability and utility as a partner, given their troubled history. However, the U.S. is walking the walk. On his trip, President Obama stated “the United States not only welcomes India as a rising global power, we fervently support it” and those words have been backed by nearly a decade of U.S. foreign policy.

How should New Delhi reciprocate? Most importantly, India must move to fulfil its end of the U.S.-India nuclear deal. While the U.S. did most of the heavy lifting on that agreement, its economic and geo-political benefits fall largely to India. Yet New Delhi recently passed nuclear liability legislation that included a poison pill making it impossible for U.S. and other international companies to do nuclear business in India. Even India's own nuclear industry admits New Delhi must find a way to amend, rewrite, or re-interpret this legislation.

Diplomatic role

In the diplomatic arena, Washington would like to see India play a more constructive role in multilateral efforts to sanction Iran over its nuclear programme. Technically, India has been compliant but it has been a hesitant partner in the sanctions process. In January, 2011 India will assume a rotating seat on the Security Council for a two-year temporary term, where Iran will be a frequent topic of discussion and where India can showcase its role as a responsible global power. Elsewhere, the U.S. has encouraged India lift barriers to trade and restrictions on foreign investment such as onerous offset criteria. Washington also has been urging India to sign several defence cooperation and logistics agreements with the U.S. and to consider joining a handful of international non-proliferation treaties.

American can do more too. An onerous hike (700 per cent) in the fee for H1-B visas disproportionately affects Indian workers in the U.S., who now constitute the most affluent expatriate community in the country. New Delhi understandably saw that as a protectionist snub. Washington can also work to dispel Indian doubts about its policy in Afghanistan. India has a great stake in the country's stability and fears the potential aftermath of a precipitous U.S. withdrawal. As for U.S. policy in Pakistan, fundamental changes are in America's own interest let alone India's, but for a myriad of reasons its options are severely limited until the campaign in Afghanistan winds down.

In other words, both sides have work to do. President Obama's trip successfully affirmed his commitment to move the U.S.-India relationship forward. The ball is now in New Delhi's court.

( Jeff M. Smith is the Kraemer Strategy Fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, a think tank based in Washington, DC.)

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