President Obama’s beleaguered presidency: India policy remains undefined - 1
by Ramtanu Maitra on 03 Nov 2009 1 Comment

For nearly 50 years following World War II, US policy toward India was defined by Washington’s preoccupation with the Cold War.  India as a large sovereign developing nation was not generally recognized except as a subset, if you will, of America’s strategy vis-a-vis the Soviet Union.  The breakup of the Soviet Union and dissolution of the Cold War, coupled with Asia’s economic rise, saw India’s profile emerge on Washington’s strategic radar screen.  And that process has led, in fits and starts, to a very significant strengthening of the Indo-US bilateral relationship over the past decade, in particular.

The George W. Bush administration’s abandonment of the sanctions resulting from India’s nuclear tests in 1974 and 1998 and its negotiation and implementation of the civilian nuclear technology agreement under which India has access to nuclear technology on the world market – despite the fact that it is not a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) – qualitatively transformed the relationship.  Indeed, Washington has come to acknowledge that it has many points of strategic common interest with New Delhi.  The US considers India a strategic partner in the so-called war on terrorism and in the peaceful management of maritime relations in the Indian Ocean region, and the peaceful evolution of modern Asia overall, among other things.  

So although one might have expected that the Barack Obama administration would pursue the process of deepening and strengthening Indo-US ties with even greater vigour; that does not appear to be the case. The administration’s foreign policy focus presently centers on areas of long unresolved and ongoing crisis, in particular the Afghanistan-Pakistan theatre. Where in the past Washington’s India policy was hostage to the overriding Cold War, it now appears to be - at least partially - hostage to the wrenching preoccupation with Afghanistan and Pakistan. In addition to President Obama’s appointment of Richard Holbrooke, who is often identified in the American media as President Obama’s “South Asia envoy,” the Kashmir issue is an important reference point in this regard. Recent developments around this “bellwether issue” remind us that relations between two sovereign nations are necessarily complex and multi-level.

Starting with recent developments on Kashmir issue, then, we present in the following a review of where Indo-US relations stand today. We aim to provide a realistic assessment of US attitude toward India and indicate what may be in store for the relationship under the new US administration.

Kashmir on the Mind

The flap over the Holbrooke appointment is a pointer to the uncertainty and flux surrounding India policy in the Obama administration.  According to a Foreign Policy magazine report in January 2009, a high-level Indian delegation to an off-the-record Aspen [Institute] Strategy Group meeting in Washington, DC, told American foreign policy experts - including three officials who were part of the formal Obama transition team - that India might preemptively make Richard Holbrooke persona non grata if his South Asia envoy mandate officially included India or Kashmir. Some attribute Holbrooke’s official designation as President Obama’s “Af-Pak czar” - meaning he is not in charge of discussing disputed matters, such as Kashmir, with India - to Indian intervention. Whether or not that is true, the intervention clearly was limited in its effect on the Obama administration’s determination/conviction that it must intervene with both India and Pakistan to settle the Kashmir dispute.

President Obama had made clear during his presidential campaign that in his view the region’s security challenges could not be solved without including India, telling Time’s Joe Klein last October that working with Pakistan and India to try to resolve their Kashmir conflict would be a critical task for his administration’s efforts to counter growing instability in Afghanistan and Pakistan. “Kashmir, in particular, is an interesting situation that is obviously a potential tar pit diplomatically,” Obama told Klein. “But, for us to devote serious diplomatic resources to get a special envoy in there, to figure out a plausible approach, and essentially make the argument to the Indians, ‘you guys are on the brink of being an economic superpower, why do you want to keep on messing with this?’  ... I think there is a moment where, potentially, we could get their attention. It won’t be easy, but it’s important.” Obama also suggested in the interview that he had discussed the special envoy idea with former President Bill Clinton.

Soon after Obama took over the White House, the Foreign Policy group’s online magazine, The Cable, reported that New Delhi was deeply concerned about what the Obama administration’s policy would be vis-à-vis Kashmir. “The Indians freaked out at talk of Bill Clinton being an envoy to Kashmir,” said Daniel Markey, a South Asia expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. “The reason they were so worried is they don’t want their activities in Kashmir to be equated with what Pakistan is doing in Afghanistan.”

“They [India] are the big fish [in the region],” Markey added. “They don’t want to be grouped with the ‘problem children’ in the region, on Kashmir, on nuclear issues. They have a fairly effective lobbying machine. They have taken a lot of notes on the Israel model, and they have gotten better. But you don’t want to overstate it. Some of the lobbying effort is obvious, done through companies, but a lot of it is direct government-to-government contact, people talking to each other. The Indian government and those around the Indian government made clear through a variety of channels because of the Clinton rumours and they came out to quickly shoot that down.”

But, argued Philip Zelikow, a former counsellor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in The Cable, “Leaving India out of the title actually opens up [Holbrooke’s] freedom to talk to them.” Zelikow served until December as a consultant for a lobbying firm, BGR, retained by the Indian Government. “I have suggested to others, though not directly to Dick [Holbrooke], that his title should not include India, precisely so that he would be freer to work with them,” Zelikow said. “If you understand Indian politics, this paradox makes sense.” 

“I did nothing for the [Government of India] on this,” Zelikow added. The Indian government “talked directly to folks on the [Obama] transition team and I heard about it from my Indian friends. I think Holbrooke needs to talk to the Indians. But they are trying, understandably, to break out of being in a hyphenated relationship with America.”

(Zelikow, incidentally, may deny that he was involved in the lobbying efforts, but The Cable reports that according to lobbying records filed with the Department of Justice, since 2005 the Government of India has paid BGR about $2.5 million. According to these records, BGR officials who currently work on the Indian account include former Sen. Chuck Hagel’s aide Andrew Parasiliti, former State Department counter-proliferation official Stephen Rademaker, former Bush I and Reagan era White House aide and BGR partner Ed Rogers, and former House Foreign Affairs committee staffer Walker Roberts. Former US Ambassador to India Robert Blackwill, who previously served as a lobbyist for India, left BGR in 2008 for the Rand Corporation. The Indian embassy in Washington also paid lobbying firm Patton Boggs $291,665 under a six-month contract that took effect Aug. 18, 2008, according to the records)

The Palmerston Reflex:  A Legacy of Distrust

The fact is, however, that over the years, India has categorically rejected any effort by any country to internationalize the issue of the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir - and in the process trash the 1972 Shimla agreement between India and Pakistan, which called for bilateral negotiations between India and Pakistan to settle all disputed matters. Considering that all India experts in Washington were aware of this, it is puzzling that presidential candidate Barack Obama, who had a bevy of experts from think tanks educating him on sub-continental issues, could not have been a little more subtle.  

For an explanation of Washington’s insensitivity to India vis-à-vis Kashmir, one might best recall the hard-boiled watchwords of the British Empire’s Lord Palmerston: “Nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests.” Yes, India is surely supportive of the United States in its unfocussed war on terror in Afghanistan. And India is a democratic nation. Yet, despite the assertions of protagonists of a strong US-India relationship in both in the United States and India that the two nations are “natural allies,” it should be evident that American interests in the region, and across the world, will often be distinctively different from Indian interests in the same region, and across the world, and the twain will never merge the way tributaries merge to form a giant river. 

Indeed, last July, London’s Financial Times quoted former US Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns, now associated with Harvard University’s Belfer Center, calling for realism in assessing America’s unfolding relationship with India. “We have got to be very clear-eyed about expectations in this relationship,” said Burns, who helped negotiate the civil nuclear deal between the two countries during the Bush administration. “India is not an ally of the US in the way that Japan is and Germany is, and it is clear that while the two countries have a number of strategic points of connection, there are also significant differences between us,” he continued, highlighting differences over climate change and trade. But, Burns concluded, significantly: “If you look at the history of the 21st century, there will be just a handful of great powers, and India and the US will be among them.”

It is interesting that Burns mentioned Japan and Germany, and not Britain, as the United States’ ideal ally. In reality, however, Washington and London walk in lockstep; Germans follow, but they often hesitate. Washington’s relations with London and Tokyo in particular, and Europe in general, are of absolute interdependence - not simply economic interdependence, but interdependence in every aspect of their worldwide activities. Seldom is a major decision made in Washington without adequate prior interaction with Europe and Japan. What are the implications of this? Well, if India were to allow Washington to become an “honest broker” in the six-decades-old Kashmir dispute, for instance, it would mean that the European nations, particularly the Western European nations, and Japan, could be expected to fall in line behind the United States, publicly endorsing the US position. India’s large trade with Germany, or Britain, or France, would not come in the way for these nations to endorse the US position.

The same holds good in US-India relations when it comes to strategic nuclear-related matters. If in the coming days, the Obama administration were to decide to lower the boom on India, pressuring New Delhi to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), for example, India could not assume it would be able to get any sympathy from the powers-that-be in Europe or Japan for its case. New Delhi, to its chagrin, would find such ears are altogether missing, because “India is not an ally of the US in the way that Japan is and Germany is…” (In reality, of course, even countries not considered “allies” by Washington could be expected to fall in line behind Washington simply because most major nations, and almost all small nations, believe that it is “smarter” to go along and get along with Washington than to buck the United States.)

One may also observe that during the decades of Cold War, Washington simply did not trust India. The United States became very close to Pakistan, who waged three wars against India between 1947 and 1972, and helped set up its military bases ostensibly to prevent the Soviet Union from moving into the Middle East oil fields. Less than a decade after India and China (at the time, identified in Washington as a “bloodthirsty” Communist nation) engaged in military conflict over the boundary issues, briefly supported by Washington, the US went an extra mile to befriend China. That was a perfect Palmerstonian reflex, exploring the “permanent interests” of the United States with China, to the at least temporary detriment of both the Soviet Union and India. With a recent past that reeks of distrust, it is nonetheless the case that the present status of the US-India relations is without doubt a significant advance in that Washington has now come to acknowledge that it has a number of strategic points of common interest with New Delhi.

The Coming Together

With those caveats in mind, we turn to an examination of the material bases for the Indo-US relationship today.  

Following US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to India, among other areas of Asia, last July, Teresita Schaffer of the Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, a well-known India-expert, was asked why the relationship with India is important. Schaffer said that India has the largest navy in the Indian Ocean and the fourth-largest army in the world; in the next few years, India and China will be the major sources of economic growth in the world. This will not only shape the global financial debate; it also makes India a critical market for Americans as they struggle to fix their own economy; and India is a country with nuclear weapons in a troublesome neighborhood. Similarly, several months earlier, in February, Heritage Foundation scholar Lisa Curtis had explained to the US House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia that one of the cornerstones of the US-India partnership is military-to-military ties. Neither Schaffer nor Curtis cited India’s 1.2 billion population, about 20 percent of the world population, or its democratic political system.

Military contacts between the US and India have expanded considerably over the last several years with the resumption of the annual Defense Policy Group meetings beginning in 2001, the signing of a major defense agreement in mid-2005, and collaboration in an extensive number of training exercises. One of the most significant of these exercises was held in September of last year and involved three other nations - Japan, Australia, and Singapore - in the Bay Bengal, Ms. Curtis told American lawmakers. In addition, she pointed out, the US position toward Indian missile development and Washington’s interest in discussing missile defense systems with New Delhi also signifies that mutual confidence is increasing in the relationship. Missile defenses, such as high-powered lasers, limit the potential for regional conflict and serve as a deterrent to enemy threats. They also provide an alternative to massive retaliation in the face of an actual attack. The American record on military laser research and its many cooperative ventures with friendly and allied powers suggests that a joint US-India-directed program is certainly achievable. The shared interests of both nations in promoting security and stability in Asia indicates they have a common cause in developing military technologies that would lessen the potential for conflict, Ms. Curtis asserted.

Curtis also identified some of the “rough edges” that are acting as impediments to an even smoother process of US-India military cooperation. To begin with, the defense trade relationship has been slower to develop; the 2008 sale of six C130-J Hercules military transport aircraft worth $1 billion is the largest US military sale to India ever. She said that Indian defense industrialists and officials have acknowledged that questions about US reliability as a supplier (due to past nuclear sanctions) have dissuaded them from buying American military hardware. The civil nuclear deal pushed through by the Bush administration was aimed at overcoming these suspicions and bringing Washington and New Delhi into closer alignment on nuclear issues. The signing of a 10-year defense framework agreement in 2005 that called for expanded joint military exercises, increased defense-related trade, and establishing a defense and procurement production group, has also helped boost confidence between the two militaries, Ms. Curtis said.

A Key Component: Naval Cooperation

In the specific area of naval cooperation, Washington is decidedly more upbeat. Indo-US naval cooperation has its roots in the Malabar exercises that began in 1992, but were suspended after India tested its nuclear devices for the second time in 1998. The exercises resumed in 2002 with basic re-familiarization drills such as passing manoeuvers and, over the next seven years, Malabar evolved into one of the most sophisticated bilateral military exercises conducted by the US Navy.  

In 2007, the Malabar exercises featured visit, boarding, search and seizure (VBSS) drills, which extended anti-terrorist operations to the nautical arena. Strategically significant as well was the participation of units from Australia, Singapore and Japan, making Malabar a multinational exercise for the first time. Another new feature in 2007 was the training venue: the Bay of Bengal, close to the Malacca Strait and China. Bringing the Malabar exercises closer to Chinese shores did not make Beijing particularly happy, but China did not make much noise. Earlier, however, China had expressed concern when the US, India, Japan and Australia met in May 2007 on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum in Manila to set up a new “quadrilateral” grouping. Beijing issued protest demarches (formal diplomatic communications) to each of the four states.

Although then-Australian Defense Minister Brendan Nelson tried to allay Beijing’s fears, saying there was no quadrilateral security alliance of Australia, the USA, India and Japan in the offing, that did not satisfy Beijing. There is no doubt that China is apprehensive that Washington is fashioning a “China containment” strategy involving India, Japan and Australia. The Bush Administration’s record, and the nature of the Cheney-led cabal in the United States, naturally worried the Chinese. Additionally, what concerns Beijing is the growing military interaction between the US military and that of India. While the naval exercise was one major event, it was evident to China that India is becoming increasingly addicted to the US and Israeli arms and equipment and technologies associated with the exercises. 

In the 2009 Malabar exercise, which was held off the coast of Japan, the Indian Navy, the Japan Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSDF) and the US Navy expanded their maritime partnerships. Historically, Malabar was a bilateral engagement between the United States and India, who leads the exercise. In 2009, the Indian Navy invited the JMSDF to participate and during the exercise, approximately 4,000 personnel from the three participating maritime forces executed anti-submarine warfare; surface warfare; air defense; live-fire gunnery training; and VBSS evolutions. 

“Malabar is our premier blue water exercise with the Indian Navy,” said Lieutenant Aaron Kakiel, 7th Fleet’s South Asia policy and exercise officer. “We value this opportunity to increase our inter-operability with our regional partners,” he added. “With the Japanese Navy there are a greater number of ships involved, which increases the complexity of the exercise,” said Lieutenant Commander Hemanth Gopal, assistant surface warfare officer of the INS Mumbai (D62), adding, “With more ships involved, there is a wider range of operations we can conduct together, as well as learn the many ways of approaching the same challenges.” 

This increasingly closer interaction between the two navies also will lead to the shaping of each navy. Since the US Navy is mammoth, and perhaps the most important strategic asset of the United States, Washington will seek changes in the Indian Navy to fit the cooperation. Whether India will agree to some changes is for New Delhi to decide, keeping the strategic naval cooperation in mind.

According to American strategist Thomas M.P. Burnett, whose study was published in The US Naval Institute (July 2001), India’s naval development could proceed in one of three directions. The first is to develop a minimum-deterrent navy. In his view, this is the weakest long-term outcome because it relegates the Navy to an adjunct of the Army and Air Force in India’s continuing nuclear arms race with Pakistan. This is a “go-nowhere, do-little navy,” says Burnett. The second way is to develop a sea-denial navy, which will be, in principle, an anti-China navy that seeks to export an anti-access strategy to the South China Sea, Burnett argues. This option, he explains, is “like the old Soviet fleet: it focuses on anti-ship capabilities with an emphasis on attack submarines. In its most aggressive form, it might be construed by some as an anti-US navy in terms of its modest capacity for power projection toward the Persian Gulf.” Indian naval commandos have demonstrated their quick-strike skills, Burnett points out in the article, by planting explosive charges on three mock oil rigs in Mumbai’s Back Bay. This was ostensibly a reminder that India is located along the sea route that carries the majority of the world’s energy traffic from the Middle East to developing Asia.       

The third approach that Burnett outlines is to build an international coalition navy with the assumption of “a lessening of the land-based rivalries with Pakistan and China; and a far bigger share of the Indian defense budget going to the navy, which now receives around 15%.” Burnett says this is in a practical sense, a “niche navy,” or India’s version of the current Royal Navy: a pro-international norms force that can deploy with some genuine reach when combined with the US Navy in a multinational naval coalition. “On the face of it, some nations might instinctively fear an Indian Navy of such capability,” Burnett says, “but such a long-term development would signal a secure and confident New Delhi looking to do its part for global security maintenance.”

The author is South Asian Analyst at Executive Intelligence Review News Services Inc.


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