Obama regains a friendship
The scheduling of diplomatic calendar is always a tricky thing and that is why experienced professionals attend to it. Countries can convey strong, silent messages across vast ocean spaces through a subtle shift of date in the scheduling of a delicate diplomatic dalliance – or by simply ‘non-scheduling’ an event. India has been coping with a fair crop of scheduling problems lately.
For the past one year since his visit to India in November, United States President Barack Obama proved elusive, pleading scheduling problems to meet the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on at least two occasions.
Obama apparently conveyed an unmistakable message of American displeasure or disappointment over Indian policies that weren’t living up to his expectations. Amongst his dashed hopes the foremost could have been that the US companies weren’t getting the multi-billion dollar business the book keepers in Washington had toted up – some say the business could be as much as 100 billion dollars – by way of selling nuclear reactors to India under the umbrella of the US-India nuclear deal of 2008.
During the negotiations over the nuclear deal India had promised that at least 10000 MW of nuclear power production in the country would be done through reactors imported from the US. Three years have passed but the anticipated business hasn’t yielded yet. The US president was upset about the jobs ‘lost’ in the American economy because they couldn’t be created.
India has begun unilaterally deriving advantages out of the nuclear deal (which removed restrictions on export of uranium to India amongst other things) and signed nuclear cooperation agreements with several countries, ending its ‘nuclear isolation’. Russia and France forged ahead in selling reactors to India, while the US companies waited in the wings because of an unhelpful nuclear liability law that India enacted, which would make suppliers liable for damage if a nuclear accident happens in future.
At any rate, before putting in its third successive request in 3 months for an Obama-Manmohan Singh meeting – this time, on the sidelines of the recent East Asia Summit meeting in Bali – Prime Minister’s Office in Delhi took the abundant precaution of bending the Indian legislation on nuclear liability so as to make it agreeable to the business needs of the American companies.
The new rules stipulate that the ‘liability’ period for any nuclear accidents would be limited to the first 5 years of an American reactor’s lifespan. Delhi did this in consultation with Washington so that the American companies would be satisfied. It is reasonable to expect that an American nuclear reactor wouldn’t break down within five years of its installation.
The Obama administration was obviously pleased and it agreed to a meeting between Obama and Manmohan Singh at Bali. What gave confidence to the US side was that since the beginning of October at least, Delhi embarked on a hectic ‘course correction’ in India’s foreign policy orientations that would bring the broad smile back on Obama’s face.
The performance of the past several weeks has been truly astounding. If the high noon of the former phase of the Indian foreign policy would have been a meeting Manmohan Singh ‘scheduled’ with the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad on American soil in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session (after knowing Obama had a ‘scheduling’ problem with the Indian prime minister), the policy direction has been reset in an opposite direction since late September.
The back channels between Washington and Delhi worked over time. Delhi made a point with the Manmohan Singh-Ahmedinejad meeting but Washington also made a point that Delhi couldn’t ignore. At any rate, harmonising with the American regional strategies is the new mantra in Delhi – do it on the beaches, on the hills, and up in the air.
Delhi has since moved in the direction of giving a big ballast to India’s policies toward Japan and Vietnam, tapping into their acrimony with China and beefing up its military ties with them, in a strategic maneuver that brings India within striking distance of becoming a participant in the US’s ‘containment strategy’ toward China.
Delhi has manifestly ‘lost’ its old fervor for full membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization [SCO], which of course, is a regional body that the US would have loved to throttle in its cradle – once again, to use Winston Churchill’s famous words.
Delhi won’t say anymore the dangerous word ‘neutral’ with regard to Afghanistan, lest that is construed as disapproval of the US move to establish military bases in the Hindu Kush. Delhi has become overtly enthusiastic about the US’s New Silk Road (a reincarnation of the George W. Bush era’s ‘Greater Central Asia Strategy’) whose principal aim is to roll back the Russian and Chinese influence in Central Asia.
At the Istanbul conference on Afghanistan on November 2, India batted for the US’s conference agenda by jettisoning its traditional coyness about extra-regional powers dabbling in South Asia, and warming up to the US proposal to create a OSCE-type regional security architecture for Central and South Asia.
Delhi signed a ‘strategic pact’ with Kabul which brings it close to working with the US and NATO (who are also seeking their own ‘strategic pacts’ with Kabul) in the post-2014 period to ‘stabilize’ Afghanistan.
Delhi took on board for consideration the proposals made in September by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization [NATO] to cooperate on the alliance’s missile defence program and also institutionalize a formal strategic dialogue on how the two sides could cooperate on the range of regional and international issues.
Delhi used its good offices to bring about proximity between the military junta in Myanmar and the Obama administration. (The US secretary of state Hillary Clinton is arriving in Rangoon on Wednesday.) Myanmar is becoming the hottest spot on the planet, being a potential transportation route for China to the world market bypassing Malacca Straits.
Delhi placed further multi-billion dollar contracts on military procurements form the American arms manufacturers in a steady process that makes the US already a significant supplier in the Indian arms bazaar.
Delhi and Canberra revived the Indian Ocean Rim Association forum as a prelude to Australia and India cooperating with the US in the Indian Ocean region. Canberra signed a back-to-back agreement earlier in the month providing for an American military base in Australia and the stationing of US Marines.
Delhi decided to open up the 450-billion dollar retail trade sector in the Indian domestic market to the multinationals like the Wal Mart, which of course is an economic measure but with political and foreign policy implications as well since it has been on the tope of the US’s demands. Wal Mart, incidentally, is known to have an old, enduring association with former US president Bill Clinton.
The staggering proportions of this foreign policy ‘course correction’ will register only if the time frame within which all this has happened is told – the three-month period since end-September!
‘Look East’ to ‘Act East’
The advancement of the US-India strategic partnership has inevitably come to cast its shadow on the India-China ties. But it is also a choice that Indian seems to be deliberately making, since the two vectors can go together if given a try, as European countries like Germany, Britain or France or even countries from within India’s peer group such as Brazil or Russia are ably showing.
The India-China ties have been acquiring momentum in the recent years despite the outstanding border dispute. The political exchanges have been frequent, trade is booming, investment is on an upward curve, cooperation on global issues is steadily gaining traction, military exchanges have begun (even if tentatively), and there is peace and tranquility on the border.
The bilateral trade target of 100 billion dollars may even be reached two years ahead of the 2015 target date. But a point has come when the mammoth ‘course correction’ in the Indian policies to cozy up to the US regional strategy is no longer compatible with the growing verve of the Sino-Indian normalization.
It is an interesting thought if Washington anticipated that to happen. The American strategists nowadays call India a ‘swing power’ in the Asian theatre and that its stance on any issue of substance in the regional security scenario would hold the potential to shift the power dynamic, especially in the Asia-Pacific where the US and China are involved in a keen tussle for regional dominance.
India’s ‘trilateral dialogue’ with the US and Japan has China’s rise as its leitmotif. The Indian pundits have begun resuscitating the old idea circa 2006-07 of a ‘quadrilateral alliance’ [US-Japan-India-Australia] to contain China in the Asia-Pacific. Some have argued for a US-India-Australia ‘security pact’ in the Indian Ocean and Malacca Straits through which China conducts the overwhelming bulk of its foreign trade including 80 percent of its petroleum imports.
In retrospect, containment of China has incrementally become the running theme of virtually the entire range of the ‘course correction’ that Delhi initiated in the past 3-month period, as much as the purposive drive to boost India’s strategic partnership with the US.
Washington is thrilled. India’s course correction coincides exactly with the period when the US began asserting ‘America’s Pacific Century’ as the pivotal platform of its foreign policy – to use the title of a celebrated article on October by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the Foreign Policy Magazine. The US is emerging out of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with surplus energy and time to spare to address the pending issue of the re-making of the world order as a New American Century. The criticality of the project for the US also derives from the fact that it is a uniquely ‘self-financing’ project that feeds naturally into the geopolitical tensions in the Asia-Pacific, which also happens to the fastest growing region on the planet.
The intellectual construct behind the project is impressive. The project feeds into the Manichean fears about China’s rise – the “unknown unknown”, as former US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld would say – among a number of Asian countries, some of whom have serious bilateral disputes with China. If these Asian countries, which also happen to be growing economies, can be made to accept US leadership, a mutually beneficial partnership can develop whereby US provides political and military protection to them and in turn US can develop economic cooperation that results in massive boost to US exports to these countries with impressive, disposable ‘purchasing power’ in the coming period.
Multiply by, say, one hundred times, the US’s immensely successful Persian Gulf strategy of the past 3 decades to work up the GCC countries against Iran, and one may get an idea of the philosophy behind ‘America’s Pacific Century’. It is an innovation on the US’s so-called ‘trans-Atlantic partnership’ that worked so brilliantly as a multiplier of US strategic capabilities in the Cold War era.
In her article, Clinton outlined six “key lines of action” in the sweeping US regional strategy aimed at containing China: strengthening bilateral security alliances; deepening the US’s working relationships with emerging powers, engaging with regional multilateral institutions; expanding trade and investment; forging a broad-based military presence; and advancing democracy and human rights.
Clinton acknowledged that the US’s treaty alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines and Thailand will remain the “fulcrum for our strategic turn to the Asia-Pacific” and will “update them for a changing world”. But the US also proposes to build “new partnerships to help solve shared problems.” She went on to identify India as one likely partner although “there are still obstacle to overcome and questions to answer” in the partnership.
In sum, Clinton offered a partnership to India predicated on the expectation that India has begun rebooting its 20-year old “Look East efforts” to strengthen ties with the ASEAN countries and blend them into the US-sponsored “new vision for a more economically integrated and politically stable South and Central Asia, with India as a linchpin.”
The US has never before offered India such a breathtaking project of regional leadership in a vast geopolitical space from the Gulf of Aden in the west to the South China Sea in the east – nay, to Vladivostock in the east. Clinton’s article appeared on October 11. A month later, on November 10 when Clinton revisited the theme of the US’s ‘return to Asia’ in a major policy speech at Honolulu on the sidelines of the APEC summit, she was far more assertive: “The 21st century will be America’s Pacific century, a period of unprecedented outreach and partnership in this dynamic, complex, and consequential region.”
She repeated the “six key lines of action” and revisited India, which she cited as one of the emerging powers with which the US will be making “concerted effort to build closer and more extensive” partnership. She bracketed India with Indonesia as two countries in particular with which the US is “committed to broader, deeper, more purposeful relations.”
Then Clinton added the punch line: “And we want to actively support India’s ‘Look East’ policy as it grows into an ‘Act East’ policy.”