India-US ties: No big ticket change likely

None in New Delhi is losing sleep over the cliffhanger US presidential elections. For, neither Mitt Romney’s win nor a second term for Barack Obama is likely to alter India-US relations in a big way, at least not immediately.

New Delhi is rather confident about the strong bipartisan support in the US for a robust partnership with India. It, however, is also reconciled to the fact that the next American President – no matter whether he is a Republican or a Democrat – is expected to be too preoccupied with domestic challenges and the situation in West Asia to give India ties a high priority.

The Bush era’s push for India-US civil nuclear cooperation agreement and Washington’s high-octane diplomacy to secure the Nuclear Supplier Group’s waiver for India in 2008 raised the bar of expectation for the bilateral relations. And the relative lack of optics during the subsequent years of Obama administration fuelled speculation about a drift.
New Delhi is conscious that the Bush-era momentum is unlikely to return to US-India ties anytime soon, even if Republican Romney makes it to the White House. Nor does it have much reason to grumble about four years of Obama.

Analysts keenly watching the campaigns of both Obama and Romney did not find much difference in the foreign policy approaches of the two contestants, particularly in respect of India and its neighbourhood in South Asia. While Romney did not specifically touch upon Washington’s ties with New Delhi, his top foreign policy adviser Mitchell Reiss  noted that the relationship between India and US is “mutually beneficial” and stressed on “forging new areas of cooperation”.

There was no specific response from the Obama campaign. But American Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, Mike Hammer, recently said that India-US relation had been on “an incredibly positive trajectory over the past 12 years”. He said that if Bill Clinton’s administration started efforts to deepen the partnership, it continued through the Bush era and into the Obama regime. “That’s something that this administration has certainly built on, strengthened, and one would want to continue.”

Robert D Blackwill, Washington’s former envoy to New Delhi, said that if the US policy on India did not come up more prominently during the high-decibel campaign for the presidential polls, it was primarily due to broad similarity in the approaches of both the camps.

“The American political elite support an ever stronger US-India strategic partnership, not alliance , but a partnership, and want to make it ever more muscular and substantive,” said Blackwill. Former Indian Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran agreed: “The two parties seem to have a commonality with respect to relations with India.”

India was, indeed, a bit apprehensive when Obama succeeded Bush in January 2009. Obama’s plan to include Jammu and Kashmir in his special Af-Pak envoy Richard Holbrook’s mandate raised alarm in New Delhi, which was also concerned about the new administration’s early moves to warm up to Pakistan to make it more supportive to US interests in Afghanistan. Then came Obama’s joint statement with Chinese President Hu Jintao, which stated that Washington and Beijing “support the improvement and growth of relations between India and Pakistan,” and are ready to “strengthen communication, dialogue and cooperation on issues related to South Asia and work together to promote peace, stability and development” in the region. New Delhi was not amused as it not only envisaged a greater role for Beijing in South Asia, but also fuelled speculation about a G-2, comprising US and China.

But Obama  administration did not take long to go for a course-correction. Kashmir was kept out of the mandate of Holbrook. Subsequent years of Obama in White House saw the US toughening its stand on Pakistan and even publicly accusing ISI of supporting Haqqani Network and Afghan Taliban. And then came “Operation Geronimo” in May 2011, when US Navy SEALs gunned down the Al Qaeda chief Osama Bin Laden just 120 km from Islamabad, revealing that the world’s most dreaded terrorist leader was in a hideout adjacent to the Pakistani Military Academy.

The G-2 never took off, rather at a time when Beijing’s maritime disputes with Japan, Vietnam and Philippines are escalating into tension in East and South China Sea, Obama pledged to pivot American foreign policy towards Asia.

Romney too has taken a hard-line on China. He argued that US and its allies should maintain “appropriate military capabilities” in Pacific to discourage “any aggressive or coercive behaviour by China against its neighbours”.

The Republican rhetoric on Pakistan was rather aggressive during the primary. Romney, however, toned it down a bit. New Delhi is not unduly worried though, as it is aware that Pakistan now does not have many friends on both sides of the political divide in the US.
Romney and Obama have largely similar views on Afghanistan and both want US troops to wind up by 2014.

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