Sensing new direction

Sensing new direction

PMs visit to the US

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will have the distinction of being the first state guest of US President Barack Obama as he travels to Washington next week for a bilateral summit meeting.

The summit has significance far beyond the Indo-US bilateral context for both the countries. The world is currently gripped by a prolonged recession. The global war on terrorism unleashed by Obama’s predecessor George Bush is far from over. The sole superpower is now substantially dependent on China to restore its economic health.
The most significant bilateral alliance in Asia — the US-Japan alliance — appears to be in for substantial transformation. Two Asian countries, Iran and North Korea, have seriously challenged the international nonproliferation regime. A nuclear weapon power of the subcontinent, Pakistan, is in a state of possible implosion.

It is in the backdrop of these developments that the Singh-Obama summit will take place. Indo-US relations have had a long history of hope and illusion, ups and downs and peaks and valleys until the two countries settled for nothing less than a strategic partnership in the new context of the post-Cold War era.

The substantive changes in this relationship occurred in the aftermath of India’s decision to overtly go nuclear, path-breaking visit to India by President Bill Clinton, unprecedented defence and security cooperation forged during the first term of President George Bush and a novel civilian nuclear cooperation agreement concluded during the second Bush term.

The credit for the civilian nuclear cooperation agreement between India and the US would undoubtedly go to Singh and George Bush. This signature accomplishment was the outcome of years of strategic haggling, domestic opposition in both the countries and unprecedented diplomatic efforts in multilateral forums, such as IAEA and the NSG.
Bush and Singh had a wonderful chemistry between them and they succeeded in elevating Indo-US relations to new heights. For the first time in history, India did not feel threatened or even annoyed by Washington’s security cooperation with Pakistan, which went to the extent of making Pakistan a major non-NATO ally.

Despite the negative ratings of Bush in the world as well as in the US, history will judge him as a president who was responsible for substantively altering the direction of US-Indian relationship for the good of the two countries and for the good of the world.
Obama’s victory in the 2008 presidential election was hailed the world over as a momentous history in the making. And truly it was so. It energised the masses around the world, including in India. But the events that unfolded created an impression that the changes in Indo-US relations brought about by Singh and Bush was but a temporary honeymoon trip.

Out of focus

The news headlines were silent about the military-to-military cooperation between India and the US; effective implementation of the civilian nuclear deal; US-India global partnership in myriad fields and stories that would hint at non-stop improvements in Indo-US relations. India simply did not blip in the new Obama administration’s foreign policy radar.

When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton decided to make her first foreign trips to Asia, India was not part of her itinerary. When Vice President Joe Biden came to Afghanistan and Pakistan, he did not even make a stopover in Delhi. The initial attempt to make India part of a new strategy to deal with the worsening situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan raised serious concerns in Delhi and led to a diplomatic protest and quiet lobbying in Washington. President Obama’s views on Kashmir during the early days of his presidency too generated certain amount of bilateral tension.

Obama’s preoccupation with domestic economic crisis could not have given adequate rationale to explain the low priority given to India. Even the administration’s decision to work out a phased withdrawal of troops from Iraq and more focus on Pakistan and Afghanistan do not provide a justification. After all, Obama dangled an olive branch to Iran, offered direct talks with North Korea and went to Cairo to address the entire Muslim world. Where was India in Obama’s foreign policy agenda?

Things began to change, as Obama administration’s efforts in Pakistan and Afghanistan did not bear much fruit and Washington’s south Asian strategic ally increasingly appeared as a state at war with itself. Afghanistan as usual behaved like a hard nut that would not crack despite a new Af-Pak strategy of the new administration.

China, on the other hand, that enriched itself by running a trade surplus worth billions of dollars vis-à-vis the US for decades, turned out to be a country with a Communist government that holds the single largest chunk of US treasury bonds. China could play havoc with the US economy that is quite vulnerable due to prolonged recession!
Better late than never and Hillary Clinton paid a visit to India and reiterated everything that would soothe the Indian ears. She set at rest Indian worries about a robust US nonproliferation agenda that could force India to sign the CTBT and derail the civilian nuclear deal.

India actually looks better from Washington perspective now, if seen along with North Korea, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, the global economic downturn, etc. Singh and Obama are likely to touch upon all these issues in their summit and vow to carry forward the bilateral relationship with more vigour than it has been in last 10 months. After dealing with a Republican president, Manmohan Singh now has to carry forward the relationship with the US by engaging a Democratic president.

(The writer is professor of American studies and chairman of Centre for Canadian, US and Latin American Studies, JNU)

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