The first visit of Hillary Clinton as the US secretary of state to India, within the first six months of the Obama administration, is being considered significant for several reasons. First, it is the clearest indication that the new US administration is committed to building and expanding on the relationship established by the previous administrations, especially the Bush administration. Second, given Clinton’s own political gravitas in the US—her presidential run and her reputation as an avid supporter and friend of India (evident in her role as co-chair of the India caucus and her charm offensive in Mumbai)—this messenger is as important as the message she brings. Third, even her itinerary, which deliberately (if somewhat inconveniently and artificially) leaves out Pakistan, is perhaps reflective of the efforts being made by the US to de-hyphenate the relationship and focus on India alone. Clearly, this administration is determined to “reset” US India relations at a higher plane.
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Although the Clinton visit is certainly significant, it is important to bear in mind that she is not the only person driving the dramatic policy shift; she is merely trying to coordinate it. In fact, she is not the first senior member of the Obama administration to visit India. Indeed, she is also not the second, but only the third. Leon Panetta made history of sorts when he became the first Central Intelligence Agency chief to inaugurate his foreign travel with a visit to India soon after his confirmation in March. Similarly, national security adviser general (retd) Jim Jones also travelled to India after visiting Afghanistan and Pakistan in June and met not only national security adviser M.K. Narayanan, but also Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and defence minister A.K. Antony. In fact, it was Jones who delivered the formal invitation to Singh to visit Washington DC in October. Jones also discussed Iran, Afghanistan-Pakistan (Af-Pak) and, importantly, military-to-military cooperation.
Avid supporter: US national security adviser Jim Jones. Clinton’s India visit is a clear indication that the new US administration is committed to expanding the relationship established by the Bush administration. Andrew Councill / Bloomberg
The Jones visit, which went practically unnoticed in India, is particularly crucial for at least a couple of reasons: Jones, who has never been described as a “Democrat” and could easily have been in a McCain administration, is considered to be bipartisan, commanding the respect of both parties as well as the US military. Moreover, he interacts with US President Barack Obama on an almost daily basis and his advice carries a lot of weight, while other cabinet members (including Clinton) meet the President more infrequently. The Clinton trip is likely to build on these earlier and equally important visits.
These visits also reflect that Indo-US relations are becoming increasingly multi-faceted and that the state department will be just one of many interlocutors that the Indian government will deal with. Indeed, the Indian establishment will have to understand and learn to engage with multifarious agencies and institutions in the US many of which, like their counterparts in India, are at loggerheads with each other.
The multidimensional nature of the relationship is evident in a speech Clinton gave at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington last week highlighting the priorities for the Obama administration, not all of which come under the mandate of the State department. These include: reversing the spread of nuclear weapons, preventing their use and building a world free of their threat; isolating and defeating terrorists and countering violent extremism; seeking global economic recovery, advancing a robust development agenda and expanding “free and fair” trade; combating climate change; increasing energy security and laying the foundation for a prosperous clean-energy future; and standing up for human rights everywhere.
Of these countering terrorism and violent extremism remains a top priority, even though the Obama administration has repudiated the “global war on terror” label. It is no coincidence that this was the top agenda for all three senior members of the Obama administration, as well as Richard Holbrooke, the US special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, when they visited India and is likely to remain so in future bilateral interactions. In fact, Clinton pointedly began her India visit in Mumbai and chose to stay at the iconic Taj Mahal Hotel which was the focus of the 26/11 terrorist attacks. While India has traditionally sought to confine its counter terrorism interaction with Washington to castigate Pakistan for Islamabad’s inability to prevent terrorist activities emanating from its soil, there is a real opportunity for New Delhi to extend its interaction to counter terrorism in other parts of the world, especially since it also has a bearing on India. In particular India would do well to enhance its cooperation and coordination particularly with the US on AfPak; it is evident that without the US and Western success in resolving Af-Pak, the Indian objectives of a stable, democratic Afghanistan and Pakistan at peace with itself and its neighbours are also bound to fail.
Similarly, perhaps for the first time ever there is a convergence of the US and Indian interests to not only prevent the use of nuclear weapons but also to build a world free of the threat of nuclear weapons as well as a world free of nuclear weapons themselves. However, India’s almost unhealthy obsession with the bilateral 123 Agreement on civilian nuclear cooperation and ensuring that Washington sticks to its commitments, irrespective of what New Delhi might do at its end to weaken the non-proliferation regime (by not signing the comprehensive test ban treaty, for instance) is a serious dampener to building a genuine partnership to delegitimizing nuclear weapons and ensuring their elimination. The Obama administration has already committed itself to convening the world’s leaders in Washington next year for a nuclear summit to address ways of preventing the use and spread and ensuring the elimination of nuclear weapons. This would be an ideal opportunity for India to put forth some innovative ideas, especially on how to prevent the further proliferation of nuclear weapons among non-state actors and so-called rogue states.
The issue of climate change, as evident in the serious differences at the Group of Eight summit, has the potential of becoming one of the divisive issues between India and the US if not addressed in cooperation. Here New Delhi would do well to take a leaf from Beijing which has sought to work closely with the US on building a “green partnership” which would include transfer of technology and joint business ventures. Indeed, the US desire to build a clean-energy future and ensure energy security might well be one way of strengthening the commitments of Washington to the 123 Agreement rather than the other way around.
Other spheres which would allow for the building of a genuine multifaceted and multidimensional partnership between Washington and New Delhi include cyber-security (given the vulnerability of the Indian software industry to cyber attacks), where India and the US could work closely with each other and, perhaps, also Russia and China to develop at least some basic norms and a common lexicon to ensure that they develop clear red lines so as to avoid an inadvertent lapse into cyber-warfare.
In addition, although India and the US have had some maritime cooperation (evident in the joint tsunami rescue operations), there is potential for greater cooperation especially in anti-piracy operations along the critical trade routes in the Indian Ocean. This would, among others, also enable a greater degree of military-to-military cooperation than exists at present.
The Clinton visit, which is a precursor to the Obama visit next year (indicating that India has now become an essential first term destination for US presidents), is a tremendous opportunity for the Manmohan Singh government to build on the solid foundation laid in the Bush years and turn the bilateral relationship into a strategic partnership.
This would also enhance India’s role in the region and globally and would go a long way in India’s desire to become a “pole” of significance in the emerging multipolar world. New Delhi has only itself to blame if it does not take advantage of this opportunity.
W. Pal Sidhu is vice-president of programmes at the EastWest Institute, New York. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org