Washington: The close ties with India that US secretary of state-nominee Hillary Rodham Clinton forged during her years as a senator and presidential candidate could complicate diplomatic perceptions of her ability to serve as a neutral broker between India and its nuclear neighbour, Pakistan.
With tensions rising between India and Pakistan after last week’s terrorist attacks in Mumbai, Clinton faces an early test of her influence in South Asia, where President-elect Barack Obama on Monday said that instability and the rise of militants pose “the single most important threat against the American people”.
Both Hillary Clinton and her husband, former president Bill Clinton, have maintained warm relations with India and the Indian-American community. As New York’s senator for eight years and as a 2008 presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton toured India and visited Indian officials and entrepreneurs, and her campaign profited from the largesse of Indian-American fund raisers. Bill Clinton’s charitable foundation has been funded by some of the same well-heeled Indian businessmen who backed his wife’s campaign.
In her new role as the nation’s top diplomat, Hillary Clinton would project Obama’s policies, not her own. But even foreign affairs experts who wave off suggestions that Clinton would lean towards either Asian power acknowledge that the perception of such a tilt could cause suspicions in Pakistan. South Asia experts reject the assertion of bias, but they acknowledge it exists.
“There are some who believe it, but I think most people think she is an objective observer with a good understanding of South Asia,” said Walter Andersen, associate director of the South Asia Studies Programme at Johns Hopkins University’s School for Advanced International Studies. Karin Von Hippel, a South Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, agreed, saying Clinton is “very balanced” and “understands almost better than anybody how delicate the situation is between these two countries”.
Still, perceptions matter, especially in the region. “There are concerns that she is seen as pro-India, she and her husband both,” said one Washington-based foreign diplomat with extensive experience in South Asia, on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the issue. “The Pakistanis definitely see them as closer and friendlier to India.”
Influential members of the Indian-American community have rejoiced in Clinton’s selection as secretary of state.
“Senator Clinton will continue the close relationship between the United States and India that started with the (Bill) Clinton administration and has progressed in the Bush years,” said Varun Nikore, founder of the Indian-American Leadership Initiative, an independent political organization supporting Democratic candidates.
A current state department official allowed that Bill Clinton had substantially boosted engagement with India, but noted that any administration would likely have done so. The official stressed that President George W. Bush has continued that course, most recently signing a civilian nuclear pact with New Delhi.