Expectations from US President Barack Obama’s forthcoming visit to India are being pitched at a low level in background briefings by both Indian and the US sources. The focus of the visit will apparently be economic, with the President’s priority concern being job creations in the US.
The grand purpose of the visit so early in his first tenure ought to have been more strategic in nature. Indo-US trade and investment figures are moving upwards. If India opens up its economy more, and protectionist tendencies in the US are checked, economic exchanges between the two countries will automatically grow, irrespective of any strategic design, just as Indo-China trade has grown.
Yes, if trade in high or dual technologies grew as a result of a more liberal export control policy towards India, that could signify a strategic push to the relationship. Apart from removing subsidiaries of the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) and the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), but not the Bhaba Atomic Research Centre (BARC), from the US Entity List, not much may emerge from the presidential visit, though the US administration is generally reviewing the country’s existing Cold War-era export control regime that is hurting the US’ commercial interests.
Enhancing space cooperation without undue missile technology control regime (MTCR) constraints would be another example. A Commercial Space Launch Agreement is expected to be signed during the visit, but no bolder space-related initiatives in this domain are envisaged for the moment.
A more flexible approach to Intellectual Property Rights could increase India’s productive capacities in select areas and generate more bilateral trade. This issue is relevant to climate change concerns too, as access to clean technologies at reasonable cost by developing countries is a crucial pre-requisite for action on their part to control greenhouse gas emissions.
Even on the economic centrepiece of the presidential visit, the message from the US is inconsistent. The president has himself led the campaign against outsourcing—a very visible and positive symbol of the American connection for a large number of pro-US urban Indians.
Bangalore—that has put India on the information technology (IT) global map—thrives on its US links, and yet President Obama is giving the city a bad name by associating it with the loss of US jobs.
Increasing the cost of H1-B and L1-A visas, garnered preponderantly by Indians, is effectively a several hundred milion dollar tax on the the Indian IT industry.
From the US perspective, these may be small irritants arising from President Obama’s domestic compulsions in an election year; from the Indian end, they look too self-interested and incompatible with the rhetoric of a strategic partnership.
On the political side too, the messages from the US are mixed. Just before his confidence building visit to India, the US decides to hold the third “strategic dialogue” with Pakistan, and injects $2.3 billion of fresh military aid to the country on top of the huge arms transfers made earlier. This sends the message to India that the US will continue its balancing act between India and Pakistan, reassuring the latter with gift of weaponry to offset the president’s decision to exclude Pakistan from his itinerary.
The implication also is that our concerns about arming Pakistan that is determined to pursue a policy of confrontation towards us will continue to be disregarded by the US.
India is acquiring American defence equipment, but the US is witholding the most advanced technologies unless India signs pending security and inter-operability agreements that India finds premised on operational military cooperation. The strategic understanding with the US pertaining to our region is not sufficiently harmonious for India to deepen institutional defence cooperation with it as yet.
The US endgame in Afghanistan may result in “reconciliation” with the unspeakable Taliban and geopolitical gains for Pakistan. The danger to India from a further entrenchment of radical Islam in the region will increase, and prospects of beneficial regional cooperation in which India could participate will recede.
On the civilian nuclear energy front, the US companies have unreasonably opposed the just-enacted Indian nuclear liability law that denies them absolute protection from any liability or exposure to the US courts. With India signing the Convention on Supplementary Compensation, tension has subsided, though the basic legal issues remain unresolved.
The current turmoil in Kashmir is being exploited by Pakistan to build pressure on the president to become active on the issue. Pakistan’s abrasiveness in the UN General Assembly on Kashmir and its offensive posturing on the dialogue issue reflect the currents at work. We should make our bottom lines on Jammu and Kashmir clear to the Kashmir-issue inclined president.
China’s “peaceful rise” was exposed for India by its aggressive posturing on Arunachal Pradesh and in Jammu and Kashmir; increased presence in the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and expanding military infrastructure in Tibet. India nevertheless maintains its accommodating posture towards China. The US-China financial interdependence, US corporate stakes in China and the current overextension of the US military make a recession-afflicted US cautious too in dealing with the rising Chinese challenge. The contours of a broad India-US understanding on the potential Chinese threat have not emerged as yet.
A lot of work remains to be done to give a meaningful and durable content to the emerging India-US strategic relationship.
Kanwal Sibal is is a former foreign secretary. Comments are welcome at email@example.com