Sunday, November 14, 2010

OBAMA VISIT I: America's main engagement in Asia remains Sino-centric

Politics, they say, is the art of the possible. A sharp awareness of what is feasible in
Indo-US relations — and what is not — has been the running subtext of the Obama visit. The US President himself made that clear in the manner he played around with the ‘P’ word and the ‘K’ word, and spun out the offer of a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council for India.
With nearly 1,00,000 troops on the ground in Afghanistan, dependent on a logistical line through which 1,000 trucks pass daily through the Khyber pass to Kabul, and another 150 through Chaman to Kandahar, even the US President cannot dare to annoy Islamabad. The last time that happened in late September and early October, when US helicopters fired at a Pakistani post killing three soldiers, Pakistan blockaded the US supply convoys and several were attacked and destroyed, allegedly by the Taliban. Entangled in AfPak or PakAf, Washington cannot afford to cross the generals in Rawalpindi and the easiest way to do that would be to give India comfort on the issue of terrorism or Kashmir.
While rhetoric about India as a world power, “India risen”, or “India indispensable”, is fine, and perhaps part of any formal discourse that comes with a state visit, the actuality of the US policy towards India is that it is a hedge against its China relations turning sour, an insurance policy for the future. Given India’s size, location, population, military and economic potential, this is a sound logic. It is the only country in the region that can offer some kind of a counter-balance to China. But Indians should not delude themselves into thinking that they are a world power, even in the sense China already is. We are at least two decades behind China in economic growth, and in that elusive thing called “will to power” perhaps much further behind.
America’s main engagement in Asia remains Sino-centric. The same could be said of the attitude of Japan, Australia and the ASEAN — India is a good hedge, but China is where the principal bets remain.
The principal Indian take-away from the visit is likely to be a promise, rather than an actuality — the American endorsement for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council. As of now, the commitment is a diplomatic gesture rather than a concrete step since the reform of the UN is still some time away and the US, though primus inter pares, will still be one actor amongst many in that process.
But, even that commitment has come with a homily about the increased responsibility that comes with increased power and a rebuke for avoiding issues such as criticising countries like Burma for violating human rights. As a permanent member of the Security Council, India would have to learn to play the big power game and when required, be prepared to exercise raw power when “resolutions are implemented and sanctions enforced”, as Obama implied, in the case of Iran’s proliferation issue.
To move in the circles that America and China move in, we have to do a great deal of housekeeping first. There is first the matter of making much more severe dents on the problems of illiteracy, hunger and disease in the country. India must ruthlessly focus on what our interests are in the world of the next 10 to 15 years. Articulating it in terms of a century, such as the “partnership of the 21st century” is a cop-out.
Once we are clear about our interests, we need a policy to safeguard and further them. We need institutions and instruments to move in that direction. And even before that, we need a political leadership which is able to initiate and lead the process. As of now, unfortunately, we have a syncopated leadership in New Delhi which has shown that it cannot even carry the whole Cabinet on an issue such as Kashmir, leave alone Iran or Burma.
President Obama has noted that there is bipartisan support in the United States for a policy to befriend India. In India, as the somewhat shoddy example of the BJP has shown, policy is partisan to the point where the party avowed one policy in power, and quite the opposite out of it.
For a variety of reasons of its own, the US has begun to undo its 60-year-old policy of offshore balancing of India. We should welcome that opportunity and take what we can from it. America will remain the world’s sole superpower for some time to come.

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