An Interview With Lawrence Prabhakar


The White House hosted its first official state dinner last week, for Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. What do you make of criticism that the Obama administration has tilted toward China and shown less interest than the Bush administration did in deepening ties with India?

Lawrence Prabhakar: I think one of the main points here is that the Obama statements in Beijing sent a discordant note through Delhi and the surrounding region. What was expected by the Indian government was that the Obama administration would fairly balance the interests of India, Japan and its allies, as well as those with China. But the kind of statements that came from Beijing in the joint communiqué of Obama and Hu Jintao turned out to be a little more tilted towards China.

The explanation among commentators here has been that the United States had to concede a lot of ground to China because of the current economic difficulties the US faces, and because of its reliance on China for putting pressure on Iran, the fiscal pressures it faces in balancing its deficit and bailing out its banks. This has been openly stated in New Delhi. So even though there were some hawkish elements that said the Singh team shouldn’t go to Washington DC with this new US tilt to China, moderation prevailed and Prime Minister Singh went. One of the positive things that came out of that has been the final shape that has been given to the Indo-US Civilian Nuclear agreement. But overall, New Delhi doesn’t seem satisfied with this tilt and it has the feeling that these moves will hamper its efforts as it tries to balance a rising and also potentially aggressive China.

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What’s the perception in India on US engagement — is there any feeling there that the US sees India mainly as a counterweight to China?

Prabhakar: New Delhi and the strategic community here in India feel that the Bush years were good years for India — India always has high praise for the Bush administration’s policies. Not because we were a counterweight to China, but because the previous administration tried to empower India. But it seems that little has been done by the present administration in this regard, despite there having been a lot of hope and optimism generated at the start of the Obama administration.

The second reason why Delhi is disillusioned is the $7.5 billion package that has been given to Pakistan. This package seems to be going to Pakistan without checks and strings attached. Yet the situation in Pakistan seems to deteriorate from day to day, and the pressures that are being placed on India over Kashmir and other parts of India — and also the China-Pakistan conundrum — are all reasons of concern for India. India feels that it’s at the forefront of, on the one hand, an Islamic jihadi slant that is coming from Pakistan, and on the other an aggressive China that is starting to probe India’s defences and test its readiness. So these issues are very troubling for New Delhi. This is perhaps one reason why India thought the United States would genuinely understand India’s concerns, being natural allies and democracies with converging interests. But that understanding seems to be missing in the present US administration.

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