Indian Decade

Obama’s India Challenge

It will require more than rhetoric for Obama to make his upcoming visit to India transformational.

When Barack Obama arrives in India on November 6 he’ll be the sixth sitting US president to visit India. American presidents don’t generally come calling to third world countries like India during their first term, but Obama is doing so after having already granted Prime Minister Manmohan Singh the honour of hosting him at his first state dinner as president in November 2009. India and the United States also held their first-ever strategic dialogue in Washington in June this year, symbolizing a sort of diplomatic parity for India with China.

At the strategic dialogue, Under Secretary of State William Burns went on record saying that the US government was ‘deeply committed to supporting India’s rise and to building the strongest possible partnership between us.’ (However, the Indo-US strategic dialogue took place days after the US-Pakistan dialogue, suggesting that Washington continues to hyphenate India and Pakistan.) In the same speech, Burns moved the US closer than ever before towards openly supporting a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council for India.

Yet despite these gestures, Obama’s India glass still stands half-empty, and it’ll require lot of grit on his part to make this visit transformational, rather than rhetorical. Obama is going to be landing in India with the baggage of past missed chances to deepen relations with Asia’s third-largest economy. After all, Obama started his presidency with a chance to take bilateral relations with India to a new high after inheriting a solid legacy from his Republican predecessor George W. Bush, who doggedly navigated US-India relations with the goal of bringing the world’s most powerful democracy together with the world’s largest democracy in an effective united front against a rising China (including through a historic civilian nuclear cooperation agreement).

But nearly two years later, there are more red lines than green lights in US-India relations. Obama’s please-all approach in his Asian diplomacy will likely displease all major actors in the region: China, Japan, India and Pakistan. His China policy is a particular case in point. The most notable problem is his administration’s idea of co-ordinating its South Asia policy with China, which raises a major red flag for India. The Indian government finds it absolutely unacceptable to give any monitoring role to any power—least of all to China, which has been increasing its stakes in South Asia as well the Indian Ocean region despite it being neither a South Asian power nor an Indian Ocean country.