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Obama’s India Visit: An Indian Foreign Policy Tilt

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The Pulse

Obama’s India Visit: An Indian Foreign Policy Tilt

Narendra Modi’s government is finally letting go of the past and opening a new era in relations with the United States.

Obama’s India Visit: An Indian Foreign Policy Tilt
Credit: Flickr/ MEAphotogallery

On December 3, 1971, while Indian and Pakistani forces were engaged in pitched land and air battles, then-U.S. National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger convened a meeting of the National Security Council’s Washington Special Actions Group (WSAG). “I’m getting hell every half hour from the President that we are not being tough enough on India,” Kissinger is reputed to have said to the WSAG, “…he does not believe we are carrying out his wishes. He wants to tilt in favor of Pakistan.”

By the ninth day of the war and with Indian troops barely 100 kilometers away from Dacca, the capital of East Pakistan, the U.S. aircraft carrier USS Enterprise sailed into the Bay of Bengal ostensibly on a rescue and relief mission for stranded U.S. citizens in East Pakistan. Although this did little to influence the eventual outcome of the 1971 India-Pakistan war — Pakistani forces surrendered to the Indian army five days after the aircraft carrier’s arrival — India construed the act as hostile and as an intent to coerce.

It would take another two decades before signs of a thaw between the countries emerged from the ashes of the Cold War. The U.S.-India relationship has encouragingly evolved from a period of arms-length interaction predicated on mutual suspicion to one where there is not only a significant convergence of strategic and economic interests and objectives, but also an acknowledgement of these common interests.

President Obama’s visit to New Delhi on the occasion of India’s 66th Republic Day was a significant demonstrator of that acknowledgement. For years, governments in India and the U.S. found it challenging to translate a generally favorable disposition among their citizens into policy. American citizens, for example, view India favorably; in fact, India’s favorability ranking (72 percent) in Gallup’s poll in the highest for any country with which the U.S. doesn’t have some form of military alliance. Similarly, the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project finds that Indian citizens view the U.S. more favorably than they do any other foreign country.

However, policymakers in Washington, D.C. continue to be uneasy with what they see as India’s reticence on issues ranging from Iran’s nuclear program to human rights violations perpetrated by al-Assad’s regime in Syria and Russia’s de facto invasion of Crimea. The non-proliferation lobby in Washington, D.C. continues to have reservations about India (which is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty) and the India-U.S. Civil Nuclear Agreement.

Many in India’s political and bureaucratic circles too still view the U.S. through the prism of Cold War suspicion and cling to an outmoded worldview where, as C. Raja Mohan puts it, “saying ‘no’ [to the U.S.] was considered more heroic than splitting the difference and making progress.” They tend to see the U.S. as an unreliable partner and hold that the U.S. does not do enough to pressure Pakistan on the India-specific terrorist groups it harbors.

Modi’s invitation to Obama (and his subsequent acceptance) to attend India’s Republic Day ceremony was an attempt to break from these positions of old. Both Obama and Modi have demonstrated that there is political will to significantly elevate the U.S.-India relationship. Indeed, the January 25 Joint Statement builds on the September 30 Joint Statement from ast year and presents an exhaustive and comprehensive vision for further cooperation and collaboration between the two countries ranging from high technology and space to defense, energy and climate change.

On regional security issues, the Joint Statement articulated a common desire to enhance cooperation with Japan through the “identification of projects of common interest and their early implementation.” That the unusually strong tenor of the September 2014 Joint Statement on China and the South China Sea disputes was reiterated indicates both the continued unease in New Delhi over China’s handling of territorial disputes in its neighborhood and a recognition that attempting to placate China’s belligerence is a self-defeating strategy. The Modi government, thus, appears to be seeking to expand India’s diplomatic engagements with the U.S. and Asia’s democracies to more effectively address China’s assertiveness.

There was also progress on agreements on defense cooperation: India and the U.S. finalized the 2015 Defense Framework, which places special emphasis on maritime security and cooperation. Under the Defense Trade and Technology Initiative (championed by the presumptive next secretary of defense, Ash Carter), India and the U.S. agreed — in principle — to pursue the co-production and co-development of four “pathfinder” projects, which include upgrading  RQ-11 “Raven” drones and “roll-on, roll-off” surveillance modules for C-130J aircraft.

In addition to these four pathfinder projects, India and the U.S. agreed to form a working group to explore aircraft carrier technology sharing and design. Notwithstanding the preliminary nature of these discussions, the ramifications of such a project are significant. Protracted negotiations with Russia on the purchase of the 45,000 ton aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov left a bad taste in India’s mouth, while its own domestic aircraft carrier project is plagued by significant cost and time overruns. As India’s interests and quest for resources take it farther from its territorial waters, potential collaboration with the U.S. on an aircraft carrier project could aid in enhancing India’s power projection capabilities.

Taken as a whole, the newfound vitality in India’s approach to foreign policy and the pace and extent of its engagement with the U.S. represent a “tilt” in India’s foreign policy orientation. This tilt, though, is not aimed to favor one state against another — as President Nixon’s was in 1971 — but rather aimed at departing from India’s historical, dogmatic reverence for non-alignment in favor of a foreign policy that is proactive and nimble in its pursuit of furthering India’s national interests. There is significant strategic convergence of interests between the U.S. and India today, from the uncertainties associated with China’s emergence as a great power to terrorism and the rise of extremism in the Middle East. However, India and the U.S. will continue to differ on objectives and approaches on some issues.

For example, while the U.S. certainly encourages greater Indian investment and economic assistance to Afghanistan, it is unclear as to where it stands today on security cooperation between India and Afghanistan, even as it works with the government in Kabul and Afghanistan’s neighbors to negotiate an acceptable political settlement with the Taliban. It is in India’s national security interests that Afghanistan does not relapse into the haven for terrorism that it came to be in the 1990s. Therefore it is somewhat disappointing that the U.S.-India Joint Statement limits itself to merely reiterating the importance of a “sustainable, inclusive, sovereign, and democratic political order” in Kabul, while agreeing to convene high-level consultations on Afghanistan in the future.

For India, the realities of the region demand that it continue to cultivate China as a trade partner and work to evolve mechanisms to manage and resolve territorial disputes with its larger neighbor. Indeed, even as Obama’s visit to India was successful and could represent a qualitative and quantitative change in the relationship, India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj joined the foreign ministers of Russia and China in Beijing for the 13th Russia-India-China (RIC) Foreign Ministers’ trilateral meeting. Modi himself is expected to pay his first official visit to China in May this year, following Xi Jinping’s visit to India in September 2014.

The Joint Communiqué issued as part of the RIC trilateral praised Russia’s efforts in bringing together representatives of the Syrian Government and “opposition groups” for consultations, while also supporting “the efforts of the Syrian Government to combat terrorism.” It made no mention of the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons against civilians. The communiqué also expressed deep concern over what it termed as the “inter-Ukraine conflict” and called for a “comprehensive dialog and… peaceful resolution of the crisis through political negotiations,” a statement that will annoy many in Washington.

However, India’s embrace of the U.S. while also seemingly supporting positions that diverge from the American view need not necessarily be seen as contradictions that warrant concern from the U.S. As India’s economy continues to grow (by IMF’s projections, at a faster clip than China’s in 2016) it hopes to emerge as an influential actor in an increasingly multipolar world. India’s rise, coupled with an increasing convergence of interests and objectives augurs well for the U.S. In the long run, India’s attempts to shed the last vestiges of antiquated thinking that dominated its conduct of foreign policy will open up many further opportunities for engagement between these two large and vibrant democracies.