30 October, 2010

Obama's Visit: The Hidden Dimension

by Uddipan Mukherjee


President Obama’s November 6-9 visit to India has engendered expectations in both the camps; although for different reasons. India is expecting a friendlier America, which would help it consolidate in the world podium. And the US naturally seeks a wider opening of Indian markets in order to uplift its sagging economy through a boost in exports.

Strategically speaking, both the nation-states seem to be wary of China, though diplomatically they are diffident to proclaim the fact. Furthermore, Pakistan appears to be another focal point of their deliberations.

Before the G-20 Summit to be held in Seoul in November 10-12, this high profile visit merits a deeper analysis. And in order to do that, a digression is somewhat unavoidable.

In the theoretical plane; Kenneth Waltz’s strand of Neo-realism ardently seeks for an all-powerful ‘higher power’ over and above the sovereign nation-states to usher in peace in international relations.

On the contrary, the “offensive neo-realists” tend to underscore the fact that conflict between nation-states is inevitable and leaders of the countries must always be wary of expansionary powers.

Nonetheless, dialectics of this genre may go on unhindered. What one needs, however, are empirical case studies to give precedence to one theory over the other.

Post-1991, the world necessarily received the ‘higher power’ which Waltz was vehemently searching for in order to establish a long term peace. One lacuna, however, intrinsically existed in Waltz’s thesis.

Actually, Waltz contemplated a world with only one ‘superpower’ grandfathering many low and middle powers. In it, he assumed that the low and middle ones were roughly equivalent to each other and hence a sustainable peace could be generated.

The present scenario, in fact, negates that picture. We have a ‘strongly rising power’ China, a ‘resurgent’ Russia, a ‘corporate power’ like the European Union, certain ‘emerging powers’ like India and Brazil, and a large number of middle and low-level powers who may not always directly clash with each other; but are likely to be drawn into the fold of power-politics.

India being an ‘emerging power’ is surely entangled in diplomatic, economic and security bargain with China and the low-level but ‘nuclear’ power Pakistan. The US, on the other hand, is also inextricably entwined with these two countries, albeit for quite different reasons: the ‘war on terror’ and the ‘currency war’.

Amidst such an environment, how are India and the US expected to interact?

Will Obama’s early November visit be a memorable Diwali (festival of lights) for the Indians and a rejuvenating experience for the Democrats in America who are unsure of their electoral victory in the ensuing mid-term?

No doubt, there are a few unresolved issues between the two democracies. The impediment posed by the ‘onus on the supplier’ in the Civil Nuclear Bill as ratified by the Indian parliament offsets to an extent that of the restrictions on the ‘dual-use technology’ as well as strict visa regime clamped by the Americans on India’s software exports.

Due to the pangs of recession and consequent unemployment, the US raised the prices for certain visa fees for foreign companies. That is estimated to cost India's IT industry around $200 million a year. Furthermore, a proposed new tax code in USA would end tax breaks for firms that create jobs and profits overseas.

America is now charting the path of fiscal stimulus and needs to expand its trade. Probably, that is the reason why President Obama plans to disembark in Mumbai, India’s financial capital. He is, hopefully not deliberately, leaving out Hyderabad and Bangalore; India’s IT-hubs, from his itinerary. Nevertheless, the misunderstandings, if any, needs to be obliterated between the two parties and India’s potential as an economic powerhouse has to be fully utilised by the Americans and vice-versa.

India has already taken a step in the direction of assuaging the post-Bush era ‘cold’ relations between the two nation-states when on October 27 it signed the Convention on Supplementary Compensation. That surely addresses some concerns of the US companies dealing with nuclear fuel and technology.

Nonetheless, the ‘core’ issue of cooperation is somewhat veiled within technical jargon and atomic paraphernalia.

It is clear that India shall love a ‘permanent seat’ in the Security Council and as a confirmed step toward that direction, wants to be a legitimate part of the elite Nuclear Suppliers Group. And the endorsement of the US is seriously needed in both.

However, America is engrossed in an egotistic ‘war on terror’ which it wants to pack up in the ‘Iraq way’; sooner the better. And it badly has to perpetuate the ‘live-in relationship’ with Pakistan for that matter, at least till an Iraq-type ambience could be created in Afghanistan.

India, on the other hand, needs a friendly regime in Afghanistan after the endgame, whenever it happens. But it seems unlikely with the run of events as of now that the Taliban would be completely ousted from the political fray after an US withdrawal. That is the worrisome factor for India because Pakistan will gain a strategic foothold in the region much to India’s chagrin.

The Obama administration appears to build a quid pro quo relationship with India. And India shall remain to be seen as a ‘regional player’ if it does not provide a ‘realistic’ help to the US in its ‘war on terror’. In fact, by not doing that, India will nurture US-Pak ‘trust escalation’ rather than escalating the US-Pak ‘trust deficit’; which is an essentiality for India’s purpose.

Obama and his cabinet do not appear to grant any special privilege to India which the Bush regime did. Hence, Indian diplomacy needs to extract it.

The recent $ 2 bn military aid to Pakistan in addition to the already existing Kerry-Lugar non-military assistance clearly exhibits two things. First, and the obvious one, America still believe that the Pakistani military can deliver in the ‘war on terror’. Second, the Obama administration is ready to dilute its relationship with India so as to erect a façade of victory in Kandahar and Helmand. Military aid to Pakistan just prior to India visit definitely is a strong rhetoric for the Indians: “deliver or endure”.

Moreover, such a stance is a sine qua non for prodding the Pakistanis to rein in the Haqqanis or the Quetta Shura.

But how can India deliver or rather do India need to deliver?

Even without directly assuming a combat role in Afghanistan beside the NATO forces, India can venture out from the domains of its ‘soft diplomacy of $ 1.3 bn by training the Afghan National Security Forces. In fact, this dimension, if put forward to Obama in his visit can generate just that ‘extra’ pumping factor required to provide the much needed fillip in the Indo-US bilateral relations.

This has long term ramifications too. For instance, in the likely future scenario of an US withdrawal of combat forces, Indian troops have a realistic chance of being present in the area along with residual NATO forces, with the tag of ‘observer forces’. And that seriously dents any post-US pernicious Pakistani agenda in Kabul.

However, the moot point is whether Obama shall entertain such a proposal keeping in view the vehement objections likely to be raised by Pakistan. Hence, the Afghanistan issue shall be a challenge for New Delhi’s diplomats.

For India, there are problem zones too. For instance, to tackle the US regarding the ‘subsidy regime’ and ‘carbon emission’; it needs to forge alliance with China. At the same time, the latter poses a constant security threat to its borders. So the dilemma would be whether to foster the prevalent ‘strategic partnership’ with America by incorporating the China factor or to mellow down the belligerent stance toward Beijing.

Indian policy-makers need to make the choice.

American firepower is hopefully to stay in the world arena for another half a century at least. The Pakistani civil-military complex is improbably to be dismantled in that period, given the present mindset of a considerable section of its civilian populace. And China will ‘grow’, both militarily and economically, in the years to come. The irredentist claims of China and Pakistan shall bring both of them together and create ominous security atmosphere for India.

The sole superpower exists in the world. Still, Kenneth Waltz’s hypothesis of a ‘world peace’ does not seem to be tightly grounded in reality. India’s best bet as it seems at this juncture is to ride the wave of “Pax Americana”, till it acquires economic and defence autarky to a relatively healthier extent.


  1. read it thoroughly......
    was an exceptional viewpoint on the present scenario....
    it was a just an attempt on my part 2 have an insight on the present political developments involving india...
    keep it up...sir....

  2. Uddipan
    You'll be happy to know that someone out there liked your article so much he has plagiarised it and used it under his pseudonym. You can catch it here
    About the plagiarist
    His name is M.A. Ahssan. He claims to have run an agency called Newcop (based in Hyderabad). This is his Twitter ID http://twitter.com/#!/newscop - where has posted your article as his.
    Thought it might interest you.
    A well wisher

  3. Hi Dr Mukherjee
    I sent you a message earlier about your article having been plagiarised by M.A. Ahssan and posted here under the pseudonym of Maxcop
    I thought you should know.

  4. well,,,,the article at least shud have acknowledged the author's name....simply ridiculous...more so when the link to "diplostratics" is given in the same webpage..

    Thank You Well Wisher for the info..

    I shall be grateful I may know the name of my well-wisher. If he/she wants, I can keep the identity "hidden".


  5. Uddipan,

    I disagree with the strategic choices you have laid out above...US-China is attempting to forge a defacto G2 power play, the chinese are especially interested in this while the Americans are keeping their cards to their chest. The problem is Dollar-Yuan exchange rate..while the Americans and Chinese can manage the trade balance between the two nations but their trade with other countries is hence the employment and trade balance considerations have caused a rift in this relationship. Given the Chinese situation in Asia, dont be surprised if China relents to the US demands of a revaluation (albeit a slow one) and in return US dumps India and ups the pressure on many fronts...in this scenario..Pak will be shared by US-China and not foght over by them..India might lose Kashmir in this case.

  6. Dear Esoteric,

    Thanks for the comments.

    This is precisely the point. India is in a difficult situation at this juncture w.r.t. both China and US.

    China may go for a currency evaluation by relenting to US pressures. However, that would not preclude the scenario of power-conflict between the two. In fact, such a Chinese move would rather accentuate the conflictual scenario.

    Chinese national chauvinism shall simply not vanish by making a wimper.

    India does not really have a geopolitical significance in Afghanistan. And that is why, Pakistan is extracting the leverage.

    Moreover, India is at some 'loggerheads' with China and considering the 1962 'scar', it does not seem to transform into "Chindia" soon.

    Amidst such a backdrop, what is the best possible solution for India? Well, there are a few paths:

    1. Remain frozen in the foreign policy regime and deal on a case by case basis.

    but that shall be difficult in the coming period as India is now a part of the Security Council

    2. Take a pro-active stance and essay to forge an alliance with China to counter the American-backed western threat.

    That seems highly unlikely keeping in mind the misgivings both the countries have for each other.

    3. Take a pro-active stance and essay to forge a 'covert' alliance with the US to counter China and Pak; in fact, mainly China. Offering to train the ANSF is just part of that bigger strategy. Furthermore, it thwarts Pak designs in Afghanistan too.

    Let us take a decisive step in foreign policy.

    Let us come out of the shackles of a 'defensive' foreign policy zone; which rhetorically harbours an unrealistically liberal 'Sulh-i-kul' policy and falls flat on the platform of Realpolitik.

    Let us be Chanakya and Bismarck.