Obama talks new world order with Indian PM

Obama talks new world order with Indian PM
10 min read
10 March, 2015
Analysis: Obama is discussing an entirely new relationship between the world’s two largest democracies that could have profound consequences for the world order.
The blossoming US-Indian relationship: Modi in Washington last September [Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty]

For many Americans, Barack Obama may be just another leader. He's surely not so ordinary to an average Indian. The American leader recently became the first sitting US president to visit the country twice while in office. He has engaged himself in less rhetoric and more action for the former British colony. Lacking the patience of historians, the host nation's media is already branding Obama "a visionary leader". There are solid reasons for the optimism.

For all practical purposes, the India-US relations seem to have finally come of age. The elaborate joint statement, issued at the conclusion of Obama's visit, is a mere curtain raiser of what might actually have been discussed and agreed upon.

India has truly embraced the US as its principal strategic partner with its eyes on the latest military hardware and influence stretching to the heart of South China Sea. And Delhi's four core interests of the relationship - a nuclear deal, defence cooperation, partnership in the Pacific against China, and a counter-terror partnership to single out Pakistan - have long-term global and regional implications.

The ambitious roadmap

Though incapable of indigenously developing nuclear reactors, India has been eyeing US nuclear technology. Delhi ideologues and strategists see the nuclear hardware more as a status symbol than a vital clean energy source. Both sides had signed the nuclear deal in 2008 but disagreement on vital details and political opposition from the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party prevailed. Sushma Swaraj, a powerful hardline politician, pronounced the nuclear agreement a "big blunder".

Given India's ambitions, there's every likelihood the nuclear reactors may be providing fissile material for military use at some stage in the future.

Six years down the road, the White House is willing to use executive powers to monitor the use of nuclear material purchased even from third countries. Now the terms and conditions for the viability of civil nuclear deal are largely sorted out. Giants like Westinghouse and GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy have already welcomed the agreement. Given India's ambitions, there's every likelihood the nuclear reactors may be providing fissile material for military use at some stage in the future. Then Obama's traceability waiver may get severe censure.

The Obama administration has also consented to back India's phased entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and the Wassenaar Arrangement to strengthen non-proliferation and export control regimes.

The Obama administration is making no secret of its eagerness to benefit significantly from the world's largest arms buyer - India has even surpassed Saudi Arabia. The US president's enthusiasm will onyl have increased after watching relatively vintage Russian military hardware for two hours during the 66th Republic Day parade in Delhi. India, already the US' biggest arms buyer, will now co-develop and co-produce specific advanced defence systems, mainly the next generation of Raven mini Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, military kits for C130 aircraft, mobile electric hybrid power sources to work alongside traditional generators on the battlefield, and an advanced military garment (Uniform Integrated Protective Ensembles) to protect troops in the wake of chemical and biological warfare.

Under the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI), India and the US will also collaborate on aircraft carrier as well as jet engine technology. The deal feeds into Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's plan for indigenising defence industry, not only creating jobs but also bolstering self-reliance. The two countries will also allow each other to use their military facilities, a development with larger geostrategic implications for neighbours like Pakistan, China and even Russia.

In sync with Washington's "pivot to Asia" doctrine, the Obama administration became explicit about India's role in the Asia-Pacific region. The two countries' joint statement noted the potential "opportunities for India, the United States, and other Asia-Pacific countries to work closely to strengthen regional ties." The statement further said:

"Regional prosperity depends on security. We affirm the importance of safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and over flight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea." Modi even suggested reviving Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, a loose security network involving the United States, India, Japan and Australia.

Another contour of multifaceted-shared vision of India and US was counter-terrorism, a topic India usually over-emphasises to malign neighbour and arch rival Pakistan. The joint statement in a more direct manner refers to allegedly Pakistan-based militant groups such as Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, D Company and the Haqqani Network. The two nations agreed to share information on terrorists, enter talks to deepen teamwork on UN terrorist designations besides reiterating calls for Pakistan "to bring the perpetrators of the November 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai to justice". The terrorist attack allegedly masterminded by Pakistani extremists claimed 164 lives in November 2008.

The swift, blunt reactions

After carefully analysing symbolism as well as substance of the Obama-Modi talks, both Pakistan and China reacted sharply.

Islamabad reminded Washington and Delhi that "cooperative and collective actions by all member states are required to effectively tackle the global threat of terrorism." Having lost 60,000 citizens in terrorist acts since 9/11, the foreign ministry said, Pakistan "rejects any insinuation or aspersion over its commitment to fight terrorism".

Pakistan also reminded India "to bring the planners and perpetrators of the February 2007 Samjhota Express terrorist attack to justice." The train, en route to Pakistani city of Lahore was blown up by a bomb, killing 68 people near Panipat in India. Delhi has not been able to complete its investigations so far.

On the issue of India's NSG membership and other export control regimes, Pakistan voiced its opposition to country-specific exemption for India as it would further compound the already fragile strategic stability environment in South Asia, while undermining the credibility of NSG, a 48-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) established in 1975 to ensure that civilian nuclear trade is not diverted for military aims.

Beijing said the new members would have to follow certain rules and the expansion of the group required detailed deliberations and consensus among the members.

Pakistan's ire on the operationalisation of the Indo-US nuclear deal was no less furious. While warning of its dangers concerning deterrence stability in South Asia, Pakistan maintained that it reserved the right to safeguard its national security interests.

The US president's second visit to India has definitely up the ante in Pakistan and China.

Questioning the intentions of the US and India against China, the Beijing spokesperson said, "I do not think that kind of cold war mentality will work in the 21st century. And, India too is unlikely to be part of any such alliance."

China also took on the US and India for the joint statement referring to the disputes in the South China Sea. Beijing said only the involved nations should work together to resolve the problems. "At the current stage, the situation in the South China Sea is generally stable and there is no problem with navigational freedom and freedom of flights," the Chinese foreign ministry's spokesperson said.

Islamabad challenged India's ambitions for UNSC permanent membership. "A country, in violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions on matters of international peace and security, such as the Jammu & Kashmir dispute, by no means qualifies for a special status in the Security Council."

The underplayed caveats

So far Modi has been careful about repeating his Hinudtva mantra but his parent and alumnus Hindu organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), has been busy making life for India's minorities harder. Christians and Muslims in India particularly feel threatened. In certain parts of the country, minorities are being threatened with persecution upon refusal to convert to Hinduism.

Though Obama politely and indirectly touched upon the issue, it's quite unlikely to be taken as a sincere and timely advice. Being a chronic abstainer from UN resolutions ranging from Syria to Ukraine, the partnership on the human rights front in New York and Geneva won't come easily.

India and America both seek to promote development and peace in post-NATO Afghanistan. However, the realities on the ground are to the contrary as far as Delhi is concerned. None other than US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel had complained in February 2013 of India "financing problems" for Pakistan, in Afghanistan.

"India for some time has always used Afghanistan as a second front, and India has over the years financed problems for Pakistan on that side of the border. And you can carry that into many dimensions, the point being [that] the tense, fragmented relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan has been there for many, many years," the key US official had reportedly stated then. Similar to the 'irritant' of human rights, India's designs to use Afghani soil to destabilise Pakistan or settle scores with it will leave America's desire for long term peaceful co-existence and stability in the region in jeopardy.

Washington's lack of emphasis and initiative for reducing Indian troops in the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir and the resumption of a composite dialogue process with Pakistan leaves behind a volatile situation.

Ever since Modi assumed the prime minister's office, the Indian military has violated ceasefires on one pretext or the other. With the suspension of Pakistan-India peace process, the risk of a limited, conventional conflict is omnipresent. President Obama may have taken up the issue with his counterpart in Delhi but given the significance of other agenda items finding place in joint statement, it won't be seen a meaningful effort to restore the status quo vis-a-vis Pakistan.

Bilateral trade

None other than Obama himself explained the challenge both the strategic partners were facing on bilateral trade.

"Of all US imports, just two per cent come from India and of all US exports, about 1 per cent go to India - that's one per cent to a billion people... US trade with India is $100 billion as compared to $560 billion with China," said the American president.

Realising the odds in putting bilateral trade on the right track, the US administration has earmarked $4 billion in government-backed investments and lending to India while $1 billion to finance exports of "Made-in-America" products. More than "troublesome" Pakistan or "assertive" China, the minuscule volume of bilateral trade will prove the elephant in the room for the US to sustain a long term partnership with India.

The US is pushing hard to stretch its clout to volatile Afghanistan on the one hand and the troubled waters of South China Sea and the Pacific Ocean on the other.

The US president's second visit to India has definitely up the ante in Pakistan and China. Both can't emphasis enough the importance of their own bilateral strategic partnership. In a subtle real-time response to unfolding events, Pakistani military chief General Raheel Sharif was meeting Chinese top leadership in Beijing as Modi welcomed Obama at Delhi airport.

Both the sides branded the bilateral ties as an irreplaceable all-weather friendship toward a shared destiny. Islamabad and Beijing agreed to enhance long-term defence collaboration and strengthen security. There remains no doubt that Pakistan and the US agree on short-term, tactical issues but there are no longer-term shared goals. The State Department continues to work on a one-issue-at-a-time basis. The existing strategic dialogue has been a mere forum to discuss security situation in the wake of war on terror.

President Obama has paid a single visit to Pakistan in both of his terms in office. His statements about Pakistan against terrorism hardly make an impact. The longtime ally is wary of US interests in the region. Washington abandoned Afghanistan and Pakistan after the Soviets withdrew under the Geneva Accord. Senator Obama had promised to appoint a US special envoy on Jammu and Kashmir. Instead, he is seen lauding Modi, who once was persona non grata for his direct role in massacre of Muslims in the state of Gujarat in 2002.

As if emboldening an India fraught with increasingly hyper-nationalist tendencies and outstanding issues like Jammu and Kashmir was not enough, the US is pushing hard to stretch its clout to volatile Afghanistan on the one hand and the troubled waters of South China Sea and the Pacific Ocean on the other.

The skewed approach reminds one of French leader Charles de Gaulle, who once said, "You may be sure that the Americans will commit all the stupidities they can think of, plus some that are beyond imagination."

Naveed Ahmad is an investigative journalist and academic. He specializes in reporting on diplomacy, conflict and religion. He can be reached at naveed@silent-heroes.tv and tweets at @naveed360