AMBASSADOR RONEN SEN
INDIA-US RELATIONS: POST-PRESIDENT OBAMA’S VISIT
JAMIA MILLIA ISLAMIA CENTRAL UNIVERSITY ON 7 DECEMBER, 2010
Vice-Chancellor, Prof. Najeeb Jung,
Vice-Chancellor, Prof. Najeeb Jung,
Joint Secretary, Navdeep Suri
I am honored to be in your midst at this august institution, the Jamia Millia Islamia Central University. I have been asked to share some thoughts with you this afternoon on the current state of India-US relations, following the visit to India last month of President Barak Obama. The views expressed by me are personal and, apart from my past experience, based on information in the public domain. I was not even present in Delhi during the US President’s visit.
Let me touch briefly on our relationship with the US before the visit. These relations were given a major boost during the visit of President Bill Clinton to India towards the conclusion of his second term as President in 2000. The relationship scaled unprecedented heights during the Presidency of George W. Bush, particularly during his second term in office. This was manifested above all in the historic India-US civil nuclear deal, the unique single country specific exemption for India from the application of the guidelines of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) (which was discriminatory and intentionally so) and the approval of an Additional Protocol by Board of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Another important milestone was the conclusion of a 10 year framework on Defence Cooperation by the two Defence Ministers in 1995. There were several other initiatives for bilateral and global cooperation which transformed India-US relations to the most broad-based relationship that India has with any country in the world. The strategic initiatives, including the nuclear deal, were first envisaged in the Next Steps of Strategic Partnership (NSSP) announced jointly by former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and President George Bush in January 2004. It was strange that this visionary initiative of Shri Vajpayee was not recognised by his own party. Prime Minister Manmonhan Singh’s sagacity and strategic foresight led him to stake the future of his government on this issue. It was also ironic that the major global implications of the deal were better realised by most countries abroad, including by China and Pakistan, than in our Parliament.
Contrary to some misapprehensions, the Obama administration extended its full cooperation in taking all steps for the implementation of the nuclear deal, including the finalization of the reprocessing agreements.
Due to some initial mis-steps in the formative stage of the Obama Administration, there were persistent misgivings about Obama’s commitment to India. His several special gestures were dismissed as symbolism bereft of substance, revealing ignorance of the fact that symbolism is always an important manifestation of policy. It was unfortunate that a delayed recognition of Bush’s invaluable contributions to our relationship was accompanied by unjustified reservations about Obama’s role. There were pointless comparisons of ‘deliverables’ during the Bush Administration and those expected from Obama. I had no doubts that all lingering doubts would be dispelled and that Obama’s visit would be a success, and add new momentum and content to our relationship. I had given this assessment in all my media interactions prior to the visit. As it turned out, however, even my high expectations of this visit were exceeded.
Yet it was unedifying, to put it mildly, to witness particularly on some of our television channels, the rapid transformation of reproach to rapture, of admonition to adulation and of tantrums to triumphalism. We need to be more balanced in our expectations and evaluations.
It is now clearly evident that the US recognises the primacy of India in the Indian subcontinent. Bush had closely coordinated US policies on Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka with evolving Indian policies. Yet he gave a long rope to Musharraf. It was only around mid-2008 that he was exasperated with Pakistani double dealings and the US stepped up drone attacks in Pakistan thereafter. The main US interests in Pakistan included countering terrorism; the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal; reducing religious radicalism in Pakistan in general, and in its army, in particular; combating narcotics trade; promoting good governance; encouraging good relations with India and balancing Pakistani dependence on China. Obama has gone further in quickly realising that the main problem is Pakistan, and that the key to stabilising the Af-Pak situation was not in Kabul or Kandhar, but in Rawalpindi. Unlike Bush, he has not hesitated to openly hold the Pakistani government accountable for removing safe havens and the terrorist infrastructure in that country, and for bringing the perpetrators of the November 2008 terrorist attack to justice – transparently, fully and urgently.
Bill Clinton had despite his objective stand on the Kargil conflict, remained a highly vocal proponent of the need to resolve the Kashmir issue, which he described as a nuclear flash point and the greatest global threat to peace. George Bush, in contrast, adopted a handsoff approach on J&K. Obama has wisely continued this approach since his assumption of office.
Pakistani opposition to India’s presence and developmental activities in Afghanistan has again been brushed aside by Obama, despite reservations of some defence and intelligence analysts in the US. On the Af-Pak issue there is no difference between India and the US in the diagnosis of the problems. What we need is to bridge some differences on the prescriptions for their resolution. I am sure that close confidential consultations are continuing in this regard.
These are welcome developments from our perspective. Yet we should recognize that given Pakistan’s strategic location and its influence relating to Afghanistan, the US is unlikely to go beyond a point to pressurise Pakistan and risk Pakistan falling completely under Chinese influence. It will thus be in our interests to maintain our own direct channels of communications at an appropriate level with Pakistan, irrespective of the status of our composite dialogue process.
While we have some visa issues with the US, it is easier today for Indians to get US visas than it is for many Americans, including those of Indian origin, to get visas for India. The severe restrictions on issue of visas to Pakistani citizens and Pakistani origin nationals of other countries are becoming counter-productive. These adversely affect those who have a strong stake in better relations with India. Such wide-ranging restrictions are in any case no substitute for better intelligence. Even the continuation of the restrictions should not prevent us from clearing or rejecting applications within a couple of days with the use of a constantly updated computerized database.
The leaders of the two countries undoubtedly had a detailed exchange of views on our largest neighbour, China, the emerging security structure in Asia and of free access to global commons in air, sea, space and cyber space. We agreed that we have not only to ‘Look East’ but ‘engage’ East Asia. Having been closely associated with the historic visit of late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to China in 1988, I remain a strong proponent of closer India-China relations. I do not think that it will serve our interests to join any effort to encircle or contain China or interfere in its internal affairs. We will, however, be justified in expecting full reciprocity in terms of statements and actions from China.
Initially the Obama Administration tended to downplay the importance of democracy in terms of its foreign policy priorities. There was instead a focus on only the three other ‘Ds’ – diplomacy, defence and development. Obama subsequently declared that democracy is not only a moral but a strategic imperative; India and the US are not only the largest democracies but also the most pluralist and diverse societies and federal polities. We also have close people to people ties and a large and dynamic Indian origin community in the US, which have continued to act as stabilising factors, even during periods of uneasy inter-governmental relations. None of our major strategic partners, except the UK to a somewhat lesser extent, has this kind of stabilizing dimension to our relationship.
Obama’s lecture to us on Myanmar was clearly an irritant. However, the fact is that both India and the US have double standards in dealing with de jure or de facto military regimes and autocratic governments. For instance, successive US Administrations have propped up military regimes in Pakistan. But, India was also the first country to congratulate Musharraf even before he appointed himself as President. We also invited him to pay a state visit to India at a time when he was shunned by the EU and US. Both our countries will have to arrive at a better balance between their principles and practices.
Obama’s endorsement of India’s inclusion in the UN Security Council was undoubtedly an important manifestation of the high priority he attaches to India. So far the US has supported the claims of only Japan and India for permanent UNSC membership. However, the US has not made any commitment to speed up the process of UN reforms or issued instructions to this effect to its Permanent Representative in New York and to other capitals. Other countries which have pledged their support to UNSC permanent membership should also be expected to take concerted actions to facilitate the process of UNSC reforms. It is another matter that I have personally believed that we should not bang doors to get into the UNSC or any other exclusive forum. We should focus on becoming the third largest economy in real terms and also correspondingly increase our military projection capabilities. If the UNSC is still relevant, we could at that time consider an invitation to join on par with the other permanent members.
While we are in the process of finalising nuclear power agreements with the US, Russia and France, I hope that our legal regime will permit maximising of local content and domestic and foreign private sector participation in terms of investments and manufacture of aggregates and components in India. There is no reason why one state-owned monopoly should operate commercial nuclear power stations in India. The removal of some major Indian organizations, from the US Entities List was an expected but welcome development, and one of the outcomes of the nuclear deal. It should also be viewed as forward movement by the US in the process of removal of non-tariff barriers in high technology trade.
It is a pity that Obama’s pitch for increasing US exports and creating more US jobs has been viewed by some in India as a denigration of his august office as President to that of a “Chief Salesman”. Economic diplomacy has been a major priority for missions and posts abroad for most countries including India. There should be no stigma attached to initiatives to promote the well being of one’s citizens and in imparting more economic ballast to bilateral ties. Unlike most of our major trade partners with whom we have a negative balance of trade, we have for a number of years had a positive balance of trade with the US, in both goods and services. This should prevent India from being clubbed with countries with massive trade surpluses. Obama’s rhetoric on outsourcing has also been far more subdued than other democratic leaders in US.
In the field of defence we can and should do more to promote cooperation with the US. For the first time since our independence we have the option of sourcing equipment and technology from all countries. Contrary to some public perceptions, we had some years ago reached agreement on the Communication Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA), after the US accepted all our proposed amendments. Despite its serious apprehensions about NATO’s missile defence, Russia recently indicated its desire for integration and interoperability of its missile defence system with NATO. In contrast, we are apparently in the process of replacing high technology communication systems and data links in equipments to be procured, thereby lowering performance and increasing costs. Similarly, I do not recall any serious reservations on the proposed Logistic Support Agreement (LSA), which was based on reciprocity and consideration on a case by case basis, with neither side having any automatic rights or obligations. Even without its finalisation, the US extended facilities envisaged in the LSA which enabled our Navy to evacuate our nationals from Lebanon. Both India and US should consider resuming the dialogue in finalizing these agreements without either side going back on formulations agreed to earlier. It is high time that we had a more objective and less ideological analysis of the pros and cons in obtaining the best globally available weapon systems for our armed forces and other national security agencies..
There is growing recognition in both countries that India will never be an ally, in the traditional sense, of the US or any other country. We would, however, be reliable strategic partners, on the basis of mutual benefit and on the convergence of our interests. As between partners, our views or approaches may not always coincide. Neither side can expect the other to exercise a veto on relations with a third country or see eye to eye on all multilateral issues. Yet both countries can expect the other to take its interests into consideration while formulating policies.
India-US relations have not yet reached a stage where it can be self-sustaining and can be put on auto-pilot. Both countries are changing and so is the world. The relationship has, however, been dramatically transformed and matured in recent years. Personal relations between Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama with their Indian counterparts, Prime Ministers Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh, have played an important role in this process. The visit of President Obama to India has not only consolidated our relationship, but raised it to a qualitatively higher level. Both countries will have to assure the fulfillment of all commitments and maintain the momentum of the relationship.