India frets over Obama's Chinamania By M K Bhadrakumar
Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechen's visit to Washington this week is
notable for three reasons. One, Yang is paying a return visit in a little over
a fortnight of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit to Beijing. The
intensity of the US-China traffic is indeed extraordinary by diplomatic norms.
China seems to have blithely overtaken the traditional allies of the US, such
as Germany and Japan.
Two, Yang's visit coincides with the 50th anniversary of the uprising in Tibet.
Washington doesn't seem to be bothered at the coincidence. It is actually
underscoring its current priorities in the US's relations with China. Tibet is
an issue that arouses some animated passion in certain American circles. The US
Congress and State Department have paid heed to these public sentiments
while Beijing on its part has duly regretted the US statements, but both sides
are confident that life must move on.
Clinton made it clear during her Asian tour last month that neither Tibet nor
Taiwan can be allowed to impede the serious business of Sino-US relations in
the current world scenario characterized by the economic crisis.
Three, Yang's visit has been envisaged as a significant input in the run-up to
the Group of 20 (G-20) summit meeting on April 2 in London. True, the US is
widely consulting other countries for opinions on solving the economic crisis.
But, again, the criticality of Chinese input for the US is self-evident from
the fact that Yang has a scheduled meeting with US President Barack Obama.
But viewed from New Delhi, Yang's visit assumes an entirely different color.
The intensity of US-China traffic is in sharp contrast with the virtual absence
of high-level political exchanges between the Indian leadership and Obama. So
much so that the former director for South Asia in the National Security
Council in the George W Bush administration, Xenia Dormandy, penned an article
on Wednesday in The Christian Science Monitor precisely focusing attention on
Dormandy played a key role in coordinating the July 2005 landmark visit of
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to the US that led to the new US-India
strategic relationship. Titled somewhat exaggeratedly - "India: America's
indispensable ally" - her article made an impassioned plea that "Obama's team
would be wise not to forget it [India]". Dormandy pointed out that in foreign
policy, "[The] Obama administration has started with a full sprint. Between the
financial crisis and events in Afghanistan, Iran and Russia, and elsewhere,
it's had to. But in rushing ahead to confront one crisis after another, it
risks forgetting a crucial friend: India."
India's first contact with the Obama administration has been in the nature of
Foreign Office consultations, when the Indian foreign secretary visited
Washington this week. Reading between the lines, the picture that emerges from
the reports of the consultations in Washington is that the US-India
relationship is entering a phase of lull.
There seems to be no other way of describing what is afoot. Somehow, the fizz
is gone from the relationship in comparison with what Indians became used to
during the George W Bush era. In actuality, this is a curious paradigm insofar
as the relationship is stable and is arguably irreversible, and there is a
broad consensus on both sides about the far-reaching importance of the
relationship for the two countries' medium- and long-term interests.
Conceivably, Dormandy might have a point when she characterized India as the
US's "indispensable ally".
A recent Gallup poll shows that India is the fourth-most popular foreign
country in the world for the American public and second only to Japan in the
Asian region - way ahead of China and South Korea. India is the country in
which opinion is the highest in the world - outside of the US - in its positive
regard of America.
So, where exactly lies the problem? The answer points in one direction: the
China syndrome. The unacknowledged, delicate geopolitical reality is that
Beijing has always been the silent third party to the US-India "strategic
partnership" during the past decade.
Indian policy, especially during the term of the present government that is
completing its five-year term in May, has been predicated on the assumption
that the "containment" of China has been, is and will for the foreseeable
future be the cornerstone of the US's Asian strategy. As a result, the US
accorded a unique, enduring status to India as a "counterweight" to China and
as a "balancer" in the international system.
It is debatable whether the US is to be held responsible if such a weird idea
got into the head of the Indians in the first instance. It was plain to see
that the US and China were fast developing a relationship of independence and
that there was no question of the US confronting China or vice versa.
Probably, it suited the US to let such an impression gather in the Indian mind,
while Washington kept working on its relationship with Beijing in the direction
of incrementally making the latter a "stakeholder". The result is that the
Obama administration's overtures to China for a qualitatively new relationship
as a global partner have left Indian strategists with a lousy feeling that
they've been had. Some Indian strategists are already pleading that New Delhi
may simply have to sit out until the Obamamania dies down and Washington
reverts to its good old ways with its hegemonistic instincts intact.
The acuteness of the problem is such that in the present circumstances of the
US economic crisis, there is nothing in comparison with China that India can
offer as a "counterweight" to what the wizards in Beijing are offering. Yang
told Clinton on Wednesday that the China-US relationship was poised at a "new
starting point" and that the two countries "share extensive interests and
shoulder important responsibilities for world peace, stability and
What it means in plain terms is that China, with its financial surplus and
growing stature on the world stage, is prepared to lend a hand to help the US
in various hotspots, apart from cooperating in tidying over the current
Yang suggested to Clinton that both sides "should cultivate a positive and
cooperative relationship, which is of vital importance not only to the benefit
of both peoples but to world peace and prosperity as well".
Clinton responded that the Obama administration would be willing to work with
China to "deepen and expand" cooperation. Both sides have agreed that the G-20
summit holds "great significance" for US-China ties "at a new phase".
The Indian consultations in Washington this week have revealed, on the other
hand, that the Obama administration has its own priorities in foreign policy at
this juncture. These require that the further development of US-India ties
needs to be based on new forms of cooperation as compared to what the Indian
side is used to.
The US State Department spokesman made it a point to downplay the visiting
Indian official's consultations regarding Afghanistan - "it wasn't so much as
we were asking India to do anything specific, but the secretary [Clinton]
wanted to hear the [Indian] foreign secretary's views on the best way forward
in Afghanistan from the Indian point of view. And, that was, in essence, the
basis of the discussion."
The new buzzword in the US-India strategic partnership is climate change. But
the tragedy is that it is simply not sexy enough for Indian strategists who saw
the strategic partnership with the US as a roadway to big-power status.
Indeed, former US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice was on record that the US
was committed to building up India as an influential global player. On the
other hand, the Obama administration has virtually put on the backburner the
US-India civil nuclear cooperation agreement of October 2008. It has yet to
work on its global nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament agenda and to
determine where the agreement with India fits in with any new global
The New York Times reported on Monday that Obama had sought Attorney General
Eric Holder's views regarding all "signing statements" signed by Bush while in
office. New Delhi will be watching Holder's advice with bated breath.
The Indian government has been taking the line that it is only bound by the 123
Agreement with the US and not the US legislation leading to it which place
several riders on Indian policies to be worthy of cooperation with the US in
the nuclear field - riders and preconditions which are perceived in Indian
public opinion as a capitulation of India's right to pursue an independent
Bush favored India with an immensely consequential "signing statement".
Equally, Obama's decision to appoint Robert Einhorn as the under secretary for
international security affairs and non-proliferation at the State Department
causes uneasiness to Indian strategists. They are highly allergic to Einhorn's
earlier opposition to the US-India nuclear deal, so much so that they take
pleasure deriding him as a "non-proliferation ayatollah".
Conceivably, Obama administration will revisit the nuclear deal with India in
one form or another once he reverses the US stance on the Collective Test Ban
Treaty, accelerates a new treaty on capping fissile material production and
indeed once he gets talks with Russia going on a new global nuclear
non-proliferation and disarmament architecture.
The Indian claim that the nuclear deal gives India the status of a nuclear
weapon power and that the US tacitly recognizes such a status certainly seems a
premature rush to judgement.
The paradox of the US-India strategic partnership is that there is, really
speaking, nothing as such to worry about in its trajectory of development. On
such vital areas for US global strategy, such as climate change and
counter-terrorism and energy security, India will always remain a valuable
partner. This alone assures India of a due status in US regional policies.
Again, it may even do a lot of good if the US-India partnership was
"demilitarized", philosophically speaking, and turned its synergies instead
toward aspects of life which are of immense consequence to India's development,
such as public health, agriculture and education.
Obama unwittingly may even do India a great favor by unburdening the US-India
strategic partnership of its heavy baggage of the power politics of the Bush
era and channel it instead into creative, benign directions more attuned to
He could indeed make the US-India relationship more predictable and durable and
enrich it from a long-term perspective by broad-basing the Bush legacy of an
essentially narrow and elitist government-to-government, military-to-military
and business partnership to include in his agenda the Indian people and their
concerns of day-to-day life.
After all, there is nothing more central to regional stability and security in
South Asia than meaningfully addressing the problems of poverty and
Such an enlightened approach on the part of the Obama administration would
also, fortuitously enough, prompt India to search for ways to diversify its
foreign policy, compel it to mend fences with its neighbors more purposively,
make it strive to recapture the verve of its traditional time-tested
friendships and even address the hugely important subject of coming to terms
with China's rise.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign
Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka,
Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.