Amb Kanwal Sibal

President Obama’s forthcoming visit to India is awaited with muted expectations. Both sides need a “successful” visit so that the substantial political investment already made in the bilateral relationship is protected.

The absence of a “defining” issue like the nuclear deal makes the task of projecting “success” relatively more difficult. Moreover, “decisiveness” has not marked Obama’s Presidency, and that too lowers expectations of closure on complex outstanding issues.

He comes to India with great goodwill towards him for what he personally represents in terms of human achievement and the great social change in America, but many aspects of his policies bearing on India’s interests are troubling.

After early mis-steps on Kashmir and China’s role in South Asia, he has tried to allay Indian misgivings through handsome rhetoric and grand gestures that neither should be dismissed with cynicism nor given exaggerated importance as such flourishes are a feature of American diplomacy. The tenor of the several bilateral meetings between him and our Prime MInister has been comforting. His lavish praise of the latter’s contribution to G-20 meetings suggests a good rapport between the two leaders.

But Obama has sounded some persistently discordant notes. He has personally led the charge against American companies practising outsourcing despite the substantive Indian business links this has created. His repeated jibes at “Bangalore” feeds prejudice against the Indian IT sector of the kind reflected in a US senator’s sneering reference to Infosys as a “chop-shop”. The ‘taxing” of HIB and LIA visas used preponderantly by Indians to finance heightened security on the US-Mexican border is a gratuitous blow to the Indian IT industry.

The IT sector, identified officially as a priority bilateral area, comprises the most pro-US lobby in India, and, therefore, taunting it does not serve any discernible purpose. One consequence of these attacks on “Bangalore” is that the city that hosts India’s hi-tech industry- which is avid for more links with the US- can hardly be included in the President’s itinerary. Even if one construes such talk as playing to the domestic gallery at a time of huge unemployment, projecting India as a competitor stealing US jobs advances no core US interest vis a vis India, besides overlooking sizeable job creation by Indian investors in the US.

The Presidential visit should provide the occasion to remove some existing anomalies in ties. Despite a “strategic relationship” some India government organizations such as ISRO, BARC and DRDO, involved in “strategic” activity remain under US sanctions. As such activity relates to nuclear and missile areas, the possibility of US policies being rejigged materially is limited. India is denied high and dual use technologies under more categories than many other countries friendly to the US. Here there is scope for flexibility.

The US Administration admits that its export control regime is outdated and hurts its commercial interests, but modifying it requires going through bureaucratic and Congress- connected processes. Whether some welcome announcement with regard to easing the flow of such technologies to India can be made in time for the visit remains uncertain.

In reality, in some sensitive areas India is delivering its part. In defence, India has begun to acquire US equipment despite intrusive conditionalities and the potential threat of embargoes in case of a regional conflict. Another major contract for 10 C17 aircraft is in the offing. In the last 7 years India and the US have held 50 defence exercises.

The most advanced US technologies remain out of India’s reach, however, unless India signs pending security and inter-operability agreements that for it would be either too intrusive or draw it into operational cooperation in the military field with a country whose regional policies remain incompatible with India’s core interests. It seems unlikely that the pressure of the Presidential visit would induce India to sign these agreements, including the Logistics Supply Agreement,

The Civil Nuclear Liability legislation has badly jolted US companies determined to escape any supplier liability and proceedings against them in US courts. India’s External Affairs Minister has made it clear that the legislation cannot be amended and negotiations have to be conducted within its framework.

Some fine-tuning with regard to the right to recourse may be made when the rules are framed. Meanwhile India could move to subscribe to the Convention on Supplementary Compensation, claiming that its new legislation is compatible with it. Whether US concerns about the legislation can be attenuated before the Presidential visit is open to question.

At the regional level, arming Pakistan even as General Kayani is determined to confront India, tolerating its duplicitous conduct on terrorism directed at India and Afghanistan, countenancing its ambitions in Afghanistan aimed at constraining India geo-politically and hampering regional economic cooperation, damages India’s national interest.

So does seeking a modus vivendi with the unspeakable Taliban as an exit strategy, ignoring the boost this will give to Islamic radicalism in the region at large, with increased pressures on India’s secular polity which is the best guarantee against a further lurch towards religious fundamentalism in South Asia and beyond. US reluctance to take a frontal position against China’s decision conveyed to the IAEA to enlarge unstable, terror-infested Pakistan’s nuclear capacity with supply of two additional nuclear reactors against the NSG guidelines is inconsistent with US’s non-proliferation concerns.

President Obama’s attempt to rebuild US relations with the Islamic world impaired by the Bush Presidency is understandable, but he seems to be leaning too far toward contrition. Averting diplomatic eyes from the pervasive extremist trends there will not eliminate the nature of the threat to countries like the US and India. It is this reach-out to the Islamic world that plays a role also in tolerating Pakistani misdemeanours at India’s expense.

With the current turmoil in Kashmir, pressures may be building up on the President to become active on the issue. Pakistan’s abrasiveness in the UN General Assembly on Kashmir and offensive posturing on the dialogue issue reflect the currents at work. The President’s visit should be used to make our bottom lines on J&K clear, especially our opposition to any third party intervention.

The fiction of its “peaceful rise” was laid bare for India by China’s aggressive posturing on border differences with India earlier on Arunachal Pradesh and now in J&K. China’s increased presence in POK enhances the strategic threat to India. Its expanding military infrastructure in Tibet endangers India’s security. The US-China financial interdependence, the huge stakes of US companies in China, and the current over-extension of the US military makes a recession afflicted America cautious in the face of the rising Chinese challenge.

With China’s mounting aggressiveness in the South China sea, US is likely to strengthen its China-related dialogue with India, but any security framework that would hedge against the Chinese threat should cover, besides Asia-Pacific, South Asia too. This would require the US to acknowledge the combined China-Pakistan threat to India that it has so far refused to do. The US should find a language to support India’s territorial integrity, as it does in China’s case.

President Obama’s visit should be genuinely “successful” in mutual interest, but how to ensure this in real substance, not in soaring rhetoric, given the complexities involved, presents a challenge.

The writer is a former Foreign Secretary
Published in Mail Today, Published Date : October 19, 2010

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