Has Obama's Visit Addressed India's Core Concerns?
Amb Satish Chandra, Vice Chairman, VIF

Satish Chandra, the former deputy national security adviser, wonders whether India's core interests were addressed during President Obama's meetings with Prime Minister Singh.

That the three-day Obama visit to India was an indisputable success is not in doubt whether seen from the public diplomacy angle, the transactional arrangements arrived at, the purely political side, or the reinforcement of rapport between the president and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

The extent to which it has, however, been leveraged to address India's core security concerns in regard to the threat from Pakistan and China remains a question mark.

If India was able to showcase its rich cultural heritage, pluralistic society, economic capabilities and modernisation efforts, Obama wowed everybody he interacted with, from the politicians to the victims of the 26/11 attacks, from the captains of industry to the students, and from the bureaucrats to the social workers, with his humility, wit and intelligence.

This exercise is an important part in the process of bringing the peoples of the two countries closer together and in ensuring that they do not once again revert to the situation of being estranged democracies as in the Cold War years.

It is a fair bet that all those who were privileged to interact with the president and his wife, in particular the youth, would have become not only their fervent admirers and supporters, but also those of the US.

On the transactional side, too, it is a tribute to the leadership and bureaucracies on both sides that the outcome did not disappoint. As Obama himself stated, more agreements were concluded during his India visit than during any other similar visit made by him.

If during the Bush visit in 2006 there was one single overarching understanding which overshadowed all others, notably the nuclear deal, during the Obama visit there have been a plethora of understandings, all significant in themselves, but none clearly dominating others, in nearly every conceivable area of national activity stretching from agriculture to space, from education to defence, from energy to health, from higher education to trade and commerce and from counter-insurgency to the promotion of a nuclear weapon-free world.

If Obama can look back with satisfaction and claim that deals worth $10 billion have been clinched which would help create over 50,000 jobs in the US, India can derive satisfaction from the removal of the Indian Space Research Organisation, munitions maker Bharat Dynamics Limited and the Defence Research and Development Organisation, along with many of their subsidiaries, from the Entities List, together with the indication that India would be treated like close allies in regard to clearances for import of sensitive equipment and materials, and the undertaking that the US would be supportive of India's membership of export control regimes like the Nuclear Suppliers Group, Missile Technology Control Regime, Australia group (an informal grouping on nuclear exports) and the Wassenaar Arrangement (a treaty that controls exports of conventional weapons).

What makes these transactional arrangements all the more satisfactory is that they are of a win-win nature.

Thus, for instance, the lifting of export controls for sensitive equipment for India while of obvious benefit to us also helps increase jobs in the US and India's membership of export control regimes while enabling it to be a part of their rule setting mechanism also draws it into the international non proliferation architecture which has for long been a US goal.

On the purely political front India can also rest happy with the categorical call in the joint statement for the 'elimination of safe havens and infrastructure for terrorism and violent extremism in Afghanistan and Pakistan' and for bringing 'to justice the perpetrators of the November 2008 Mumbai attacks.'

Equally heartening is the commitment enshrined in the joint statement of both sides 'to intensify consultation, cooperation, and coordination to promote a stable, democratic, prosperous and independent Afghanistan' coupled not only with the US side's warm appreciation of India's 'enormous contribution' to Afghanistan's development but also the call for 'enhanced Indian assistance.'

Indeed, the joint statement, perhaps, went a little too far in suggesting joint India-US development projects in Afghanistan as this could result in US unpopularity in the country rubbing off on us!

It is, therefore, to be hoped that while we may, at the macro level, join with the US in planning developmental activities in Afghanistan, we should refrain from partnering it on the ground in the actual implementation of any project.

It is also significant that the two sides agreed to deepen their strategic consultations on Central Asia, West Asia and East Asia with the president going so far as stating that India should not only 'look East', but also 'engage the East.'

These assertions and statements represent US support for a more activist Indian policy on the regional and global scene and a welcome sign of a more collaborative approach of the US vis a vis India on this score.

This is a salutary development particularly in the context of the more assertive positions being taken by China in the region.

In line with the president's assertion that the US welcomed India's rise and that the US-India partnership was indispensable for global peace and security he looked forward to India being a permanent member in a reformed UN Security Council.

While the process of India securing a permanent seat in the UN Security Council will be long drawn out, it is very significant that the US has finally come out in unequivocal support of our candidature and will greatly help us in this regard.

This support is not conditional on India's conduct and, specifically, does not hinge on its policy vis a vis Myanmar as some made out on the basis of an erroneous interpretation of the president's address to Parliament, where the latter in announcing his support for India's candidature had gone on to underline the responsibilities that would come with permanent membership of the UN Security Council and mildly criticise India for having shied away from chastising Myanmar for its human rights violations.

Not only is no such conditionality reflected in the joint statement but the latter is also devoid of any mention of Myanmar!!

There can be little doubt that the visit has deepened the already very good chemistry between Dr Singh and President Obama. The differences of nuance between the two in their joint press conference on outsourcing and dialogue with Pakistan are par for the course during such visits and should not be overinterpreted.

What is much more important is whether the two leaders are comfortable with each other and are able to do business with each other.

The positive body language between two leaders and the very meaty joint statement evolved by them is ample testimony that theirs is a warm and friendly relationship based on respect and trust.

It is a tribute to the two sides that the glitches, some real (like the US consulate general's faux pas of requiring ID proof for Maharashtra government invitees) and others imagined (like the quite unnecessary questioning of the propriety of the BJP spokesperson's expression of disappointment at Obama's non mention of Pakistani involvement in the Mumbai attacks at the memorial meeting for the victims of 26/11), were not allowed to mar the visit.

While one would not be wrong in concluding that the Obama visit was a considerable success for India, the question that remains unanswered, for those watching developments from the sidelines, is how far it went in addressing India's core security concerns emanating from the threats posed by Pakistan and China. It is reasonable to assume that the two were certainly discussed by the two leaders at least in private.

We certainly know that Kashmir was discussed.

What one does not know is to what extent Dr Singh was able to convince the president that dialogue with Pakistan was not possible on this issue until and unless the latter's involvement in terrorism directed against India was not put down.

One fears from their exchange on this issue at their joint press conference that there were differences between the two in the matter.

One is also in the dark as to the extent to which the president may have pressed Dr Singh on a US mediatory role in the matter and the shape that such a role may take. It also remains unclear on whether Dr Singh urged the president to put a stop to arming Pakistan, as such weapons would ultimately be used against India, and if he did so what was the response he received.

Similarly, while both leaders did not so much as mention China in their public statements it must not only have figured in their talks but would also have constituted a backdrop to their interactions.

One wonders whether the two leaders shared assessments on the possible threat that it posed to their respective countries as well as to international peace and stability, and deliberated upon the measures that could be taken to mitigate this threat?

While the answers to these questions are unlikely to become known to the public at large any time soon, and this is only appropriate, but it is, nevertheless, to be hoped that these matters were discussed and helped in promoting a closer understanding in regard to our core security concerns.

Satish Chandra has served as India's high commissioner to Pakistan and was India's Permanent Representative to the United Nations in Geneva. He has also served as Deputy National Security Adviser.

Published in Rediff News on 11th November, 2010

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