As the U.S. and India hold their strategic dialogue June 1-4, the Obama administration faces a year and a half of strained relations with New Delhi. Indians have observed Obama's trend of distancing allies while embracing enemies and wonder whether they are next in line.
The American foreign-policy team has correctly identified what priorities should be included in the discussion this week -- security and counterterrorism, the environment, economic issues, agriculture and education. Yet last summer's strategic dialogue was little more than a public relations victory; it did not translate into a more secure relationship in the months that followed.
Two years ago, Washington had a closer relationship with New Delhi than at any previous point since India's founding in 1947. The Civil Nuclear Agreement, signed in 2008, overturned more than 30 years of U.S. sanctions and policies against its fellow democracy, marking the first nuclear cooperation between the two countries since India first tested its nuclear bomb in 1974. U.S.-India collaboration was also growing in areas across the board. But since Barack Obama took office, the relationship has taken a turn for the worse.
Not only has Obama failed to reassure his friends in New Delhi that they are a priority; a few of his statements and actions have alarmed them. During Obama's candidacy and his first year in office, many in India perceived his stance on Kashmir and Indo-Pakistani relations as an affront to their sovereignty. Since taking office, Obama has neglected to put anyone within his administration clearly in charge of U.S.-India policy. The Joint Statement that Obama issued with China in November was interpreted by India as a threat to its status as both a regional and a global authority. Obama tried to pressure New Delhi to commit to climate-change measures that India stated would inhibit its economy; and when Copenhagen failed to produce any substantial agreement, much of the news coverage blamed India, along with China and Brazil. Obama has also wavered about granting Indian authorities access to question David Headley, an American citizen who has been tied to the Mumbai terrorist attacks of November 2008; and despite India's contribution to Afghan regime change, Obama has appeared to favor Pakistan, much to New Delhi's dismay.
Consequently, India is feeling increasingly uncertain of its standing, which harms not only its existing relationship with the United States but also jeopardizes potential for even more cooperation in areas where interests are similar or even identical. The United States could greatly gain from a closer relationship with India, but this will require continued commitment and attention from the United States — something the Obama administration has not consistently delivered.
A month before the 2008 presidential elections, Obama gave an interview to Time Magazine that set Indians worrying. Candidate Obama implied that if Pakistan were given its way in Kashmir, Islamabad would better support U.S. efforts in Afghanistan. Obama said he wanted to "devote serious diplomatic resources to get a special envoy in [Kashmir], to figure out a plausible approach, and essentially make the argument to the Indians, you guys are on the brink of being an economic superpower, why do you want to keep on messing with this?"
But the status of Jammu and Kashmir is an especially sensitive subject to India. It has come to blows three times with Pakistan over the disputed region. International meddling in Kashmir is an additional sore spot; in 1948, much to Nehru's surprise, the United Nations supported Pakistan's claims over Kashmir, and in the early 1950s, India resentfully suspected Washington was backing state separatists there. For India, the region also constitutes a national-security concern, as the fear remains that violent Islamic militants will cross from Pakistan through Jammu and Kashmir to terrorize its citizens. Barack Obama's campaign statement therefore put him on the wrong foot with India from the beginning. Yet even after his election, and despite the Indian ink spent explaining the significance of region and decrying his stance, Obama waited until June 2009 to explicitly state that the U.S. would not be mediating in Kashmir.
Obama's Kashmir faux pas might be explained by his appointments- or rather, his lack of them. So far, no one in his administration can be identified as the mastermind of any India policy. By contrast, Strobe Talbott guided Bill Clinton's India policy, as did Bob Blackwill for Bush's first term and Nicholas Burns for the second. Hillary Clinton made progress in reassuring India of American friendship when she visited last summer, but as secretary of state, her attentions are divided among all global affairs. An India-policy point-person might not be necessary if the president and secretary of state established a consistent policy toward New Delhi and devoted more attention to courting Indian leaders. But as Nicholas Burns said in an interview: "Where both Bush and Clinton succeeded was that they sent the message to the Indian government: 'You are a high priority for the administration.' I frankly don't think that has been done yet by the Obama administration. … I'm not trying to be critical of President Obama. He's had the toughest year for any president in recent memory… but they do need to make a singular effort to reach out to the Indians."
India's reaction to other Obama appointments demonstrated the country's insecurity and, and times, hypersensitivity about its standing with the United States; and while some of these concerns are clearly overblown, they demonstrate how seriously India takes any fluctuation in the message from Washington.
As Obama assumed office, his administration considered appointing Richard Holbrooke as a special envoy to Kashmir, in addition to Pakistan and Afghanistan, further fueling Indian fears of U.S. meddling. Indian outcry ensued, and Obama ultimately left Kashmir off of Holbrooke's list of responsibilities. Whether the Indian reaction was justified or not, many Indian politicians and thinkers stated that even the consideration of an Afghanistan-Pakistan-Kashmir envoy showed Obama's dismissive attitude toward Indian priorities. Meeting further Indian disapproval, Obama appointed former California Rep. Ellen Tauscher as Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security. A staunch nonproliferationist, Tauscher had argued against the U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Agreement, though she has since admitted it did not weaken the NPT. Finally, a few have even criticized Obama's choice of Timothy Roemer as ambassador to India. While by no means underqualified, Roemer was not an lifelong expert on India. The most ardent Obama critics were quick to compare Roemer to Obama's ambassador to Beijing, Jon Huntsman, a career China sophisticate with fluency in Mandarin.
The fear in New Delhi that Beijing was receiving preferential treatment rose to a pinnacle in November, when Obama visited China and issued a joint statement, just as several media organizations opined about the formation of a G-2. Especially disconcerting to Indians was a clause in the joint statement welcoming "all efforts conducive to peace, stability and development in South Asia. [The United States and China] support efforts of Afghanistan and Pakistan to fight terrorism, maintain domestic stability and achieve sustainable economic and social development, and support the improvement and growth of relations between India and Pakistan. The two sides are ready to strengthen communication, dialogue and cooperation on issues related to South Asia and work together to promote peace, stability and development in the region."
The Indian alarm elicited by the U.S.-China Joint Statement gets at the fundamental disagreement between New Delhi and the Obama administration. India sees itself as a global power and takes any indication otherwise as a slight. In many ways, it is a world power: its economy is large and will continue to grow; its population is increasing; its influence expands beyond its neighbors; it contributes to global security efforts; it is a nuclear power; it is becoming the patron of smaller powers, too. However, it also remains mired in regional problems not befitting of a superpower, the foremost being its deadlock with Pakistan. To put it on par with China is not accurate, but to classify it as a mere regional power is a false assessment, too. Although the Indians may overestimate their role, Obama has underestimated it.
The Indians interpreted the U.S.-China Joint Statement as a marginalization of their role in the international order- and one that would have consequences. Talk of a G-2 had already bothered India, which prefers the G-20. But the joint statement seemed to imply that China could intervene in India's regional affairs, and that Obama would support such efforts in the name of "peace, stability, and development." Given the existing tensions between India and China, that is a risky invitation.
India reacted to the joint statement with strong disapproval. Two days later, Robert Blake seemingly qualified the Joint Statement, saying that while "we welcome China's participation in helping to stabilize" the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, Indo-Pakistani relations were really up to leaders in Islamabad and New Delhi. William Burns, undersecretary of state for political affairs, then stated that improved relations with China do not necessarily detract from the relationship with India. These mixed messages from Washington support the notion that the Obama administration has not yet developed a cohesive India policy, which in turn can be interpreted by New Delhi as a further evidence of India's diminished stature in U.S. eyes.
A month later, at Copenhagen, India flexed its muscles. Since the summer of 2009, the Obama administration, in concert with the EU, had been pressuring India to accept binding carbon-emissions limits. Obama ignored India's concerns that such agreements would limit its economy, hurt its development, and keep its lower classes in poverty. The showdown in Copenhagen was a symbolic victory for the developing world over the first world as India united with Brazil, China, and other developing nations, arguing for environmental considerations to be tempered with economic ones. They also submitted that developed countries bore greater responsibility for harming the environment and should therefore make the most substantial concessions. The U.S. and Europe managed to secure only a weak, nonbinding agreement. Altogether, little was accomplished at the climate-change conference. But India left with the feeling that its concerns were being brushed aside by the U.S. and Europe. It also resented the suggestion by the Western media that it had "wrecked" Copenhagen.
As the showdown at Copenhagen indicated, there is much to be said for India as a global power. Even if Obama does view India as a mere regional power, some of his policies regarding regional matters or India's domestic security considerations have hurt the diplomatic relationship.
Especially contentious is the United States' withholding of access to David Coleman Headley, of Chicago, who almost certainly participated in the November 2008 terrorist attack on Mumbai that killed at least 166 people. Headley, according to some accounts, was a U.S. agent gone bad. The Indian government repeatedly requested the opportunity to question him about his involvement in the attacks in Mumbai, but the response from Washington was, for a long time, incoherent. First, Indian investigators were denied the opportunity to question Headley; Robert Blake said investigators would have access; Timothy Roemer then said the U.S. has no decision about Indian investigators' access to him; Obama has said he supports India's request to access Headley; and Roemer then spoke of pending access. Finally, last week, India's prime minister, Manmohan Singh, announced that he has been "assured by the highest [authorities] in the U.S. administration that we will get access to David Headley." The questioning will likely take place in the beginning of June, which is most likely an effort to remove one contentious issue from the strategic dialogue agenda.
But the lengthy withholding Headley has been even more unsettling, given the context surrounding the Mumbai attacks. Although the terrorists had close ties to Pakistan, Singh acted with restraint toward its neighbor, presumably to allow Obama to get his strategy toward Pakistan and Afghanistan underway without any additional stresses. It was a political risk feasible only as long as the United States acts in a way aligned with long-term Indian interests and Indian safety. But more than a year later, at the April nuclear security summit, Singh was still discontent about Pakistan's terror prosecution — and, by implication, U.S. pressure on Pakistan to prosecute the Mumbai terrorists. Singh added that "convincing action" had yet to be taken against the Mumbai plotters.
Obama's policy toward Pakistan has also caused a rift in the U.S. relationship with India. Under Bush, cooperation with Pakistan was matched by overtures, agreements, and reassurances to India. Although both countries play an important role in the war on terror, both react strongly to the smallest hint of preferential treatment toward their enemy. While neither relationship is mutually exclusive, it's easy for either Pakistan or India to see it as a zero-sum game. Nuance is essential in balancing the regional U.S.-Pakistan-India relationship, just as it is in the global U.S.-India-China relationship.
Lately, however, Indians perceive that Obama considers Pakistan the priority. The Obama administration has held several high-level meetings with Pakistani counterparts, giving them far more attention than India in recent months. Further, Indians are worried that military aid to Pakistan is being diverted to the Islamists through "the military-jihad complex," as many call it. According to the Congressional Research Service, in 2009, the United States spent $1.689 billion on security-related aid and military reimbursements to Pakistan. $300 million of that went to foreign military financing. But many in New Delhi fear that ultimately, Pakistan will use the arms it obtains from the United States against India, not against terrorists. Overall, New Delhi wants Washington to demand more accountability from Islamabad, especially considering Pakistan's bad track record of transparency about the use and whereabouts of weapons and military supplies.
India also took offense in January when the United States sided against it in favor of Pakistan at the London Conference on Afghanistan. The event was perhaps magnified in Indian minds because the London Conference came on the heels of another similar conference held in Istanbul that purported to include regional powers but notably excluded India. At the London Conference, the U.S. joined the U.K. and Pakistan, taking steps toward supporting the "good Taliban." India has long tried to integrate minority religious groups into the broader culture even amid communal violence; and despite the frequent attribution to Obama, it was Indira Ghandi who first said, "You cannot shake hands with a clenched fist." But India, which is not naïve on the issue of Islamism, draws no distinction between "good Taliban" and "bad Taliban." It has stated that negotiations with the group are feasible only "if the Taliban accept the Afghan constitution, sever connections with al-Qaida and other terrorist groups and renounce violence and are accepted into the mainstream of Afghan politics and society." Granted, no formal decision was reached at the London Conference, explaining why American pundits attributed little significance to its effect on U.S.-India relations. But many foreign-policy experts in India again felt that the Obama administration was once again not listening to their government's concerns. The lack of consideration from Obama arguably had greater significance than the debate about communicating with the Taliban.
Indians and Americans hold different assessments of the health of the bilateral relationship. Most American foreign-policy experts note Obama's mixed India record but do not see big trouble ahead. They are particularly quick to mention the strong economic relationship and the fact that Manmohan Singh was honored as Barack Obama's first head-of-state visitor to the White House, despite the embarrassing party-crasher incident. But opinion in India is quite different. Among the many Indian journalists, foreign-policy experts, diplomats and military officials interviewed for this article, few were optimistic about where the U.S.-India relationship is headed under Obama. The discrepancy between American and Indian perception is telling
The strained relationship originates primarily from a difference in perception of India's role in the world. The Obama administration might be correct in acknowledging that India has not yet attained a world-power status on par with that of China or the United States; perhaps India could best be defined as a major transcontinental power. Instead of pursuing a myopic foreign policy, however, it would be in the best interests of the United States to treat India as if it were a world power even if it is not quite there yet. A strong relationship with India does not preclude one with Pakistan, China, or other major player; by driving India away, Obama will only limit American opportunities. A parallel example exists in the early 1900s, when Great Britain acknowledged America's rise and acted to secure a strong relationship with it. (This comparison, of course, only goes so far; India is not expected to surpass the United States.) Even if Obama decides not to pursue a farsighted policy that recognizes India's existing and potential importance, then at very least, India's opinion on regional affairs deserves a more thorough hearing. An India alienated by the United States might well be tempted to bolster its standing by cozying up to Russia or even Iran.
Obama's approach to India overlooks the need for cooperation to achieve his goals in both national security and foreign policy -- areas where Indian and American interests align. Cooperation on these international issues does not risk drawing the U.S. into India's contentious domestic politics. India is especially enthusiastic about working with the United States to fight terrorists, to establish a stable government in Afghanistan, and to balance China's rise.
In the international war against Islamists, India has both the experience in fighting terrorism and the incentive to cooperate with the United States. As the modern India came into existence in the throes of communal violence, its leaders have always contended with tensions among the majority Hindu population, the large Muslim population, and the minority Sikhs. Battles against Naxalites have given India even more experience in dealing with terror. Moreover, as Sadanand Dhume said in Commentary in 2008, "In recent years, more civilians have been killed in India as a result of Islamic terror than in any other country aside from war-torn Afghanistan and Iraq." Especially after the attack on Mumbai, India's commitment to the international war on terror was renewed. The U.S. Department of State, in its most recent report which examined 2008, ranked India as "among the world's most terrorism afflicted countries." Since September 11 and the Mumbai attacks, counterterror cooperation between the U.S. and India has increased. In 2005, India and the United States signed a 10-year framework agreement that transformed military-to-military operations. Similarly, in 2005, the U.S.-India Defense Planning Group was established, which covered broad defense relations, military trade, and military exports. Since the U.S. war on terror began, exchanges between top security officials have been frequent, as well as joint military exercises and trading information on weaponry. In the past two years, India has signed top-dollar defense contracts with U.S. companies -- not just an act of national-security cooperation, but also an economic overture. Under consideration as well are agreements to increase the exchange of military supplies and to deepen cooperation on military counterterror operations and intelligence-sharing.
Closely related to India's counterterror efforts is its pursuit of a strong, democratic government in Afghanistan, an undertaking that has supported U.S. efforts at regime change. According to several Indian foreign-policy experts, New Delhi worries that a failed Afghan regime will become a terrorist refuge and a satellite of Pakistan. Beyond these concerns, however, India cares about Afghanistan because of the longstanding political and cultural ties, which faltered only when the Taliban gained power in the 1990s, but were strengthened again after the start of the war on terror. Both India and Afghanistan have historically been trading partners: Indian movies and music are popular throughout Afghanistan, providing Indians an opportunity to influence Afghan thought. Finally, because of its own large Muslim population and the diverse makeup of its own citizenry, India understands Afghanistan's democratic potential, as well as its tribes and factions. India has a good track record of peaceably integrating these groups- an experience that can only further its work in Afghanistan.
Since 2001, India has been more than a reliable partner in building a stable regime in Afghanistan. India is the biggest regional donor to Afghanistan, having pledged $1.3 billion to reconstruction efforts, "which for India is real money," David Malone, the former Canadian High Commissioner to India, said in an interview. It is also the fifth-largest bilateral contributor to Afghanistan globally, just after the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan, and Germany. U.S. officials have called Indian contributions "critical" in the fight against terror. The Indian embassy in Kabul details its work "virtually in all parts of Afghanistan, in a wide range of sectors including hydro-electricity, power transmission lines, road construction, agriculture and industry, telecommunications, information and broadcasting, education and health, which have been identified by the Afghan government as priority areas for development." India is also footing the bill for Afghanistan's $90 million new parliament building and has worked to train Afghani police and diplomats. Although the Indian embassy could not confirm the number, Newsweek has reported that as of November 2009, at least 4,000 Indian workers and security personnel are involved in reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan. In the last two years, at least four Indian projects have been attacked, killing at least 101 people and wounding 239.
Beyond the war on terror and the reformation of Afghanistan, India offers a willing counterweight to the rise of China. An Indian-Western alliance to balance Chinese growth is not a new idea. Vallabhbhai Patel, India's influential first home minister, early on advocated a "defensively strong" India, especially when combined with Western powers; Jawaharlal Nehru, however, who sought a brotherly relationship with the Chinese leftists he so admired, ignored Patel's suggestion. When territorial disagreements in the late 1950s eventually led to war in 1962, India fought and lost to Mao's army -- a severe blow to Indian confidence.
The same tensions persist today; they revolve around border disputes and India's harboring of the Dalai Lama, even though a careful balance between the two states seems to have been reached. American foreign policy under Bush was partially based on the calculation that India wanted to elevate its world status, and therefore cooperate with the United States to ensure that China would not overstep or threaten common interests.
A strong U.S. relationship with India would also help to further American interests in Asia overall, as well as giving Washington better leverage with Beijing. In the past, triangular diplomacy between Washington, New Delhi, and Beijing has helped both India and China feel more at ease with each other, promoting overall regional stability. As U.S. Deputy Secretary for Defense William J. Lynn said in November, both India and the U.S. acknowledge China as a "significant entity" in Asia and seek growing relations with it.
Beyond counterterror efforts, Afghan regime change, and balancing China, many of India's international interests align with those of the United States. Of course, defense, counterterrorism, and national-security considerations will always be critical to India, which not only lives in the middle of a rough neighborhood but also faces its own domestic threats. But President George W. Bush's progress toward a closer relationship with India also opened up several new opportunities for close relations. If the Obama administration fosters better relations in the arenas of business and trade, education, and agriculture, it could only be of benefit to the U.S. As Nicholas Burns said, "If the Obama team could take on one or more of the initiatives to make them a priority, and for the next for or five years, that could be the equivalent [to the progress made by the Civil Nuclear Agreement]."
Already, business cooperation between the United States and India has been increasing since Rajiv Gandhi's 1991 economic reforms; according to Ron Somers of the U.S.-India Business Council, it is now at its strongest stage ever. India will still be instrumental in any comprehensive international climate-change measures. Its navy plays a strong role in protecting trade and fighting piracy. Its peaceful handling of its nuclear-power status sets an example for other world powers.
In sum, Washington and New Delhi make natural partners in many areas of both short- and long-term importance. Some have suggested that after an achievement as monumental as the Civil Nuclear Agreement, a cooling period is natural. This is a false perception. Many diverse opportunities remain to deepen the relationship between India and the United States. India has had a rocky first year and a half under Obama, but it is not too late to change. This week's strategic dialogue would be an ideal turning point.