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Millennium Post

Obama’s East Side story

Even before the US Presidential election wind could settle down, Obama’s statement on the sidelines of the East Asia summit that ‘India is a big part of my plan’ reoriented Washington’s dedication to tackle the carry over strategic challenges in Afghanistan and Asia-Pacific for which it looks at New Delhi as a reliable partner.

Many commentators in the US as well as India do not believe that Obama’s second term is going to spring much surprise with respect to the relations between both the countries. Obama’s statement, nonetheless, speaks volumes on what the next four years hold in terms of trade, security, Asian regional cooperation and addressing issues like climate change and food security. India has already been termed a ‘linchpin’ in the Asia-Pacific region by US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta but recent events transpire India’s centrality in the US plans to contain growing Chinese assertiveness in Asia-Pacific and the post-2014 situation in Afghanistan.

The pivot to Asia-Pacific region has been heralded as a move to simultaneously engage as well as contain China, fashionably termed as ‘congagement’. Thus, even as team Obama talks about ‘a thriving China being good for America’ and makes attempts at pursuing engagement via diplomatic channels, it is hedging its bets.  Notably, the United States has already established military bases in South Korea, Japan, Philippines, Singapore, Guam and Australia. The administration has also been forging new partnerships with countries like Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam along with reviving US-Japan-India trilateral. Revival of the US-Japan-India-Australia quadrilateral also appears likely.

The US bear hug to India could already be felt in Obama’s first administration after a brief disconnect in the early policy formulation. Obama in his three-day visit to India in 2010 was high on rhetoric while emphasising India’s role as an Asian power. He endorse d India’s candidacy for permanent membership of the reformed United Nations Security Council and agreed to support the membership of the nuclear export control groups. The US has also professed its intention of ramping up our defense capabilities. While defense sales and military to military relations have already scored well, speculations are rife that Obama administration might focus on direct defense industrial collaboration raising the operational proficiency of the Indian military and expanding India’s inventory of US defense equipment.

With regard to Afghanistan, Washington has been placing bets on New Delhi to help it resolve the Afghan situation after the withdrawal of most of the International Security Assistance Force in the post-2014 scenario. US top diplomat Wendy Sherman’s recent visit to New Delhi was aimed at seeking India’s contribution in reconstruction and stabilising the security situation in the war-torn country. India’s national security adviser Shivshankar Menon also met his US counterpart Thomas Donilon in Phnom Penh, at the sidelines of the East Asia Summit held recently, and discussed the issue in great detail. Prior to that, the first trilateral meeting between Afghanistan, India and US was organised in New York in October in which officials from the three countries deliberated on Afghanistan’s future. 

In the past also, India had helped in the reconstruction activities in Afghanistan. India built the Zaranj-Delaram road connecting Afghanistan to Iran in 2008. However, it was relegated to sidelines as US officials talked up Pakistan’s contribution. Obama administration’s early policy of putting pressure on New Delhi to engage with Islamabad to solve the Kashmir question had offended India.

However, US relations with Pakistan nosedived in the first half of Obama’s administration due to the disenchantment with regard to Islamabad’s duplicity in counter terrorism operations. On the other hand, Washington started viewing New Delhi as a reliable partner in the region. Moreover, it has been observed that Afghans have often welcomed India’s reconstruction activity more warmly than other international programmes. Resultant, India is now being courted to help in the new security set up so as to prevent Taliban from taking control of the government.  For this purpose, the US is also keen that India provides training to the Afghan National Army.

Washington realises that it cannot afford to shoulder Afghanistan’s security without other regional actors taking load. However, it has ruled out Pakistan and Iran completely and wants Russia and China to be kept at a distance as well, until the last resort. Therefore, India’s role has been valued in the US policy circles. The decision to withdraw international troops has already been met with criticism by Russia, China and Iran who feel that a hasty withdrawal would jeopardise the security of Afghanistan as well as the region on the whole. However, presence of troops on a long term basis as mentioned in the ‘US-Afghan Strategic Partnership’ signed in May 2012, has also remained a point of discontentment as it is viewed as United States’ attempt to use Afghanistan as a satellite state from which it could pursue its own interests in the region. India on its part realises that a stable Afghanistan is imperative to its security interest. Yet, India till now has demonstrated that it is not ready to send troops on the ground. This has kept Obama in a dilemma as to how to prevail over India to accept regional security responsibilities.

The question remains whether India wants to play the regional game the US style?  While India till now has shown caution with regard to the rebalancing strategy, it has been upbeat about its bilateral relations with the US. Moreover, India is bound to welcome certain aspects of the rebalancing approach, especially with regard to defense relations. With US insistence, the ‘Look East policy’ of India is finally taking a high gear as India has signed Free Trade Agreements (FTA) and negotiations with the ASEAN nations. It is after 20 years that New Delhi has finally woken up to forge closer economic ties with the rest of Asia, a move that the US policy makers believe is essential for the integration of the Asia-Pacific region under a US umbrella. With regard to Afghanistan there is a realization back home that helping in reconstruction is bound to reap rewards for India, economically as well as strategically.

Yet, there has been a guarded approach among policy makers to antagonize Beijing. With change of guard in Beijing, New Delhi is preparing to reach out to the fifth generation Chinese leadership with the aim of ensuring continuity along with the new approaches to manage each other’s concerns.

Thus, whether it is with regard to compete for regional influence in Asia- Pacific or Indian Ocean; or scope of future engagement with Afghanistan, leaders from both the countries would want to convert potential challenges into opportunities. It is evident that like China, India also remains preoccupied with meeting its economic demands and need for energy resources. Thus, it would try to balance its foreign policy between Beijing’s realist deliberations and Washington’s efforts to maintain its global power status.

Shreya Upadhyay is a research scholar at JNU
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