CoverStory

Indispensable India

Building on Bush’s legacy in South Asia, the Obama Administration is negotiating a delicate new balance of powers

By C Raja Mohan

The Obama Administration might have returned the United States to East Asia, but it was George W. Bush who brought America back into South Asia at the turn of the millennium. When he came to power in January 2001, Bush was determined to deal with the rise of China and organise a new great power balance that would favour freedom. India, the world’s largest democracy, had a special place in the new president’s world view and he decreed that Washington would assist India in its rise to great power status. When Bush departed in 2008, the rapid rise of China and the emergence of India had generated new linkages between South and East Asia, and Obama has sought to build and improvise upon the Bush legacy on the Subcontinent.

Prior to this, at the end of the 1980s, the US had largely turned its back on South Asia after compelling the Soviet Union to withdraw from Afghanistan. The consequences of the strategy adopted to achieve this goal—the promotion of a jihad against godless communists—came back to haunt the US in the form of al Qaeda and other violent extremist organisations. September 11 brought the United States back into South Asia. The subsequent focus on the war on terrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the US decision to invade Iraq and promote the democracy agenda in the Middle East inevitably detracted from an initial Bush emphasis towards East Asia. 

But while the war on terrorism and stabilisation of Afghanistan saw a renewed American dependence on Pakistan, the US did not abandon the goal it had set for itself to transform its relationship with India. Unlike the 1950s and 1980s, when larger strategic imperatives compelled the US to privilege Pakistan over India, the Bush administration sought to deepen the relationship with Islamabad and Delhi simultaneously. Through a strategy that was called de-hyphenation, Washington focused on building relationships with the Subcontinental rivals, each on their own merit and avoiding a zero-sum game.

The US declared Pakistan a major non-NATO ally and showered it with economic and military assistance in return for its support in the war on terrorism. India, in turn, was seen as a potential partner in building a stable Asian balance of power. For the first time, Washington’s policies towards Pakistan and India were driven by two different objectives. As part of its effort to overcome political distrust in Delhi, Washington addressed two important traditional grievances of India: a perceived American tilt towards Pakistan in the dispute over Jammu and Kashmir; and the prolonged blockade of high technology flows in the name of defending the global nuclear order. For the former, Washington ended its traditional diplomatic activism to promote a solution. For the latter, the US actively promoted reconciliation between India and the international non-proliferation regime through the controversial civil nuclear initiative. The Bush years also saw the significant expansion of India-US defence cooperation.

While the policy of de-hyphenation succeeded, Washington had to occasionally intervene to defuse military and nuclear crises between India and Pakistan, and encourage them to embark on a dialogue to resolve all bilateral issues. Whatever its effectiveness, the Bush administration pressed the Pakistan Army to end its support to anti-India terrorism groups and stepped up its counter-terrorism security cooperation with India.

It was this legacy of simultaneous expansion of US engagement with India and Pakistan that Obama inherited from Bush. This legacy involved an interesting paradox. Although the war on terrorism and the preoccupation with Southwest Asia and the Middle East distracted American attention from dealing with the rise of China, the Bush administration's significant political investment in building a strategic partnership with India seemed to provide new options for America's grand strategy in Asia.

This essay will focus on the two basic dimensions of US policy towards the Subcontinent. One is the evolution of Obama's policy on the Af-Pak-India issues; the other concerns Obama’s attempts to balance US engagement with China and India. The essay concludes with a brief discussion of the emerging geopolitical conception of the Indo-Pacific by the Obama Administration, which breaks down the traditional divide between East and South Asia in the conceptualisation and execution of US policy.

THE AF-PAK CONUNDRUM

Obama came to power criticising Bush for pursuing a war of choice in Iraq, while neglecting the war of necessity in Afghanistan. Part of Obama's motivation was tactical, to outflank the predictable Republican criticism that the Democrats are weak on defence. Yet it is possible to argue that Obama recognised the strategic importance of bringing the war on terrorism to an early close in Afghanistan. Even as he ordered a surge in US troop levels in Afghanistan, Obama was quite clear that the United States couldn’t fight the war forever. Obama was also determined to recast relations with Pakistan by promising more aid while making Islamabad more accountable in the war on terrorism. Obama's advisors believed that the Pakistan Army would be more responsive to the US needs in Afghanistan if its concerns about India were met. During his campaign and in the few weeks between election and assumption of office, Obama mused about appointing a special envoy to resolve the Kashmir question and his conviction that resolving Pakistan's problems on its eastern frontiers would help solve the US problems on its western frontier.

There was deep concern in Delhi about the direction of Obama's Kashmir pronouncements. India was apprehensive that Obama was about to discard the Bush policy of de-hyphenation and return to the traditional Democrat approach of viewing India through the prism of Pakistan. Mounting a spirited campaign with the incoming administration, India managed to stop Obama from including it in the mandate of the special representative on Afghanistan and Pakistan that he announced within the first week of being sworn in. India remained mostly cool to the late Richard Holbrooke, who was appointed to this position, fearing that Kashmir and Indo-Pak issues were on Washington's agenda irrespective of the declared mandate of the special envoy. As he understood India’s concerns, Obama avoided injecting himself into the Kashmir dispute despite much pressure from sections of his administration.

While Obama continued to speak about the importance of Indo-Pak reconciliation in a general way, he recognised the importance of avoiding the Kashmir issue. Obama also stepped up counter-terrorism cooperation with India after the attacks on Mumbai at the end of November 2008. He also pressed the Pakistan army to shut the terrorist camps on its soil to international terrorism outfits like Lashkar-e-Taiba and to bring the plotters of the Mumbai attacks to justice. This did not have much of an impact on Pakistan. As Obama came to terms with the fact that the Pakistan Army was playing both sides of the street in the war on terrorism, he stepped up the pressure on Rawalpindi by expanding the drone strikes on the terrorist sanctuaries in the tribal borderlands of Pakistan. Obama also authorised increased Special Forces operations across the Durand Line into Pakistan. The new tensions between the United States and Pakistan boiled over early this year when Obama ordered a raid on Osama bin Laden's hideout in the garrison town of Abbottabad without the permission of Islamabad. Rather than express contrition, however, the Pakistan Army saw the operation as a violation of its sovereignty and retaliated by ordering US military and CIA personnel out of the country. The US in turn threatened to cut off military aid to Pakistan.

If Obama's military strategy in Afghanistan complicated its ties with Pakistan, his plans to end US combat role in the country by 2014 and find a political reconciliation with sections of the Taliban created ripples across the Subcontinent and beyond. While the US is negotiating the terms of a residual military presence with Kabul as part of a long-term strategic partnership agreement, the image of a US retreat from Afghanistan has gained ground. Delhi feared that the US would leave Afghanistan at the mercy of Pakistan and the Taliban. In Pakistan there were worries about Washington’s outreach to the Taliban independent of Rawalpindi. While the US wants Pakistan to destroy the Haqqani network, an ally of al Qaeda that enjoys sanctuary and state support in Pakistan, the army wants the group to be part of a final political settlement in Kabul. Seeking a definitive voice in the future political arrangements in Afghanistan, the Pakistan Army has been negotiating directly with Kabul. Three weeks before the US raid on bin Laden, the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Yusuf Raza Gilani, and the Army Chief General, Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, travelled to Kabul and laid out their terms for settlement in Afghanistan. US media reported that Gilani and Kayani told the President Hamid Karzai that the US was a power on decline and that Kabul would have a greater chance of stability if it chose to align with China. It was a re-alignment that the Pakistan Army would be happy to facilitate. The traditional debate in Asia has seen the East Asian and Af-Pak theatres as two very different worlds, but the relative decline of America and rise of China, with its growing interests in Afghanistan and its long-term commitments to Pakistan, point to the futility of seeing these worlds separately.

STRATEGIC TRIANGLE

The Subcontinent's role as the crossroads between the eastern and western parts of Asia was reinforced by the emergence of a strategic triangle involving the United States, China and India in the Bush years. At first, as in the Indo-Pak case, Obama had trouble managing Bush’s legacy on China and India. There was never any doubt in either Washington or Beijing that the Bush administration's new-found interest in India was rooted in the perceived need to balance the rise of China in Asia. Although neither side wished to define their new partnership in terms of China's rise, Beijing was clearly the elephant in the room as Washington and Delhi sat across the table. This clarity began to blur as Obama reframed America’s Asia policy. As the Obama Administration coped with the detritus of two wars, a financial crisis, and deepening economic interdependence with China, confronting Beijing was out of the question.  

Everyone in Washington seemed to agree on the importance of re-engaging Asia at the dawn of the Obama Administration, but there were many who underlined the importance of building durable strategic cooperation with China. This position was reflected in the proposition that Washington and Beijing must build a new partnership, the so-called Group of Two, to manage new international challenges, from the financial crisis to global warming. Although the administration itself did not use the term ‘G-2’, the concept gained currency. Delhi was firmly in the first camp and senior officials in the government publicly expressed their concerns about the potential consequences of a Sino-US condominium in Asia and beyond. India's concerns were magnified as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in her first trip abroad to Asia, skipped Delhi. As she travelled to Beijing, Clinton downplayed concerns about human rights and underscored the importance of engaging China. The new approach of accommodating China reached its peak during Obama's visit to Beijing in November 2009, when the two sides declared their readiness to cooperate in promoting stability in South Asia.

India reacted strongly against American support for Chinese over-lordship on the Subcontinent. It could not help but note the similarity of the Obama-Hu Jintao joint communique of November 2009 with that issued by presidents Bill Clinton and Jiang Zemin in Beijing in June 1998, weeks after India's nuclear tests. Unlike Clinton, however, Obama had an opportunity to make quick amends as he hosted Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for the administration’s first state banquet at the White House in November 2009. Obama went out of his way to emphasise India's role as an Asian power. While some sceptics saw this as little more than a formal reassurance, there was enough evidence to suggest that Obama was committed to build on the foundations laid by Bush.

Despite much reluctance in the administration, Obama pressed ahead with the implementation of the controversial civil nuclear initiative and expanded defence cooperation with India. A year later, he travelled to Delhi to endorse India's candidacy for permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council, agreed to support India's membership of the nuclear export control groups, and called for greater cooperation between India and the United States in the management of global commons—the oceans, outer space and cyber domains. Visiting India a few months later, Clinton urged India to take on the leadership mantle in Asia and expressed strong support for a larger Indian role in Asia and the Pacific. While some in India did not want to be seen as doing US bidding in Asia, Clinton’s strategic enthusiasm certainly resonated with India's aspirations, which go back to the very founding of modern India.

The new emphasis from Obama and Clinton on India's role in Asia marked a return to at least some of the assumptions of the Bush administration about Delhi's relevance to a stable security order in Asia. This return was probably facilitated by the failure of Obama's outreach to China. Although Obama had offered some variant of G-2, the Chinese were not willing to accept the US terms for a rapprochement. Further, the Chinese assertiveness in Asia and its effort to undermine US alliances in the region, and constrict the US naval operations in the Western Pacific suggested China's ambitions were much larger than becoming a joint leader with the United States.

The years 2010-2011 have seen the United States and India launch new regional security dialogues on East, Central and West Asia. Washington and Delhi have also agreed to initiate a triangular dialogue with Japan, echoing the much-criticised Bush initiative for a quadrilateral dialogue among the Asian democracies. While Obama moves along the track developed in the Bush years, there have also been fresh problems. There has been some disappointment in Washington at the failure of India to provide an effective liability regime for the participation of US companies in the building of nuclear power plants in India. Washington was also frustrated by the Indian decision to knock out Boeing and Lockheed from the competition for the purchase of 126 fighter aircraft. And the Pentagon has been surprised by Indian inhibitions about promoting interoperability between the two forces and the reluctance to undertake joint operations.

In India, the Manmohan Singh Government, which had undertaken so much political risk in building a new relationship with Washington, has apparently to run out of steam in pushing the bilateral agenda. As the weakest of the three powers, Delhi is also concerned that a weakening United States will be tempted to cut a deal with China rather than balance it. This in turn underlines for India the importance of repairing relations with China and maintaining an independent approach to Beijing.

THE INDO-PACIFIC

Despite its initial flip-flops towards South Asia and the many challenges it confronts in the region, the Obama Administration has begun to engineer an important change in the American geopolitical conception of the region. On the one hand it has articulated the vision of Afghanistan's future as a bridge between the Subcontinent and Central Asia. Hillary Clinton has called for greater flows of energy and commerce between the two regions as part of the efforts to stabilise Afghanistan:

An Afghanistan firmly embedded in the economic life of a thriving South and Central Asia would be able to attract new sources of foreign investment and connect to markets abroad, including hundreds of millions of potential new customers in India. And increasing trade across the region would open up new sources of raw material, energy, and agricultural products, creating more jobs in India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

The potential implications of a partnership between Rawalpindi and Beijing have also underscored for Washington what growing Chinese influence means for Asia as a whole and not just East Asia. While the Obama Administration has welcomed a larger Chinese role in stabilising Afghanistan, it cannot but begin to contemplate the consequences of Beijing’s expanding influence in South and South Western Asia in collaboration with Pakistan.

Equally significant is the repeated affirmation of the Obama Administration about India’s role in bridging the Indian and Pacific Oceans. As Clinton told her audience in Chennai, a port city facing Southeast Asia:

The United States has always been a Pacific power because of our very great blessing of geography. And India straddling the waters from the Indian to the Pacific Ocean is, with us, a steward of these waterways. We are both deeply invested in shaping the future of the region that they connect.

With the simultaneous rise of China and India and the intersection of their interests across all of Asia, the strategic community in the United States has begun to recognise the importance of developing an integrated strategy towards the East and South Asian regions. As China seeks to establish a presence in the Indian Ocean, India announces itself in the Western Pacific, and Asia’s maritime disputes acquire a new edge—securing the Indo-Pacific commons has become an important element of the US strategy towards the region. As the pre-eminent maritime power that has managed the order in the two oceans for the last decades but faces new challenges from a rising China, the United States is now seeking a strong security partnership with India in the Indo-Pacific. As the American and Indian navies find that they have no option but to work together in the waters of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, the traditional differentiation between these two theatres is likely to rapidly disappear.