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American agenda

Print edition : Dec 03, 2010 T+T-
INSIDE PARLIAMENT HOUSE on November 8, Barack Obama, who addressed members of both Houses of Parliament, with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Vice-President M. Hamid Ansari.-JIM YOUNG/AFP

INSIDE PARLIAMENT HOUSE on November 8, Barack Obama, who addressed members of both Houses of Parliament, with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Vice-President M. Hamid Ansari.-JIM YOUNG/AFP

Barack Obama charms his Indian hosts with rhetoric and pushes U.S. strategic and business interests hard.

THE state visit of Barack Obama to India from November 6 to 9 has been hailed by the Indian political establishment as a great success. The President of the United States, before embarking on his tour of Asian democracies, had told the media in his country that his main goal was to prise jobs from the booming Asian economies for the faltering American economy. During the visit, the President claimed that the $10 billion in contracts that he signed in India would create 50,000 more jobs in the U.S. Smarting from his defeat in the midterm congressional elections, Obama came as a much weakened President presiding over a declining superpower.

After the Second World War, the American economy accounted for half of the world's economy. Although it still is the world's largest economy, it is projected that China will overtake it in the next decade. The U.S. today, after the misadventures of the George Bush administration, has nothing much to offer to the rest of the world except armaments.

The President's visit has succeeded in concretising further the close strategic and political ties that have existed between the Indian and U.S. governments since the signing of the Defence Framework Agreement and the India-U.S. nuclear deal. Obama's endorsement of India's quest for a permanent seat in a restructured United Nations Security Council, during his address to Parliament, was the icing on the cake for the Indian government. It has been interpreted as an acknowledgement of India's big power status in the region. However, Obama had nothing tangible to offer to India other than lofty speeches laden with promises.

The U.S. has, on previous occasions, supported other countries for a permanent seat in the Security Council. During the Bush presidency, the favoured candidate was Japan, a long-standing strategic and political ally. Before that it was Brazil. But in 2002, after a government that pursued an independent foreign policy came to power in Brazil, it dropped from the U.S. radar.

Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns has acknowledged that reforming the Security Council is going to be a difficult and time-consuming affair. In any case, reforming the Security Council was never a top priority for Washington. Obama, in his speech, did not suggest a time line for the expansion of the Security Council. The Permanent-5, or P-5, however, seems united in their view that new permanent members should not have the veto power.

In his address to Parliament on November 8, Obama described India as a power that has already emerged on the world scene. He emphasised that the close relationship between the U.S. and India will be one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century. The U.S., Obama reminded India's parliamentarians, not only welcomes India as a rising global power, we fervently support it and we have helped to make it a reality. India's current two-year term in the Security Council will be scrutinised keenly by the Obama administration. The joint statement issued during the visit implies that India is on probation, with the U.S. State Department watching its moves on the international stage.

Close strategic ties

Obama emphasised, on more than one occasion, the bipartisan nature of U.S. foreign policy. He said the foundations for the close strategic relationship between the two countries were laid by two previous Presidents, Bill Clinton, a Democrat, and George W. Bush, a Republican.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Obama evidently share a close personal rapport, which was on view throughout the visit. On his last visit to the U.S., during the Bush presidency, Manmohan Singh had gone overboard in his praise of the man who invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, telling him that the people of India love you deeply.

The U.S. President's support for India's bid for a permanent Security Council seat has come with riders. He suggested not too subtly in his address to Parliament that to earn a seat at the high table New Delhi would have to toe Washington's line on key global issues.

President Obama specifically talked about the growing threat posed by Iran and the need to isolate the military regime in Myanmar. India has very friendly relations at the moment with the governments of both these countries. Obama also harped on the need to strengthen democracy and human rights in Asia and the rest of the world. While the West has roundly criticised the general elections held in Myanmar in the first week of November, China has welcomed the elections and India has chosen to remain silent on them.

The junta in Myanmar is only trying to replicate what the Indonesian military successfully managed a transition to so-called democracy with military officers donning civilian garb. Obama's next stop after India was Indonesia, where he was received by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a former army officer. More than 500,000 Indonesians were killed in anti-communist pogroms that followed the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)-supported military coup in the country. The U.S. and the West have chosen to forget that sordid chapter in Indonesia's history.

In Latin America, the Obama administration had stood aside when the democratically elected President of the Honduras was ousted in a coup. America's pro-democracy credentials are very suspect in its immediate neighbourhood. The Indian government has pledged to partner the U.S. in its democracy promotion project.

The Obama administration's emphasis on democracy can be very selective. The game plan is to isolate countries such as Cuba, Iran and Venezuela, whose governments have taken a strong stand against the U.S.' hegemonic policies, and bolster at the same time the authoritarian regimes that are its allies in West Asia and elsewhere. On Obama's watch the rights of the Palestinians are being continuously trampled upon. In mid-November, the Obama administration claimed before the U.S. Supreme Court that it had the unreviewable right to kill, anywhere in the world, individuals who posed a threat to the country's security.

The Iran question

The close ties between Teheran and New Delhi have angered the Obama administration. U.S. diplomats and representatives from the country's top think tanks have tried to convince New Delhi to cut off economic ties with Iran and implement the additional sanctions that the U.S. has imposed on the country, over and above the draconian Security Council sanctions already in force.

Many big Indian companies, including Reliance, have, under U.S. pressure, already stopped doing business with Iran. The Indian government put on the back burner the talks with Iran on the gas pipeline to India after former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made such a demand publicly before the inking of the U.S.-India nuclear deal.

Manmohan Singh was due to make a visit to Iran earlier in the year. The visit was postponed obviously in order not to ruffle American sensitivities before the Obama trip to India. Iran is still hoping that the Prime Minister will fulfil his commitment to visit Iran. South Korea, which is one of the U.S.' closest allies, has a strong economic relationship with Iran. Despite pressure from the Obama administration, it continues to do booming business with Iran. India will need oil and gas to fuel its economic growth. Iran is in a position to provide them at short notice.

China bogey

Behind the scenes, the Obama administration has exerted a great deal of pressure on the Indian government to join the emerging anti-China grouping it leads in East Asia. American newspapers such as The Washington Post have said that Obama's commitment to back India's candidature for a permanent Security Council seat was designed to anger Beijing.

Before Obama's Asia visit, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in South-east Asia drumming up support for an anti-China alliance. Since July, President Obama and his Secretary of Defence Robert Gates have frequently mentioned the need to guarantee free and safe navigation in the South China Sea. The impression sought to be conveyed is that the South China Sea, one of the world's busiest trading routes, is no longer safe for navigation. Under the guise of protecting freedom of navigation, the U.S. wants to maintain its military hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region.

Circle of democracy

Beijing believes that the U.S. is trying to contain China by building new political and security alliances. American, Japanese and Indian officials talk openly about a circle of democracy to challenge China. Washington has also tried to exploit territorial disputes involving China and its neighbours in the South China Sea to shore up the waning U.S. influence in the Asia-Pacific region. The U.S. Secretary of State even offered to mediate on behalf of a group of aggrieved nations, which include Japan, South Korea and Vietnam.

The Obama administration has tried to influence countries like Vietnam, with which it had fought a long-drawn-out war, to join an anti-China axis in the region. The waning superpower's latest attempt in this regard has been to promote India as the regional counterweight to China. U.S. officials point out that in recent years it is with India that the U.S. has conducted the most number of military exercises.

People's Daily, one of China's leading newspapers, recently ran an opinion piece which raised the question, Does India's Look East Policy Mean Look to encircle China'? During his visit, Obama urged India to play a bigger role in East Asia.

In its official response to the U.S. backing for India's permanent Security Council seat, the day after Obama left New Delhi, China said it favoured democratic and patient consultations on the issue of Security Council expansion. The Chinese Foreign Ministry statement said Beijing understood India's aspirations to play a greater role in the U.N. but added that the Security Council's expansion should happen on the basis of consensus.

With no international consensus emerging on it, the expansion is unlikely to happen any time soon. The ordinary members, most of them members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), will have a decisive say in the restructuring too. They are keenly watching India's strategic and diplomatic waltz with the U.S. The Indian establishment and the political elite are, however, euphoric with the Obama endorsement, which they view as the high point of his visit.

Nuclear agreement

The other important achievement of the visit, from the Indian point of view, is the Obama administration's statement of its intention to remove the restrictions on cooperation in the high-tech sectors and its support for India's membership of international nuclear technology control regimes, including the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG).

If Washington fulfils its promises, New Delhi without being a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), will gain access to dual-use goods and technologies. Washington no doubt hopes for a payback in the form of multi-billion-dollar defence deals and the bulk of the contracts to build nuclear power stations. Top on Washington's wish list is the $10-billion contract for the purchase of 126 fighter bombers for the Indian Air Force (IAF). The American companies Boeing and Lockheed-Martin are among the front runners for the contract.

India has agreed to go in for these big ticket defence deals after signing the end user monitoring agreement that the two sides agreed upon in July 2009. This agreement prohibits India from modifying the weapons systems or manufacturing its own spares. The weapons systems from the U.S. will be subject to an annual inspection by U.S. inspectors.

The decks seemed to have been cleared before the Obama visit for the purchase of ten C17 Globemaster aircraft. The Globemaster is a large cargo plane with a price tag of $5.8 billion. The Pentagon has declined to buy more of the planes for the U.S. Army since 2006. The Secretary of Defence had even recommended in the 2010 defence budget that its production be stopped. But Boeing's lobbying in Congress forced the Defence Department to backtrack. Now the U.S. is trying to sell these huge planes to countries such as India, South Korea and Indonesia.

Last year, the Indian government had inked a deal to purchase eight P-81 maritime reconnaissance aircraft costing $2.1 billion. A senior U.S. official said in Washington before the Obama visit that U.S.-India defence ties had made remarkable progress since the framework of the India-U.S. nuclear deal was first laid out five years ago. The official said that because of the shared interests, the militaries of the two countries were geared up to working jointly in the Indian Ocean and beyond.

Defence cooperation

There is pressure on New Delhi from Washington to deepen their relations further by signing the Logistical Support Agreement (LSA) and the Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CIS MoA). U.S. officials have said that these two agreements are needed for the armed forces of the two countries to work together openly.

The LSA envisages providing logistic bases for the U.S. military on Indian soil. America's powerful military industrial complex is bound to play an important role if the CIS MoA is initialled. The spectre of a powerful lobby in India working in cahoots with the military industrial complex in the U.S. will be bad news not only domestically but also for the rest of the world. As it is, the U.S. armaments industry makes huge profits by triggering a deadly arms race in the developing world. In the last couple of months, multi-billion-dollar deals have been announced with Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Terrorism and Pakistan

On the issue of terrorism and Pakistan, Obama was more circumspect. The Indian side was upset that the U.S. has continued to pump in massive amounts of aid to Islamabad, most of it going to the military. Though the Obama administration, like the Indian government, believes that much of the terror attacks in the subcontinent originate from Pakistan, it has so far refused to apportion blame directly. Obama did, however, endorse India's concerns about terrorism emanating from safe havens in Pakistan. During his unscripted interaction in Mumbai with college students, Obama said it was in India's interest to ensure that there was a stable Pakistan. If Pakistan is unstable that's bad for India, he said.

In his brief interaction with the media in New Delhi, Obama praised the Indian Prime Minister for his commitment to seek peace with Islamabad. At the same time, he assuaged Indian concerns by saying that the U.S. will continue to insist to Pakistan's leaders that terrorist safe havens within their borders are unacceptable, and the terrorists behind the Mumbai attacks should be brought to justice.

In October, the U.S. announced a $2-billion annual defence aid package to Pakistan. Hillary Clinton, who was visiting Islamabad at the time, stated that the U.S. has no stronger partner when it comes to counterterrorism that affects us both than Pakistan.

In his address to the Indian Parliament, Obama reiterated that both the U.S. and India had a stake in a stable Afghanistan and Pakistan. We must also recognise that all of us have an interest in both an Afghanistan and a Pakistan that is stable, prosperous and democratic and none more so than India, he said. Before the President's visit, news had trickled out about the ham-handed way in which U.S. intelligence agencies handled the case of Donald Coleman Headley, a central figure in the Mumbai terror attacks. The New York Times reported that U.S. authorities had sent Headley to work for them in Pakistan after the September 11, 2001, attacks despite being aware that he sympathised with the radical groups involved in the attacks.

The Indian Home Secretary, G.K. Pillai, had said a few days before the Obama visit that the U.S. agencies did not share fully all the relevant information about Headley's activities in the run-up to the Mumbai attacks. The Obama administration blamed rivalry among U.S. intelligence agencies for the failure to keep the Indian side completely in the loop. It also blamed the Indian security agencies for allowing Headley to make trips to India in quick succession. Headley has confessed to his involvement in the planning of the Mumbai attacks. Obama, according to Indian officials, briefed Manmohan Singh in detail about the latest developments in the Headley case.


Speaking on the Kashmir issue during the media interaction, Obama said the U.S. was not in favour of imposing a solution but was willing to lend a helping hand if both the parties so desired. He said the Indian Prime Minister's cautious step-by-step approach could yield dividends but a final solution to the problem could be long-drawn-out.

Manmohan Singh, speaking at the same press conference, said India was not afraid of the K word but added that continuing with the talks would be difficult when the terror machine is active as before. According to media reports from Washington, Kashmir did come up for discussions during the meeting between the two leaders.

It is well known that the Obama administration views the dispute as a serious diversion to its war efforts in Afghanistan. The Kashmir issue has, besides boosting militancy, given the Pakistan Army an excuse to keep its forces deployed on the border with India. The U.S. wants Pakistan to focus entirely on Afghanistan and the Taliban insurrection within its borders.

Richard Holbrooke, the Obama administration's special representative on Afghanistan and Pakistan, has made several trips to New Delhi, specifically to discuss the Kashmir issue. New Delhi, on its part, has made it clear that arm-twisting on Kashmir or human rights issues will be detrimental to the special relationship Washington wants to establish with India.

Obama reassured his Indian hosts that the U.S. would not abandon Afghanistan to the Taliban. The Indian establishment was taken aback when Obama announced a sketchy time table for withdrawal from Afghanistan. The efforts of the Obama administration to negotiate with sections of the Taliban also came as a shock to the Indian government.

Obama praised India's big role in the reconstruction of Afghanistan and he no longer talks of a time line for a complete withdrawal of troops from that country. The joint statement speaks of the commitment of both the sides to intensify consultation to promote a stable, democratic, prosperous and independent Afghanistan and to undertake joint projects in capacity building for the people there.

During the Obama visit, India and the U.S. signed once again an agreement on cooperating in the field of agriculture. Titled the Evergreen Agreement, it comes four decades after the two countries collaborated in the much-heralded Green Revolution.

The Left parties and farmers' organisations criticised the new agreement on the grounds that it was a ploy to open up the agricultural sector to U.S. multinationals. In the name of promoting food security and raising agricultural productivity, what is being pushed is the agenda for opening Indian agriculture and retail trade for the profiteering of American MNCs like Monsanto and Walmart, a statement from the Communist Party of India (Marxist) Polit Bureau said.