President Obama’s visit to India came at a time of fundamental change in world politics. China is rising. India is also rising, but perhaps not as much. America is descending, but from a very high place. Many Asian countries have suddenly begun clinging to America because of new fears about China. The agreements and statements that were made in Delhi during the visit reflect these new realities.
U.S. President Barack Obama, left, and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, embrace following a joint statement and press conference at Hyderabad House in New Delhi, India, Monday, Nov. 8, 2010. (AP Photo/Saurabh Das)
This was the first time an American President made economic deals in Delhi and then spoke about how he helped create new jobs at home. India’s total imports will exceed $300 billion this year. Only about $19 billion of that will come from America. The United States runs the same kind of lopsided trade deficit with India that it does with other Asian countries, especially if one factors in Indian software and other service exports. America is already highly in debt and cannot sustain large trade deficits. India and America will have to find a way to improve America’s share in the Indian market.
President Obama made headlines by making the strongest statement of support from the United States yet for a permanent seat for India on the UN Security Council., though American officials have since clarified that Security Council reform is not expected “anytime soon.” The day after Obama’s statement, China made a statement favoring “rational and necessary reform” of the Security Council and specifically mentioning India as part of that process. While the Chinese statement also does not mean China will vote to enable India to get a permanent seat anytime soon, it is the most positive Chinese statement about India’s role in the Security Council to date. China could easily have kept silent on the topic of weeks—that would have been perfectly normal diplomacy. That China chose a swift and positive-sounding response shows the effectiveness of the Obama endorsement and the direction of Chinese diplomacy. China faces the consolidation of a coalition of the United States and many Asian countries against it at the moment, spurred by China’s own assertiveness against its neighbors. The Chinese response is a step back from the counterproductive diplomatic course it has been following recently.
Hopefully, China will simply move towards improving ties with both India and America so they do not gang up against it. But that would require a profound policy reversal in Beijing. Until then, U.S.-India cooperation will inevitably have the connotation of power balancing against China. Alliances now work to integrate both economies and defense establishments of states. A series of arms deals between India and the United States are likely in the offing. But these will be the precursors to more far-reaching defense cooperation.
The Obama visit also made changes to the military relationship of the United States and India. President Obama eased the restrictions on the transfer of technology from the United States to India. This is the start of America outsourcing some of its military technology development to India. At present America faces swiftly rising costs of developing new weapons. The greatest difficulties have been in the software needed for these weapons. And budget constraints on American weapons development will rise inexorably. The option of reducing costs and increasing capabilities through outsourcing to India, already proven in the civilian sector, is likely to be explored.
The political mainstreams in both America and India are favorably disposed toward a broad partnership between the two countries. While the opinions of the Tea Party about India are unknown at present, John McCain reflected traditional Republican opinion when he encouraged closer ties during the Obama visit. Obama himself comes out of a Democratic Party current that has been skeptical of India. Yet he has veered toward a more India-friendly position. Within India, Congress, the BJP, and several other parties are in agreement about the wisdom of cultivating ties with America.
America and India also share a deep interest in the consolidation of a non-Taliban government in Afghanistan. The Hamid Karzai government remains the best bet at present. An argument making the rounds in Washington is that Pakistan is supporting the Taliban to prevent the rise of Indian influence in Afghanistan.
This argument puts the cart before the horse. Physically, there is not much India can do in Afghanistan on its own. Instead, all non-Pashtun and some Pashtun Afghans are intensely anti-Pakistan due to Pakistan’s repeated campaigns to foist the Taliban upon them. Their victimization by Pakistan leads them to look to India for sympathy. That being said, there is not much India can do to help while the United States continues to rely on Pakistan as a supply route. The optimal strategy remains building up the Afghan army as fast as possible. A badly needed step would be to pay Afghan soldiers decently. A few months ago the United States doubled Afghan Army salaries to match those of the Taliban. Starting pay in the Afghan army is only $140 per month. This is incomprehensible. The United States spends around $80,000 per month to keep an American soldier in Afghanistan. A large, well paid Afghan army, backed by American firepower, could defend Afghan sovereignty vigorously for a fraction of what America is paying now in money, blood, and international political capital.
America and India do not agree on everything. Yet the Obama visit has revealed deeper commonality of purpose in dealing with the challenges of the new world order.
Sanjoy Banerjee teaches International Relations at San Francisco State University.