(This article was published in DNA edition dated November 6, 2010, the day US President Barack Obama began a three-day official visit to India.)
When US President Barack Obama steps off Air Force One and sets foot in Mumbai on Saturday, that one small presidential step will represent a giant leap for broader and deeper US strategic engagement with India.
And although the 6’1”-tall Obama may appear a somewhat shrunken man, perhaps weighed down by his Democratic Party’s big losses in last week’s Congressional elections, his official visit to India, at the start of a four-nation Asian tour, is almost certain to be enormously successful in tracing the arc of geopolitical history in a way that binds the world’s two biggest democracies.
Observers and analysts believe that the planetary alignment is propitious for a deepening of the emerging Indo-US ‘strategic partnership’, and that a commonality of interests and values – and a shared perception about emerging security challenges – plays a catalytic role.
“The emergence of India as a new major global power is transforming the world’s geopolitical landscape, with profound implications for the future trajectory of our century and for America’s own global interests,” note former Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage, former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns and US foreign policy adviser Richard Fontaine. “A strengthened US-India strategic partnership is thus imperative in this new era.”
The Obama entourage will comprise representatives from about 250 US companies, some of whom will fly in on their own corporate jets. And although business deals running into billions of dollars are expected to be signed – which is important for an embattled Obama looking to frame his overseas travels as important for job creation at home – the true significance of the visit goes beyond such bean-counting dollars-and-cents calculus.
The US relationship with India “should be rooted in shared interests and values and should not be simply transactional or limited to occasional collaboration,” point out Armitage, Burns and Fontaine. India’s “rise to global power is… in America’s strategic interest… The US should… actively assist its further emergence as a great power.”
“US-Indian relations are important in several ways,” observes George Perkovich at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “First, it’s important that these two countries are on a positive trajectory.” But beyond that, he adds, “the particulars aren’t so consequential.” And although the two countries may have a lot of “divergent interests” in the short term, they both want – in the long term – “the same kind of world, and they both want each other to succeed.”
Other geopolitical factors are also decisively influencing the direction of Indo-US relations; for instance, both countries have similar concerns about China’s increasing assertiveness on the global stage, and about jihadi terror – of which they are primary targets.
During his visit, Obama will likely signal India’s “importance not only as a South Asian power, but as an East Asian power” and address its role in the South Asian region and globally, reasons Lisa Curtis, a South Asia expert at the Heritage Foundation who served in former President George W Bush’s administration.
Armitage, Burns and Fontaine have an even more ambitious agenda for Obama during his visit. “In order to chart a more ambitious US-India strategic partnership, the US should commit, publicly and explicitly, to work with India in support of its permanent membership in an enlarged UN Security Council.” Additionally, they recommend, the US should support Indian membership in key export control organisations as a step towards integrating India into global non-proliferation efforts; and liberalise US export controls to India.
Obama may or may not make formal announcements on these recommendations, but the fact that US strategic thinking is propelling him in that direction is significant. And Obama, who started off by effectively downplaying the strategic relationship with India that the George W. Bush presidency was shaping, the upcoming visit is a chance to make some course corrections.
Notes Perkovich: “The administration hasn’t paid as much attention to India as people hoped…. Hopefully this visit will signify to India and others that, notwithstanding everything else that’s going on, India really is important.” On that count, the Obama visit will almost certainly be a winner from an Indian perspective.
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