By Madhav Nalapat, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Madhav Nalapat holds the UNESCO Peace Chair at Manipal University in India. This is the latest in a series looking at how the world sees the U.S. election, and what the Obama presidency has meant for ties with other countries. The views expressed are the author's own.
Condoleezza Rice’s appointment as U.S. secretary of state in 2005 saw India become a priority for the George W. Bush administration. Indeed, in July that year, President Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced a nuclear deal that would free India of some of the technology and other restrictions first imposed on it after the 1974 Pokhran test.
While the center of gravity of the Clinton administration’s diplomacy towards India remained that country’s relationship with Pakistan, Bush expanded the dialogue to place emphasis on cooperation in space, military training, education and other sectors that had been neglected since the 1960s, when the U.S.-India partnership that helped bring about the Green Revolution in India dissolved because of Indira Gandhi’s alleged post-Allende obsession that the CIA was planning a similar fate for her. During the final couple of years of the Bush II presidency, it became easier for Indian scientists to visit the United States and for talks to commence on future hi-tech cooperation.
However, once Barack Obama came to office in 2009, and created an administration that seemed less about his own (stated) beliefs than an overall policy matrix best described as “Clinton Lite,” talks were replaced by talk. Obama was immensely successful in flattering Indian policymakers, for example by openly declaring (of course in India, rather than at U.N. headquarters) that Delhi merited a permanent seat at the Security Council. However, on the ground, the Clintonistas in agencies such as State, Commerce and Disarmament ensured that the welcome mat for India-U.S. technological cooperation got speedily replaced by the same worn rug that represented nowhere (unless, of course, if India followed South Africa in giving up its nuclear weapons). Conditions on military sales that were expected to be waived during the Bush II period, meanwhile, were reintroduced.
While U.S. military sales to India have increased, as have joint training missions, the placing of intrusive conditions on sale of weapons platforms, and a reluctance to offer anything other than dated U.S. models, has held back the military-to-military relationship, leaving it a mostly mercenary and opportunistic one, devoid of the broad strategic understanding and parameters that are needed to anchor any long-term relationship.
Interestingly, since the Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition led by A.B. Vajpayee entered office in 1998, Delhi has, in effect, followed a policy of strategic retreat from its immediate neighborhood, in the expectation that the space vacated would get filled by Washington. Instead, it’s Beijing that has moved in. Today, in Nepal, Sri Lanka and increasingly the Maldives, primacy that was once India’s is exercised by China, which since at least the middle of the previous decade has seemingly had more influence over the Pakistan military than the United States. The absence of what may be described as a “bonding of fundamentals” that has characterized U.S.-India ties since Obama became president has led to post-1998 Indian acceptance of junior partner status to the U.S.
The dysfunction and hesitation on core strategic issues that has characterized U.S.-India relations since 2009 (despite the fact that in Singh, India arguably has one of the most U.S.-friendly prime ministers in Indian history) has been exploited by China to expand its regional influence substantially over the past three years. Having acted as if faithful toward the Europeanist view of the legitimate role of India (namely that it be a subsidiary power devoid of its own hi-technology skills and a seat at the diplomatic high table) President Obama is rapidly squandering the opportunity first afforded by Vajpayee and Singh of crafting a close strategic partnership between Delhi and Washington, a relationship that would be a nightmare to Beijing.
While Mitt Romney doesn’t seem to have clear views on much besides “prudent” tax planning, his just announced running mate has more than once spoken of the centrality of India in the international geopolitical calculus. Paul Ryan is clearly in favor of a return to the George W. Bush path of building a close partnership with India. Given his tenacity, there’s little doubt that he would ensure, at the very least, a return to the Bush II period, should his ticket get elected.
The question is, will it be too late? There’s considerable resentment in Delhi at U.S. foot dragging under Obama, and this has dampened the enthusiasm for closer ties. However, for now, Manmohan Singh has until 2014 before his term ends, and hence the prospects for a genuine partnership still exist.
And what if Barack Obama gets re-elected? Will he accept that unless India gets added to Japan, the “jaw” that encloses the eastern coast of Asia from Vladivostok to Male will lack sufficient teeth to establish primacy in not simply the Indian Ocean, but the China seas?
As of now, there seems very little chance that the non-proliferation ayatollahs and the other NGO types that crafted so much policy for the Clintons have given up their grip on the imagination of President Obama. The result is likely to be the slipping away of any prospect of a meaningful U.S.-India alliance. The good news (if such it may be called) is that once again, the vacuum created by the United States may get filled by China, within whose policymaking groups there is increasing realization of the need to forge much closer ties with India.