United States Wants Lightweight Role for India

U.S. President Barack Obama greeted the people of India on the occasion of the country’s 63rd Independence Day on Aug. 15 by saying that a vibrant and promising India has a natural friend in the United States. But the U.S.-India friendship rhetoric lacks weight and doesn’t suggest that the United States supports a larger role for India in South Asian affairs.

In his encouraging message to Indians, Obama lauded the country’s democracy and the contributions Indian Americans have made in the United States. But he failed to offer any support to boost India’s diminishing role in South Asian politics.

To many, Obama’s talk of India’s growing economic power and of shared values between Indians and Americans seemed patronizing – merely a formal diplomatic wink in India’s direction.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to India last month was another example of U.S. diplomacy hyping India’s image but failing to endorse any concrete plan to partner with it in resolving South Asia’s complex geopolitical issues. Viewing U.S. relations with India vis-a-vis Pakistan, she made it clear that India has to behave like a superpower to be regarded as one.

By staying at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai, which was the scene of a devastating terror attack last November, Clinton may have sent a strong message to terrorists. Still, she gave Pakistan leeway when she later said that the judicial process to bring perpetrators to justice takes time. The terrorists who organized the Mumbai attacks are reportedly Pakistani nationals belonging to the militant organization Lashkar-e-Taiba, operating from Pakistani soil. None has yet been brought to justice.

Perhaps Clinton should explain how India must behave, as an emerging Asian power, toward judicial delays and denials by Pakistan’s Interior Ministry that the terrorists are Pakistani state actors.

Regarding arms sales to India, the U.S. government mandates that an end-user agreement must be signed when high-tech U.S. weaponry is exported, to ensure that it does not land in the hands of rogue states. But it has sold millions of dollars worth of arms to Pakistan – the state that freed one of the most successful nuclear proliferators in history, Abdul Qadeer Khan, from house arrest in February this year.

The nuclear scientist, revered as a national hero in Pakistan for transforming the country into a nuclear power, had been under house arrest since 2004 for publicly confessing to running an illicit nuclear network. Khan allegedly sold technology to North Korea, Libya and Iran – arch foes of the United States.

If the stance of Pakistan, which differs from the United States in its definition of terror groups, does not stop the U.S. from selling arms and offering aid to Pakistan, why is it worried about India, a country that has never sold arms to rogue states that export terror? Perhaps Clinton should recall the statement of her husband, former U.S. President Bill Clinton that democracies do not go to war with each other.

U.S. foreign policy in South Asia hasn’t really done any somersaults over the decades, as it has always revolved favorably around Pakistan. But India, with its burgeoning middle class with high disposable incomes, has now become a huge market for global businesses, which the United States can no longer conveniently ignore.

So, while many young intelligent and talented Indians still aspire to work and live in the United States and be a part of the American dream – thanks to the leverage of U.S. soft power – most do not understand that the U.S. diplomatic alliance with India is more to Washington’s advantage than India’s.

Presently the United States is experiencing its worst economic recession in decades. Billions could be earned by companies selling nuclear reactors, technology and expertise to India, since the way has been paved by the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal inked by former U.S. President George Bush. Even the sale of arms and military hardware to India could pump fresh blood into the economy. And yet the pace of such transactions seems to be decelerating, slowed by fresh political wrangling, while billions of dollars in aid to Pakistan seem to be on a fast track.

Pakistan is a key ally of the United States in its war on terror, and yet it takes a hide-and-seek approach in reigning in terrorists operating from its soil. Why does the U.S. government overlook this? Why aren’t there stronger efforts and approaches to involve India in South Asia’s security issues? It seems that India has only a small role, in both civil and military terms, in affecting U.S. policy on Afghanistan-Pakistan.

Finally, China and the United States are locked in a big business game where the United States is China’s biggest export market and China the biggest factory for U.S. goods and services. Deeper into the game is China’s US$1 trillion locked in U.S. Treasury bonds, which gives it wide elbow room to dictate terms.

So, Obama’s top priority is China. Concurrently, he is offering Pakistan and India without weight in South Asia in return for Pakistan’s cooperation in the war against terror. And for India, he has a pleasant Independence Day message.