Although he has met President Barak Obama more than once in the recent past, Dr. Manmohan Singh’s forthcoming maiden state visit to the U.S. is assigned great significance and has New Delhi speculating about the likely nature and content of their dialogue.
George Bush may have savoured his “India moment” but surely those heady days are now over, and India needs to know where it stands in Obama’s scheme of things.
There could not be two personalities on the world stage more unlike each other today. While the Indian prime minister is an unassuming and soft-spoken economist with a low-key approach, the U.S. President, much younger in age, is an assertive and eloquent person given to measured flamboyance. However, the chord of mutual respect that they strike will be anchored in their respective standing as powerful elected leaders – one heading the world’s largest, and the other the world’s oldest, democracy.
Rightly speaking, the historic Indo-U.S. nuclear deal should figure on top of the bilateral agenda. This is not only because it is the single most significant step forward in bilateral relations since India’s independence, but also because of this deal’s major economic implications for both nations. Given her acute power shortage and the long gestation period of nuclear power projects, India has already earmarked areas to house French, Russian and U.S. “nuclear energy parks” and is eager to see progress on the ground. The U.S. nuclear industry, which hasn’t built a new reactor for decades, should be equally keen for an early revival and the boost it will give to earnings and employment.
In an era of dwindling defense spending, the U.S. arms industry is anxious to grab a share of the lucrative Indian market, and the $40 billion contract for 126 fighters – currently up in the air – would be a windfall. Industry as well as Congressmen would expect the President to give it a nudge. Dr. Singh, on his part, would be well advised to gently remind the President about the pitfalls of the mandatory End-user Agreement that the U.S. invariably demands before a weapons sale and the Damocles sword of sanctions that hangs over the buyer’s head ever after.
The lack of tangible progress in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s ambivalence in the fight against terrorism and a drought of fresh ideas in this context will certainly be on the minds of both statesmen. While a U.S. surge, no matter how unpopular or small, is inevitable, the President may not be above pressuring Dr. Singh to reduce Indian military deployments in Kashmir, or on the western border so that Pakistan can have a freer hand in this war.
The Indian PM would, hopefully, remind the President that the bogey of an “existential threat” from India is the creation of Pakistan’s army, for which there is no basis in recent history, and which should not be accepted as an excuse for tardy action on the eastern front. Dr. Singh must also reiterate India’s deep and abiding, but benign, strategic interest in restoring peace and stability in Afghanistan, and in ensuring that in the aftermath of conflict it does not become a hotbed of power play.
Obama, recently returned from his Asia visit, may provide some fresh insights about China’s strategic intent as well as cooperation on economic and environmental issues within the Asia-Pacific region.
In the context of regional stability, non-controversial grounds for convergence with the U.S. exist due to India’s location midway between the two maritime “choke points” of the Straits of Hormuz and the Malacca Straits, and her navy’s demonstrated capability to shoulder wider responsibilities. The two leaders could gainfully discuss cooperation between the Indian and U.S. navies in the Indian Ocean, which has positive security features in terms of protecting the sea lanes of communication and preempting any attempt at regional hegemony.
Admiral Arun Prakash (Ret) is a former Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff of India. He is currently the chairman of the National Maritime Foundation of India and serves as a member of the National Security Advisory Board. This piece is part of the Passage to America forum on the significance of the Indian Prime Minister Singh’s visit to the U.S.