November 21, 2014

President Barack Obama will travel to India in January, becoming the first US president to visit the country twice while in office. Bharath Gopalaswamy, deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center, tells Ashish Kumar Sen why this visit is important—and notably how it will be seen by India’s main rivals, China and Pakistan.



Q. What is the significance of President Obama’s visit to India in January?

The visit is significant because, at a base level, it is symbolic and symbolism matters in these issues. What it emphasizes is the endorsement for moving this relationship forward at the highest levels. It is a strong commitment and signal from the United States, and from the Indian leadership, to recognize the significance of this relationship. At the highest levels there is a recognition to take this relationship forward.

Q. As Narendra Modi rose in recent years toward his election in May as Indian prime minister, the U.S. was late to embrace him. While he was chief minister of Gujarat, the George W. Bush administration denied him a U.S. visa in 2005 over his administration’s handling of the 2002 communal riots in the state. Following Mr. Modi's visit to Washington in September, much has been written about the good rapport t between him and Mr. Obama. How important is personal chemistry in a relationship between nations?

Personal chemistry is very important. Despite his visa being revoked, Modi made it a point to recognize the importance and significance of his relationship with the president, and laying the foundation for a strong US-India relationship.

Personal chemistry at the highest levels is important, but what is more important is the personal chemistry at the mid- and lower levels between the bureaucracies. What both countries need to focus on is consolidating those relationships at many levels — at a people-to-people-level and at a state-to-state-level. India and America don’t only reside in Washington, DC, and New Delhi. They reside in Kansas and Haryana. We must take this opportunity that we have with an endorsement at the highest levels to facilitate other contacts and exchanges.

Q. Is there are trust deficit in these lower levels?

On the Indian side there are still a few skeptics about US interests and commitment towards India. Similarly, on the American side there are skeptics about the attractiveness and the utility of the relationship. The United States and India are still in a discovery phase about their relationship. Remember, this is one of the most unique relationships on this earth. It still has a long way to go and a lot of potential to be discovered.

Q. What are some areas of convergence between the US and India?

In the short term: How does Afghanistan play out; a stable, peaceful Pakistan; what is happening in Asia and how do the Indians fit into the rebalance to Asia; job creation, India has a rising middle class and the American job market has to be reinvigorated; what happens in the Asia-Pacific in terms of security, diplomatic and trade arrangements; climate change is an area both countries worry about; and terrorism is an area where both countries have shared interests.

Q. What are some areas of divergence?

The convergence areas, in terms of processes, offer some areas of divergence. India’s views about Asia are not necessarily resonant with the American views about Asia. Both see China as a power that is emerging, but how the US intends to manage China is different from how India wants to manage China.

Specifically, on bilateral divergence it’s about things like intellectual property rights; technology transfer; foreign direct investment in defense, insurance and retail; and India’s nuclear liability law. And as far as the Indians are concerned, the visa issues related to Indian IT companies, technology transfer and a perception about American commitment vis-a-vis tech transfer show a lack of a champion for advocating stronger US-India ties.

Q. The Obama administration's much-discussed “pivot to Asia” is largely viewed in Beijing as an effort to contain the rise of China. India and the US share concerns about China’s territorial ambitions and expressed as much during Mr. Modi’s visit to Washington in September. How will China see this warmth between the US and India?

I don’t see the Asia pivot as a way to contain China. I see it as an American endorsement toward its commitments to its Asia-Pacific allies. America is a Pacific power as well.

China is essentially America’s banker today. Containing China does not address American interests and containment is no longer an option. I think the Chinese get that as well.

Q. How will Mr. Obama's visit be seen in Pakistan?

Pakistanis already feel isolated. They are still bitter about the [2008 US-India civilian] nuclear deal, and they feel left behind in the game. A lot has to do with the Pakistanis’ promise to curb extremism at home and deal with the terror groups about which India has been complaining for a long while. That is a signal that even Modi has sent to Pakistan.

If you look at what Modi has done in his first few days in office it’s that he has built relationships with almost all India’s neighbors. The only country where the relationship has gone on a downward trend is Pakistan, where foreign s talks have been called off and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has said he will talk to the Kashmiri separatist groups.

India and America have, in a way, isolated Pakistan and wielded the carrot and stick approach to say: “If you are willing to address some of the core issues, which is essentially terrorism emanating from Pakistani soil, we are willing to include you as part of this process.” But if not, Modi has decided to move ahead with the region with or without Pakistan.

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