Obama, the USA and India

I would argue that, politically, the timing could not be worse.  After a drubbing at the polls, for the President to leave his own party in shambles and travel overseas, to any country, is simply not smart.  Clearly, this trip was planned months ago.  But was the White House so delusional as to believe that they wouldn’t get crushed in the mid-terms?

No matter.  One way or another, Obama has begun his Asian trip in India.  India has become a fundamental and strategic ally for the United States.  “In Asia and around the world, India is not simply emerging,” Mr. Obama said in his speech, echoing a line he used earlier in the day at a joint news conference with Mr. Singh. “India has emerged.”

Geopolitically, India has become the integral front line to the threat of Muslim extremism along their western border with Pakistan, as well as counter the growing power of China in the east.   Starting with Bill Clinton, the U.S. has made a concerted effort to elevate India to one of its key strategic world partners.  George W. Bush further the relationship, as he increased economic and military ties with India to a greater extent than any other American leader.  The nuclear trade pact with India forever altered the relationship of the U.S. hegemony with the Indian nuclear state.  American allegiance to India in its efforts against terrorism, after September 11th as well as before, during and after the Mumbai attacks of 2008, cemented the friendship.  And for that, Bush is one of the most beloved Americans on the subcontinent, even to this day.

To further that relationship, Obama did something no other U.S. President has done…vocally come out in favor of a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council for India, something that the Indians have fought and argued in favor of for decades.

And many people don’t realize that ties with India are not only on the diplomatic front.  3 million Americans of Indian descent live in the United States, and that population is growing in number as well as economic and political power.  Additionally, the U.S. military performs more exercises with India than any other nation in the world, and is starting to sell large amounts of weapons to the dramatically growing Indian forces.

But the old rivalries remain.  Surely, Pakistan (and their geopolitical ally, China) will fight forcefully against India’s Security Council seat bid.  And although the seat makes worldwide sense (how do you exclude the voice of 1.2 Billion people from the United Nations?), the same old issues regarding Kashmir will arise.  And China, of course, has ulterior motives.  The last thing it wants is to elevate India to equal standing to itself on the world stage.

As for Pakistan, Obama, like his predecessors, walks a tightrope between supporting India or Pakistan on the issue of Kashmir.  Clearly, the war in Afghanistan has allowed Pakistan more power in this debate.  But the Indian public, which feels a close affinity to America, simply does not understand the calculation.  From the Washington Post:

During a town hall forum at St. Xavier’s College here, a student rose to ask Obama why he does not refer to Pakistan as a “terrorist state,” drawing some gasps from the rest of the audience. Obama told the crowd that he had expected the issue to come up, and he answered by challenging the several hundred students present to view a country against whom India has fought three major wars, and was the staging area for a devastating terrorist attack against this city, from a new perspective.

“We want nothing more than a stable, prosperous and peaceful Pakistan,” Obama said. “Our feeling has been to be honest and forthright with Pakistan, to say, ‘We are your friend, this is a problem and we will help you, but the problem has to be addressed.’ “

The balance between the clear, ideological issue of terrorism in Pakistan, versus the pragmatism of a stable Pakistani state, comes into play again and again.  Pakistan may be a terrorist state, depending on how you define it, but America needs Pakistan as long as Afghanistan is in chaos.  And that calculation simply irritates India.

Long term, however, these issues may all be secondary to the rise of India’s economic power.  Growing at a steady 8% even during the current world recession, India’s effect on global markets will only trail that of the United States and China over the next century.  And for all the domestic complaints of outsourcing, India still is net importing country, with large potential for exporters in the United States.  With a middle class nearing 300 million people (or approximately equivalent to the entire population of the United States), ignoring India as a trade partner would be foolish.

Obama, like every President before him during the post-WWII era, will have to decide how to balance these varied issues in dealing with the growing superpower on the subcontinent. India is as diverse as many continents, and dealing with them takes patience and tact.  But the question is, how will America best use the relationship to bolster not only India, but America as well?  That is the balancing act that will, along with our relationship with China, largely determine the geopolitical power balance of the next century.