US hands off India,
hands off Asia!

Arindam Sen

Barack Obama’s journey to India in the first week of November promises to be remarkable on several counts. Not all US Presidents visited India; those who did came here only in their second terms in office. Obama will be coming here before completing his second year in the White House and the trip is expected to cover full four or five days – the longest on record. Generally speaking this is a measure of India’s enhanced importance in the American dream of world domination. But perhaps more important are the current context and the immediate concerns on both sides.
Right on the eve of Presidential trip, the CNAS (Centre for a New American Security), a think tank headed by Richard Armitage and Nicholas Burns -- both former Deputy Secretaries of State under George Bush Junior and key architects of the Indo-US Nuclear Deal – brought out a paper titled “Natural Allies: A Blueprint for the Future of U.S.-India Relations”. Referring to the “rapid expansion of ties” during particularly the Bush years, the paper laments that now this progress has stalled. “Past projects remain incomplete, few new ideas have been embraced by both sides, and the forward momentum … has subsided” – the paper observes, adding “it is critical to rejuvenate the U.S.-India partnership and put U.S. relations with India on a more solid foundation.” 
How does the Democratic administration propose to respond to this Republican pressure?
According to an official statement from the White House, the visit will focus on the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan, bilateral business ties and the world economy. It is easy to guess that the second item would dominate the agenda, since this is crucial both for a recession-hit and debt-burdened US and for an India betting on an outward-looking rather than domestic demand-driven strategy of growth. The two sides will therefore focus on issues such as the easing of high-tech exports to India by removing Indian firms from the banned entities list, which is mainly a fallout of New Delhi not signing the NNPT and other security-related technology transfer agreements like CISMOA (Communications and Information Security Memorandum of Agreement) and BECA (Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement). If some success is achieved on this front, that will be used to project the visit as “historic”. The principal beneficiaries will of course be the corporate lobbies in both countries – particularly the military-industrial complex in the US. Firms like Boeing and Lockheed Martin Corp. expect to sell military-transport aircrafts, military jet engines, freight locomotives, reconnaissance aircrafts and other items worth tens of billions of dollars. As for the Indian establishment, it will be only too happy to show off its commitment to “national security” with the newly acquired state-of-the-art defence equipments and technologies.
Apart from the huge profits to be made from the sale of military hardware, arming India to the teeth is important for Washington also as part of its China containment policy. In the recent past, China-US relations took some severe beatings on issues like arms sale to Taiwan and Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama while the perpetually simmering tensions in the Sino-Indian relations were also aggravated on more occasions than one. Naturally the Indian Government is a very willing accomplice in the American scheme of promoting “the world’s biggest democracy” as a counterweight to “authoritarian China”. Of course, this can happen only within a limit. For the Democratic administration also accepts China’s crucial role in South Asia, as the Beijing joint statement – which, inter alia, had appeared to convey that China and the US would now keep a watch over differences between India and Pakistan – made clear a year ago.
A thorny issue that will be sought to be sorted out during Obama's visit is the teetering civil nuclear-energy partnership between the two countries. US sanctions against India ended with the signing of the nuclear deal a couple of years ago, but US firms like GE are not selling nuclear technology to India yet. They are not prepared to accept even the very limited liability placed on suppliers in the event of a nuclear accident under the Nuclear Liability Bill. India is hoping to assuage US firms that it will take care of their concerns through the rules to be framed under the law, while US officials and corporations want the law itself revised and the liability provision scrapped —which does not seem to be feasible in the given balance of political forces in India.
In the realm of world economy, the US wants India to support it in the currency war against China, blaming the latter for artificially devaluing the Chinese Yuan. But it has itself adopted a deliberate strategy to devalue the dollar, the principal means being quantitative easing (printing huge amounts of dollar for buying bonds and other financial assets from the market). A weaker dollar would help the President meet his avowed goal to double exports in five years, but this is not good omen for other nations. This explains why Pranab Mukherjee, during his recent visit to the US, refused to take the American side in this war against the Chinese, currently India’s most important trading partner. Nor did he forget to voice India’s disgruntlement with the Obama Administration’s policy of discouraging outsourcing. During the impending visit of the US President, he is likely to raise this question again, and ask for liberalisation of the H-1B visa regime.
The Indian wish list would also include a clear commitment from the US to support its claim for permanent membership in an enlarged United Nations Security Council. India, too, would be required to make a number of commitments and policy changes. It will be under great pressure for removing whatever restrictive regulations are still there in sectors such as energy, technology, retail, health care and banking. On the diplomatic front, New Delhi will be urged to join the US in bullying Iran. As a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran has an "inalienable right" to develop and use nuclear technology for peaceful purposes and according to the International Atomic Energy Agency there is no evidence to back up the charge that Iran is "planning to produce nuclear weapons". And yet the US, which lied about imaginary weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to manufacture the logic of aggression, is now portraying Iran as a threat to peace and resorting to escalating sanctions and threats of military intervention against that country. Washington has already named India’s oil and gas flagship ONGC, IOC and three other firms among the 41 concerns worldwide having energy ties with Iran, an act for which it may impose sanctions on them and the pressure will now be further intensified.
Sending out a symbolic message of Indo-US partnership in the fight against terror, the US President will begin his tour from Mumbai, sight of the 26/11 attack. But is America really a dependable ally in this struggle? Soon after the visit was finalized, ProPublica -- an independent non-governmental organisation which was a recipient of this year’s Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting -- gave out minute details showing that three years before the November 2008 terrorist attack on Mumbai, US officials knew that David Coleman Headley was undergoing training with the Lashkar-e-Toiba, which plotted the attack. Had this information and his photographs been shared with India at the time or even after the Obama administration took over, India would not have given a visa to Headley for his repeated visits and this could have prevented the terror strike. This point has been largely ignored by major sections of the Indian media, almost exclusively preoccupied as it is with exposing the role of Pakistan’s ISI in the attack on Mumbai.
Among regional issues, the Af-Pak policy of US will also figure in the talks, though hardly any breakthrough is expected. In the "Afghanistan and Pakistan Regional Stabilization Strategy" released in January this year, the White House promised an "enhanced partnership" with Pakistan that would move far beyond the military funding the Bush administration had provided. This was followed up by a provision of $7.5 billion to be given to Pakistan over five years. All this is not palatable to India, which never tires of complaining about US dollars being used by Pakistan in abetting cross-border terrorism. New Delhi is also eager to increase its stakes in Afghanistan and angry with President Karzai for talking to the Taliban. Pakistan on the other hand is reasonably aggrieved with the continuing US Drone attacks inside its territory. In a situation as complex as this, the visiting President will be hard put to balance relations between India and Pakistan -- countries eternally at loggerheads, but both of which hold significant regional influence in American plans for a post-war Afghanistan.
The impending visit will have its interesting sidelights too. For a starter, the Tata Group has announced a $ 50 million (Rs 220 crores) gift to Harvard Business School -- the largest donation from an international donor in the school's history. The symbolism should not be lost on India’s state guest, who is also a Harvard (law school) alumnus. But in terms of substance, how much will the trip actually yield? Given the maze of multiple pressures and pulls in Indo-US relations, no sensible observer will dare come up with a categorical answer at this stage.

The US President comes to India at a time when he is experiencing a steep fall from a peak of popularity in his own country and abroad for failing to deliver on any of his high promises. The Manmohan Singh Government too finds itself beleaguered by a host of nagging problems ranging from skyrocketing prices to the CWG scam. Both sides desperately need a face-lift and they will use the trip for that purpose too. With the range of economic, diplomatic and strategic issues to be covered, it is also evident that Obama’s India sojourn aims at bolstering US interests well beyond this country. The point was driven home by Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Robert Blake, one of the top diplomats coming to New Delhi on a ground preparation mission, when he said the centre of gravity of US foreign policy has shifted from Europe to Asia. The bottom line is clear. Barack Obama is coming to our country as the intelligent, democratic face of US imperialism; let all who stand for peace, justice and sovereignty greet him with a loud welcome message: US imperialism keep off from India, keep off from Asia! .