Columns - From the Sidelines

Obama in India – what was said, what wasn’t, and why

FROM THE SIDELINES By Lasanda Kurukulasuriya

US president Barack Obama’s 3-day Indian tour was a milestone in US – India relations for many reasons, with both sides more or less getting what they wanted out of the encounter. It was no coincidence that India was the first and longest stop in Obama’s tour, that also took him to Indonesia and South Korea (for the G-20 summit) and will end with Japan. For the world’s two largest democracies, the gains on the strategic plane seemed to win the day, with the $10 billion worth of trade deals thrown in like a bonus. Obama hailed India as being no longer an “emerging power,” but a power that “has emerged.” And he showed that he was ready to walk the talk, openly declaring the US’s support for India’s bid for a permanent seat on a reformed UN Security Council. This endorsement by the world’s superpower for its ambitious demand to enter the UNSC’s exclusive club, was no mean achievement for India.

U.S. President Obama speaks with India's PM Singh during their state dinner at Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi. - REUTERS

The US president acknowledged the 50,000 jobs that would be created back home as a result of the Indian visit. He faces an embattled situation domestically, following the relentless right-wing onslaught in mid term elections, attributed largely to slow results on the economic front. But it would appear the more important outcome (and objective) of the trip was consolidating a US partnership with India as a major player in the politics of the region. The impact of this would be much more far-reaching than the short-term economic gains.

Was the US president caught off his guard when the Indian media and opposition started crying out loud for a statement on Pakistan, from the moment he set foot in Mumbai – the scene of the brutal “26/11” attack by terrorists who, India alleges, came from Pakistan? India’s national television did not fail to remind viewers that the US had just given Pakistan some US $2 billion security assistance to help fight Al Qaeda. Obama did not disappoint the Indians. In his address to the Indian parliament he included a statement to the effect that terrorist safe havens within Pakistan’s borders are unacceptable, and that “terrorists behind the Mumbai attacks must be brought to justice.”

Shared security was a key area outlined by Obama in defining the partnership the US sought to forge with India (shared prosperity and democratic values being the other two). Conspicuous by its downplaying however, was the “C” word that was probably on everybody’s mind.

The reference to a ‘deepening relationship’ with China was so fleeting that it might have been missed by many. It was made in the context of engaging with regional organizations like ASEAN, and the East Asia Summit (EAS). India should not only “look East” but also “engage East,” Obama said, because it will “increase the security and prosperity of all our nations.”

But perhaps Obama’s downplaying of China only underscores its importance. With all eyes on his Indian tour, the media spotlight was somewhat diverted from other US diplomatic activity in Asia. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s 13-day Asia Pacific tour ended on November 8 to dovetail with the end of Obama’s India visit. Clinton was in the region to attend the EAS in Hanoi, with an extremely busy schedule. Starting in Hawaii where she was due to meet the Japanese Foreign Minister, her itinerary included seven countries and meetings with heads of state and/or officials from Vietnam, China, South Korea, Cambodia, Malaysia, New Zealand and Australia.

While the media were transfixed with Obama’s charismatic presence in India, Clinton seemed to have been tasked with doing all the talking about China (that Obama didn’t do). This is the first time the US is joining the EAS, a grouping of 18 countries including those of ASEAN. Clinton was also preparing the ground for Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to Washington expected to take place early next year. A policy statement she made in Hawaii seemed to point to the underlying importance of China in the entire Obama-Clinton overseas diplomacy exercise of the past couple of weeks. She is reported to have said the US-China relationship was not a “zero-sum calculation” where, when one succeeds the other must fail, and stressed the US’s commitment to “getting the China relationship right.” Reports at the tail end of the tour in Australia also quote her as having expressed the expectation that China would be a “responsible player” in international affairs, and asserting the US’s role as a power in the Asia Pacific region.

It would appear that the US needs (democratic, free-market) India to counterbalance the rising influence of (communist, dictatorship) China on the world stage. Obama described the partnership with India as “one of the defining relationships of the 21st century,” stressing the two countries’ shared values of democratic governance, independent judiciary and free press.

So what does all this mean for little Sri Lanka? Sri Lanka’s relations with India are dictated largely by geography. As India emerges as a democratic world power backed by the US, Sri Lanka’s relations with the rest of the world may increasingly tend to be filtered through this over-arching parameter. Friendship with China too goes back many decades, and China helps Sri Lanka in its infrastructure-oriented development thrust with no strings attached. Pakistan has helped Sri Lanka with small arms to fight the LTTE, and Sri Lanka has spoken up for Pakistan in international fora.

At the end of the month Sri Lanka will host back-to-back visits by high powered delegations from both India and Pakistan. Indian External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna is expected here from November 25 to 28 to declare open two Indian Consulates General in Jaffna and Hambantota, and Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari’s goodwill visit is scheduled to take place from November 28 to 30. Sri Lanka needs to play its hand with care so as not to offend friends who are vital to its interests, while being mindful of the acute anxieties that divide its more powerful neighbours.

The writer is a senior freelance journalist.

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