Singh in Washington: Making the Case for India

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From left: Kevin Lamarque / Reuters; Farooq Khan / EPA

The pomp and ceremony with which President Barack Obama will host India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at a White House state dinner on Tuesday won't alter a perception in India that it has lost ground to China in the new Administration's Asia policy. Many in New Delhi saw Obama's performance last week in Beijing as acquiescent toward an emboldened Beijing, New Delhi's longtime regional rival. And they see India having a diminished role in the economic and geopolitical calculations of Obama's White House — at least in comparison to the centrality it enjoyed in the Bush Administration's Asia policy.

They may have winced at his blunders in Iraq and elsewhere, but many Indians welcomed President Bush's embrace, which strengthened ties between the world's largest democracies to an unprecedented degree after decades of Cold War estrangement. Singh faced opposition at home from parties skeptical of close ties with the U.S., but staked his political reputation on the growing relationship — his government was almost deposed by parties of the left protesting a nuclear-technology deal he concluded with the Bush Administration.

"Under Bush, India was being encouraged to be an Asian power," says Brahma Chellaney, professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research, a New Delhi–based think tank. Implicit in the Bush agenda was the idea of helping a rising India become a democratic bulwark against authoritarian China. "Now," says Chellaney, "Obama sees things through a different prism."

One example of the change has been the Obama Administration's scrapping of what had been known as the quadrilateral initiative, a loose alliance between Washington and three other prominent democracies in the region — India, Japan and Australia — that staged joint naval exercises in 2008. China saw the initiative as designed to create a security bloc to contain it, and in the interests of improving relations with Beijing, Obama has declined to pursue it.

Indian analysts believe Obama's foreign policy team mostly thinks of India in the context of other regional challenges, particularly the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan. China, with its booming economy and position as America's primary creditor, now carries far more weight in U.S. calculations. "The ground reality is India at the moment does not count for the U.S. in the same way that China and Pakistan do," says Bahukutumbi Raman, a former top Indian intelligence official and head of the Centre for Topical Studies in Chennai.

Part of the price for that new reality, many in India believe, is a downgrading of their own concerns. Singh will be in the U.S. on the anniversary of last year's Mumbai terror attacks, which were orchestrated by Pakistan-based groups with traditional ties to Pakistan's military intelligence organization, the ISI. But while Obama and his Afghanistan envoy, Richard Holbrooke, have urged India to make concessions on the decades-old Kashmir dispute in order to help Washington's efforts to persuade the Pakistanis to focus more resources on fighting the Taliban, little has been done to coerce Pakistan to crack down on extremist groups using its territory as a base for targeting India. The agenda for Singh's visit includes talks on boosting intelligence and counterterrorism efforts, but India remains unwilling to broach Kashmir with Pakistan until Islamabad demonstrates a commitment to crack down on jihadist groups in its midst.

More troubling for the Indians than the Obama Administration's prioritizing of Afghanistan was a paragraph in the joint statement released during the President's Beijing visit: it welcomed Chinese involvement in South Asia and spoke of Beijing's ability to "promote peace, stability and development in that region." In New Delhi, this was read as a sign of U.S. acceptance of China viewing South Asia — India's neighborhood — as part of its own sphere of influence. Chellaney saw the statement as a "return to a kind of Cold War thinking where two great powers can dictate terms to a lesser one." China's long-standing border disputes with India, and its building up of the Pakistani military, makes many in New Delhi reluctant to welcome Beijing as a benign presence. Indeed, some fear India is being encircled by Chinese listening posts and bases around the Indian Ocean. And when tensions spiked last month over China pressing its claim to territory inside India, the U.S. remained silent.

India's government insists there's room enough for both India and China to peacefully emerge as world powers, and Singh has made no complaints about the change in atmosphere in Washington. His visit, he insists, is simply an opportunity "to renew the partnership." It'll look to formalize elements of the nuclear deal penned last year, which grants India access to a range of technologies that it had previously been blocked from acquiring. Measures will also be taken to expand trade, promote educational links and boost cooperation on research into vaccines. The two sides are also expected to sound the right notes on climate change without making any substantial commitments.

Despite their concerns about recent developments in the relationship, many in India are confident in their country's long-term ties with the U.S. More than 3 million people of Indian origin now live in the U.S., while Indians comprise the biggest pool of foreign students in American universities, and wealthy Indian professionals are creating an increasingly effective India lobby in Washington. "India may not be the top priority now," says Raman, "but there's no reason why it won't be in the future."