Obama and India

November 29, 2010

There are no two views in Pakistan that the endorsement of a permanent UN Security Council seat for India by U.S. President Barack Obama on his Indian visit will have clear fallout in destabilizing a region vexed by conflict.

In response, the cabinet in Islamabad passed a resolution protesting the endorsement, while the opposition in parliament said that Pakistan should have been taken into confidence before making such an announcement.
With a nuclear deterrence mechanism already in tatters after the 2005 signing of a civil-nuclear deal between the U.S. and India, this new public push to support India as it grows more aggressive in Kashmir and in the region is widely seen as misplaced and ill-advised. The worry in Islamabad is that it may be irreversible.
In the short-term, however, Islamabad can take some comfort in the fact that any substantial movement on the endorsement is unlikely. For one, a new UNSC seat requires an amendment to the UN Charter. Second, two-thirds of the UN General Assembly has to vote in that charter, with agreement needed by each of the five permanent members of the Security Council.
Even with U.S. pro-action, it is unlikely that this new equation can be voted in. The China veto will clearly be of use in such an eventuality, but Pakistan will have to use its space and geopolitical leverage internationally in defusing the diplomatic momentum that New Delhi will invariably bring to the UN after this U.S. endorsement.
Meanwhile, there is a strong view at home that Pakistan should be preoccupied with stabilizing its own critical internal challenges and damping down expectations for global support. Most importantly, Islamabad should recognize that India is now part of a larger economic bandwidth that is able to buy influence around the globe.
As American businesses seek access to India’s 1.2 billion-strong consumer market as the driver of a broadening commercial relationship between the two countries, no one should be surprised.
Yet if the economic message from President Obama`s Indian road show was loud and clear, the strategic subtext was a little more complicated. While Obama`s acknowledgment of India’s growing global economic and strategic clout was communicated clearly, what was not forthcoming was an open condemnation of Pakistan from the atrium of the Taj Mahal Hotel, where solidarity with the victims of 26/11 was expected by many Indian observers as the prelude to a rap on Islamabad’s strategic knuckles.
In fact, in his first public remarks in India, President Obama spent some time acknowledging Pakistan’s strategic weight, as well as endorsing an aggressive engagement with Islamabad in its progress against extremism. While he did give pause in his appreciation for Pakistan’s efforts against terrorism, Obama was mindful to recognize the price Pakistani citizens are paying in terms of human lives.
Parlaying New Delhi on Afghanistan was a clear indication of Washington’s anxiety about end-gaming its Afghanistan challenge without Islamabad’s cooperation. Despite the growing bonds between New Delhi and Washington, a mismatch of strategic goals still holds the bilateral line.
Why? One, because the strategic calculus to please New Delhi is outweighed by the need to partner with Pakistan on looking for sustainable answers on a war investment gone south in Afghanistan.
Two, while India seeks strategic primacy in South Asia, the U.S. wishes to use India as a regional proxy rather than a regional hegemon, which is probably unacceptable to New Delhi, given its macroeconomic ability to make sovereign decisions in any changing regional power play.
In a broader sense, what continues to complicate the growing Indo-U.S. relationship is the scale of Indian ambition in the region, particularly with reference to Afghanistan, and what it sees as Washington’s continued refusal to give New Delhi equivalence with Islamabad in Afghanistan.
Indian cooperation with Iran in creating transit infrastructure is perhaps only one of the reasons why New Delhi did not support Washington in its bid for sanctions against Iran, given that Teheran’s growing leverage in Kabul is another factor that pulls India towards Iran as it seeks to maximize its strategic presence in Afghanistan.
At the same time, flashpoints in the region point to many shifts that Islamabad should be closely watching. The Obama trip has capped a growing Indian bond with the U.S. since Sept. 11, 2001, after which a strong pro-Indian lobby, led by USINPAK, in the U.S. has gathered weight and congressional momentum to give India muscle on Capitol Hill modeled on the powerful Israeli AIPAK.
The year 2001 also saw Washington looking actively for partners against jihadi groups and New Delhi made room for a new strategic opportunity in the post-Soviet world.
To check the Chinese dominance of sea lanes from East Asia to the Persian Gulf via the Indian Ocean, as well as operate as a key ally in the South Asian region, the U.S. began extensive joint military exercises and gave India access to dual-use nuclear technology, and is now backing India’s admission into the Nuclear Suppliers Club and the Missile Technology Control Regime.
Clearly, the post-Cold War equilibrium has shifted to accommodate new realities that Pakistan has yet to effectively size up, let alone manage. If stabilizing the region continues to be an Obama priority, as stated very clearly on his visit, it will be the biggest test of U.S. diplomacy in the region. No frontline talks on Kashmir may be expected immediately, but until the Indian strategic pincer of Pakistan is reduced, tensions will run high in the region.
At the same time, if there is a message that Pakistan should hang on to from this visit it is very clear: the U.S. has rightly or wrongly, delinked Pakistan with India, as it now has China to worry about on its global radar. So before the goodwill runs out, Islamabad should leverage its assets better while eschewing conflict with India, clean up its own house and start thinking of how to become self-reliant before basing its core strategy on punching its geopolitical weight.
The writer is president of Jinnah Institute and a member of Pakistan’s national assembly