President Obama’s Trip to India

Q1: Where does India stand in the Obama administration’s priorities? Why is President Obama going there?

The United States is betting the future of its role in Asia on the development of a broad-based, diverse power structure there, capable of absorbing China’s rise in an atmosphere of peace and serious economic engagement. India is perhaps the most important moving part in this scenario, and that is the major reason for his travel to India and for the Asia-centric structure of the trip. In addition, India is a country of 1.2 billion people, one of the two fastest-growing economies of the world, joined at the hip with some of the most dynamic parts of the U.S. economy with two-way trade of close to $60 billion (including information services). It is also the world’s largest democracy and has maintained that tradition despite difficult economic circumstances especially in the early years.

Q2: People have been talking about India and the United States as “natural allies.” Are we talking about a new formal alliance?

No. India has no interest in the kind of treaty alliance that the United States created after World War II, and it would not be the right framework for these two countries. We’re really talking about a new model of partnership, in which the two sides steadily expand their areas of cooperation while recognizing that they won’t always agree.

Q3: The administration says that the United States conducts more military exercises with India than with any other country. What drives the U.S.-India security relationship?

The most important bond in our security relationship is both countries’ need for peace and security in the Indian Ocean. For the United States, this is a vital thoroughfare for both commerce and the navy; for India, these are the waters through which it receives almost all of its trade and two-thirds of its critical energy imports. The western part of the Indian Ocean touches the Persian Gulf, where India gets most of its oil and has some 5 million citizens living. The eastern part reaches Southeast Asia, with its dynamic economy and its proximity to China.

Q4: Isn’t the U.S. preoccupation with Pakistan a problem for India—and vice versa?

Yes, this has traditionally been a sore point. India and Pakistan have a rivalry going back to their earliest years of independence. Both the United States and India consider Pakistan’s stability and political viability to be important to their own security. India is concerned that U.S. military equipment provided to Pakistan will wind up being used against India and that, in its preoccupation with the war in Afghanistan, the United States will give preference to Pakistani sensitivities.

There is something to India’s concerns. Pakistan borders Afghanistan and has a historical relationship with some of the Taliban groups that are mounting the insurgency there. Pakistan is also the transit route for the overwhelming bulk of supplies for the U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan. So the United States is steering carefully to avoid giving Pakistan the motivation or opportunity to play a spoiler’s role. The United States recognizes India’s interests in Afghanistan and has encouraged India’s involvement in the Afghan economy, but is unlikely to provide much encouragement to the kind of security role India would like to have.

Pakistan also has understandable concerns about the new U.S. partnership with an India that is a major U.S. economic partner, provides a strong security connection in the Indian Ocean, and has a more stable and less trouble-ridden government.

The Obama administration, like its predecessors, has worked hard to maintain good relations with both. Pakistan often gets more attention, because of its role in the U.S. military engagement in Afghanistan and because of Pakistan’s own crises of governance and internal security. India has both the benefit and the disadvantage of representing a long-term opportunity rather than an immediate potential crisis.

Q5: Where does the U.S.-India agreement on civil nuclear cooperation stand? Is India playing a role in global nonproliferation?

The Obama administration has completed most of the tasks required for full implementation of the nuclear cooperation agreement. The Indian government too has been moving forward. The Indian parliament passed a nuclear liability law last summer, one of the key steps. Unfortunately, this law is at variance with the international conventions on nuclear liability and poses a serious problem for the U.S. industry.

India has not exported its nuclear-related equipment and know-how to dangerous recipients. It cannot sign on to the nonproliferation treaty without giving up its nuclear weapons, which it will not do. It had been reluctant to join other nonproliferation organizations but has now expressed interest in the export control groups that are connected with the nonproliferation system. Moving to bring India into these groups would be a powerful way to strengthen the system and encourage India’s engagement in it.

Q6: Will President Obama’s recent support for anti-outsourcing legislation and the rise in H1B visa fees for foreign companies cast a shadow over trade talks with India? What measures can the president take to rectify the fallout in India?

The business process industry brings billions of dollars to India each year and employs 2 million people. The increase in visa fees is expected to cost Indian information technology businesses up to $200 million annually. President Obama will not be able to change the terms of the law that created these charges, but the important thing will be to strengthen the underpinnings of U.S.-India trade and investment, and both sides have a contribution to make here.

Q7: Is India’s policy toward Iran a problem for the United States?

India does not want Iran to develop nuclear weapons and has publicly said it is important for Iran to abide by its international agreements, including restrictions on its nuclear program. Beyond that, India and the United States have different ideas about how to deal with Iran. India has in the past imported substantial oil and gas from Iran and has strategic interests in transit through Iran to Afghanistan and Central Asia.

Q8: What will be the impact of India joining the UN Security Council in January? Does the United States support a permanent Security Council seat for India?

India will take up a nonpermanent Security Council seat in January, for the first time in 20 years. India and two of the other new council members would like to amend the UN Charter so that they would become permanent members. The United States until now has avoided any direct commitment to supporting a permanent seat for India, saying instead that India will be “part of the mix” in case of Security Council reform. The new composition of the council will provide an interesting opportunity to deepen our cooperation with these countries in the challenges of global governance.

Q9: So what will happen during the Obama visit?

The pre-trip speculation all centers on very concrete “deliverables”—agreements on export controls, resolution of the nuclear liability problem, military supply agreements, and the like. Expect some news in all these areas. But the most important feature of the trip will be the deepening of U.S.-India understanding on Asia, on the “global commons” (sea, air, space, and cyberspace), and on where both countries want to take global governance.

Teresita C. Schaffer is director of the South Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Critical Questions
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Teresita C. Schaffer