By Dan Twining
In 1998, President Clinton flew over Japan without stopping to spend nine days in China. This led to acute concern in Tokyo over "Japan passing" -- the belief that Washington was neglecting a key Asian ally in favor of the region's rising star, China. Is the same thing happening today -- not with Japan, destination of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's first overseas trip, but with India?
The construction of a strategic partnership with India was arguably President Bush's signal foreign policy accomplishment. Decades of estrangement between the world's largest democracies gave way to a strategic breakthrough akin to President Nixon's visit to China in 1972. Senior Bush administration officials believed that India could emerge as America's most important international partner over coming decades, given India's growing capabilities and a congruence of interests in defeating global terrorism, managing China's rise, sustaining an open global economy, and securing our common values.
For its part, the government of Manmohan Singh literally put its survival on the line for the United States, subjecting itself to a confidence vote in parliament in order to move forward with the civil nuclear cooperation agreement. Few other countries -- including America's closest allies -- have passed such a test.
But signs of trouble in U.S.-India relations emerged early on Barack Obama's road to the White House. As a Senator, he offered a killer amendment to restrict nuclear fuel supply to India during consideration of the civilian-nuclear agreement, which the Bush administration and India's supporters in Congress had to work hard to defeat.
During the presidential campaign, he revealed that he had asked Bill Clinton to consider serving as a special envoy for Kashmir in an Obama administration, alarming Indians in the way that Americans might be alarmed if the European Union offered to send a senior envoy to mediate between Mexico and the United States over the status of Texas.
Candidate Obama also pledged, if elected, to push for U.S. ratification and global entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. This issue, more than any other, divided the United States and India in the 1990s, especially when the United States and China -- which had helped sponsor Pakistan's nuclear and missile programs targeting India -- ganged up on India at the United Nations to press it to accept the test ban.
Following Obama's election, Indian officials lobbied hard to exclude India from inclusion in Richard Holbrooke's mandate as Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (first "and Kashmir," then "and related matters" were dropped from his notional title with Indian prodding). Senior officials in New Delhi worried that formally including India in Holbrooke's Afghanistan-Pakistan portfolio would lead to inevitable U.S. pressure on India (intensified by Holbrooke's talent as a negotiator) to make concessions to Pakistan even as elements of its security apparatus were judged to have been complicit in the 11/26 terrorist attacks in Mumbai.
India's worries were intensified when the new administration excluded India from its inaugural list of foreign policy partners and priorities, despite references to other Asian powers, including Pakistan, Afghanistan, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and China. And Indian diplomats were dumbfounded when Prime Minister Singh was not among the first two dozen world leaders to receive an introductory phone call from President Obama. Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Chinese President Hu Jintao, among others, did.
Secretary Clinton deserves enormous credit for making her inaugural official trip to Asia. But the original Policy Planning Staff transition memo suggesting such a visit included India along with Japan, South Korea, China, and Indonesia in its recommended itinerary. What happened? No senior U.S. official can go everywhere, especially across the vast expanse of Eurasia. But skipping New Delhi only reinforced an Indian perception of U.S. coolness.
The Bush administration made a conceptual and bureaucratic breakthrough in considering India to be part of wider Asia, rather than relegating it to its tough neighborhood on the subcontinent. As Senior Director for East Asia at the NSC, Mike Green included India in his portfolio as part of a conscious strategy of making India a key player in East Asia's evolution. To his credit, the current Senior Director, Jeff Bader, reportedly has done the same thing, although, because he is a China specialist, Indian elites do not expect his equal attention.
So who will have the India account in the Obama administration? Arguably, in the ancien regime, Bush himself was India's biggest booster, which in turn led Secretary Rice to devote considerable time and energy to building the relationship, with day-to-day management by Undersecretary of State Nick Burns and then his successor, Bill Burns. In the current line-up, the president does not appear to hold a particular brief for India. Though her presidential candidacy enjoyed strong support from the Indian-American community, Secretary Clinton seems focused on East Asia. At a traveling press conference this week, her press secretary reportedly dismissed one reporter's inquiries with the declaration, "No questions about India."
Does this mean that the Obama administration is putting India back into its subcontinental box? Undersecretary of State Bill Burns in theory still has the India account at State. But he has lost his office space in the Secretary's suite to Deputy Secretary Jacob Lew, and there are reports of early tussles with Holbrooke over seniority and access. Indeed, Holbrooke was the first senior American official to visit New Delhi. In addition to praising Indian restraint after the Mumbai attacks, he again called for India to reduce tensions with Pakistan.
The Obama administration is right to frame the problems of Pakistan and Afghanistan in their regional context. But India can be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. India has enormous equities in the construction of a democratic state in Afghanistan. It has contributed substantial development assistance, built infrastructure, and trained Afghan civil servants. New Delhi has long wanted to do more, but Washington's Pakistan-centric bureaucracy resisted. Given the growing challenge of getting Afghanistan right, it may be time to ask India to step up, in police training and other areas.
More generally, it's worth keeping in mind that the Bush administration's de-hyphenation of India and Pakistan policy, after decades of Pakistan-centricity in the U.S. approach to South Asia, created a range of new strategic possibilities -- including the most substantial progress ever made between India and Pakistan in back-channel negotiations over a Kashmir settlement.
Today, victory in Afghanistan is critical, as is preventing Pakistan's Talibanization or economic collapse. But democratic India, destined to surpass China as the world's most populous country and to emerge as the world's third-largest economy within several decades, is the region's big strategic prize, an essential partner for the United States in promoting a more peaceful, prosperous, and liberal world. India's people also hold the United States in high regard. As the Obama administration finds its feet, it will want to invest in this potentially transformative relationship, even as it necessarily fights fires elsewhere in South Asia.