The contours of the strategic course correction in its relations with India, Pakistan and China, which the administration of President Barack Obama has undertaken since it assumed office a year ago, became evident once again during the just-concluded two-day visit of Dr Robert Gates, the US Defence Secretary, to New Delhi coinciding unintentionally with the end of Mr Obama's first year in office.
The conventional wisdom that the Pentagon and the State Department look at India through two different prisms, with the Pentagon under Mr Obama visualising a much larger role for India than one confined to the sub-continent as seen by the State Department, would have fewer takers after Dr Gates' visit. Dr Gates is in the unique position of having served as the Defence Secretary during the last two years of the second term of Mr George Bush, and continuing in the same position under Mr Obama.
Under Mr Bush, he was a supporter of the multi-dimensional strategic relationship with India, covering civilian nuclear co-operation, military supply relationship, networking between the armed forces of the two countries, a high-profile role for India in maritime security and maritime counter-terrorism and an important role for India as a respected interlocutor of the US in assessing the implications of China's rise as a modern military power in the wake of its rise as an economic power aspiring for a parity of status with the US.
Under Mr Bush, the interactions of Dr Gates, his predecessor (Mr Donald Rumsfeld) and their advisers and officials in the Pentagon with their Indian counterparts used to have a rich agenda with a much larger arc of vision-- with Indo-Pakistan tensions forming only a small part of it. During Dr Gates' just-concluded stay in Delhi, one saw the transition that he has made in adjusting himself to Mr Obama's vision of India as the pre-eminent power of South Asia, whose role will be important for the success of Mr Obama's Af-Pak strategy. He has also adjusted himself to Mr Obama's objective of quietly ridding the developing Indo-US strategic relationship of the preoccupation with China, which was an important characteristic of the India-related policies of the Bush Administration. Dr Gates came to India as a supporter of the mid-course correction in the Obama Administration's policies towards India which have been underway for a year now.
China seems to have figured as expected in Dr Gates' talks with Indian leaders and officials and in his interactions with the media, but not as a driving force of the Indo-US strategic relationship. As one reads and analyses the various comments made by Dr Gates, one is at a loss to understand whether there is any driving force at all under the Obama Administration--except perhaps Washington's anxiety to prevent any escalation in Indo-Pak tensions due to terrorism from derailing Mr Obama's objectives in the Af-Pak region.
The Hindu of January 21, 2010, has quoted Dr Gates as having remarked as follows during his interactions with the media on January 20: "While the discussions with the Indian leaders on China were generic in nature, both sides talked about Beijing's military modernisation plan. In the same breath, he said Washington preferred to engage more with China to avoid any miscalculation. "
Pakistan-centric issues -- strategic as well as tactical-- received a disproportionately large attention as compared to broader issues which used to figure more prominently in the past. India's relevance as a US partner in a much larger geopolitical context hardly found mention. We in India cannot escape part of the responsibility for the reversion to the past practice of looking at India in a restricted Indo-Pakistan context. By refusing to rid ourselves of our consuming fixation with Pakistan, we have unwittingly created an impression that what matters to India is keeping Pakistan under control-- a few statements supportive of India and critical of Pakistan on the terrorism issue and the Indians will be happy. That is the prevailing reading in Washington DC--whether in the White House, the State Department or the Pentagon and we saw that reflected during Dr Gates' visit.
We have not yet realised the full implications of the mid-course corrections in Washington DC and we have not yet examined whether in the face of the unmistakable signs of a much narrower definition of the Indo-US strategic relations by the Obama Administration, any mid-course corrections of our own policies are called for. There is definitely a need for such an examination in respect of our relations with China.
As the scope for convergence of Indo-US perceptions and policies relating to China gets increasingly reduced during Mr Obama's term in office, it is important for us to strike out on our own in re-fashioning our policies towards China. There is a need for examining the wisdom of enlarging our engagement with China beyond trade to strategic security related issues of common concern and interest to the two countries. Maritime counter-terrorism is one such issue. Co-operation between India and China against maritime terrorism and in ensuring sea lane security is of much greater importance than co-operation in maritime counter-terrorism with the US. Our continuing differences and unhappiness with China over the border issue and the alleged Chinese troop intrusions into Indian territory should not come in the way of identifying new areas of convergence with China.
Even in respect of Pakistan, the time has come to have a re-look at our policies to decide to what extent our fixation with certain issues has served us well. Is it possible to give a strategic depth to our relations with Pakistan? How to go about it? These are questions which need to be posed.
India's relevance and acceptability as a major Asian power will be determined not by our continuing to hang on to the US coattails, but by our chartering our own independent course based on our national interests and future aspirations. While the US has been steadily doing its course-corrections, we should not remain glued to our past policies.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. He is also associated with the Chennai Centre For China Studies.
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