Indian Prime Minister Getting Warm Reception From Obama, but Analysts See Troubling Trend

By Patrick Goodenough | November 23, 2009 | 4:53 AM EST

President Obama meets with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at a G-20 summit in London on April 2, 2009. Singh is in Washington this week on an “official state visit.” (AP Photo)

( – Indian media are enthusiastic about the red carpet treatment Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will receive in Washington this week, but leading analysts in the country are giving a more sober assessment about the direction of bilateral ties under the Obama administration.
Singh’s is the first “official state visit” to be hosted by President Obama, and the State Department says it is an indication of “the high priority that the administration attaches to our growing partnership with India.”
The Indian leader arrived in Washington late Sunday, although the visit formally begins Tuesday. Amid much speculation about the guest list, India media say the highlight of the visit, Tuesday evening’s White House state banquet, will be the “hottest ticket in town.”
Indian experts are more concerned about the state of the relationship, however, and predict that the three-day visit will be more about style than substance.
Singh’s trip comes on the heels of Obama’s visit to Beijing, an event that sparked considerable scrutiny in India, where many view China with deep suspicion.
Of particular concern was the inclusion in a joint U.S.-China statement of a reference to South Asia. Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao said in their statement they “support the improvement and growth of relations between India and Pakistan” and were ready to “work together to promote peace, stability, and development” in South Asia.
Although innocuous on the surface (and welcomed by Pakistan), the statement caused a stir in New Delhi, which has long been prickly about the efforts of third countries – especially those with longstanding ties to Islamabad, like China and the U.S. – to get involved in the historical India-Pakistan rivalry.
“A third country role cannot be envisaged nor is it necessary,” India’s External Affairs Ministry said in a chilly response to the U.S.-China statement. “We also believe that a meaningful dialogue with Pakistan can take place only in an environment free from terror or the threat of war,” it added.
Terror will be on the minds of many Indians during Singh’s visit, not least because it coincides with the one-year anniversary of the deadly assault on Mumbai by Pakistan-based terrorists.
Rukmani Gupta, research fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in New Delhi, noted that the joint U.S.-China statement had come from an ally of India – the U.S. – “in conjunction with the nation most likely to challenge India’s aspirations in the global arena.”
‘U.S. interests at stake too’
The idea of Beijing seeking some type of oversight role in South Asia is especially galling to some, who see it as part of the problem, not the solution. Inviting China to play a bigger part in the region is akin to “welcoming the fox into the chicken coop,” leading Indian analyst C. Raja Mohan told an event at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace last week.
Speaking at the same event, William Burns, undersecretary of state for political affairs, said the reaction was a case of “too much reading into statements.”
The fact that Singh’s was the first state visit of the current administration, he said, was “the clearest indication of the importance that President Obama attaches to our relationship with India.”
“Of course the United States is interested in pursuing the best and healthiest possible
partnership with China, but that doesn’t come at the expense of other, increasingly important partnerships, particularly our partnership with India,” Burns argued.
Analysts say the issue goes beyond Indian touchiness about its neighborhood as has implications for U.S. interests in the region too.
China supports Maoists in Nepal, sells large quantities of weaponry to Sri Lanka, helped Pakistan acquire nuclear weapons and is building a strategic deep-water port on Pakistan’s coast near the Strait of Hormuz, a major conduit for world oil supplies (China also has Indian Ocean port projects underway in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Burma).
“What President Obama needs to understand is that the Chinese are not waiting for his nod to move in. They already are,” Wilson John, senior fellow with the Observer Research Foundation think tank in New Delhi, argued on Friday.
“It is in indeed part of the encirclement of India but also of the U.S. strategic interests in the region,” he said.
John warned that Obama’s regional approach could weaken the U.S. “position and influence as a global power with debilitating consequences for its strategic interests in the Middle East, Central Asia as well as the Indian Ocean.”
‘China no longer a uniting factor’
U.S. relations with India deepened significantly during the Bush administration, which in 2005 enunciated a policy to help India become “a major world power” in the 21st century. A key element in the strategy was an agreement to resume civilian nuclear cooperation, signed by Singh and President Bush the following year.

President Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during the playing of the national anthems on the South Lawn of the White House during Singh’s July 2005 visit. (White House archives, photo by Carolyn Drake)

Designed to assist energy-hungry India in developing its nuclear energy sector, the deal was also viewed as helping to promote India as a regional counterweight to China.
“Common concerns over China brought India and the U.S. together under the Bush administration,” said Indian security analyst Bahukutumbi Raman. “With Obama projecting China as a benign power and not as a power to be concerned about, China will no longer be a uniting factor.”
“Bush and [former secretary of state] Condoleezza Rice seemed inclined to bestow on India the status of an Asian power on par with China,” said Raman, director of India’s Institute For Topical Studies. “The Obama administration does not seem to be so inclined.”
Raman also voiced concern about India’s position in the broader Asia-Pacific region, saying no-one in India appeared to have realised that “for the first time the U.S., Japan and Australia have a leadership which does not rate highly India’s potential as an emerging power.”
Under previous conservative governments in Washington, Tokyo and Canberra, the notion of stronger security ties between pro-U.S. regional democracies India, Japan and Australia – but pointedly excluding China – drew support, and the countries held joint naval exercises.
Now, however, in Prime Ministers Kevin Rudd and Yukio Hatoyama both Australia and Japan have leaders more inclined than their predecessor towards closer ties with Beijing. And Indian analysts say Obama’s visit to China, where he avoided tackling controversial issues like human rights concerns in public, indicates a similar trend.
Gautam Adhikari, a former executive editor of the Times of India, said in a commentary published Monday that Indians needed to recognize reality: “We may aspire to a seat at the high table of world power but China is already sitting at the head of the table along with the United States.”
Although India was also a billion-strong nation with a fast-growing economy – and unlike China, a democracy – “realistically speaking, we are a second or perhaps third tier force in the eyes of the United States,” he said.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow