Manmohan's visit to Washington: success or failure? - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Monday 30 November 2009

Manmohan's visit to Washington: success or failure?

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 1st Dec 09

Washington gazers have argued about whether the Prime Minister’s visit to the US was a success or a failure. Symbolism more than substance was the eventual consensus, with solace being extracted from President Obama’s reference to India as a nuclear power.

The disappointment that tinged this conclusion stems from a tendency to measure the success of visits in terms of big bang agreements. Phrases like “common ideals”, “shared values”, and “vibrant linkages” that filled the Obama-Manmohan joint declaration are considered useful preambles; but observers want the real stuff as well. However, this time round, with a “Global strategic partnership”; a “New framework for the U.S.- India defence relationship”; and the “US-India civil nuclear agreement”, already delivered, there wasn’t much left to sign.

The improbable speed with which Washington has warmed to New Delhi has created unrealistic expectations. In 1971, President Nixon and Henry Kissinger were describing Indians as “bastards” and “aggressive goddam people”; and referring to Indira Gandhi as an “old witch” and a “bitch” in turn. That said as much about Nixon and Kissinger as about US-India relations but, still, it was only a decade ago that India faced full-frontal sanctions from Washington after the nuclear tests of 1998. In less than a decade that relationship has flowered, yielding a defence framework agreement in 2005 and the civil nuclear agreement last year.

While India has benefited from this new partnership --- in nuclear power generation, for example, or in access to US intelligence a la David Headley --- New Delhi has hardly had to walk the talk. It retains an independent foreign policy, even on US bête noir, Iran; and despite the allegations of the political left, India concedes little to the US in defence policy and procurements.

Compare this with America’s longstanding relationships with UK and Australia, whom Washington counts amongst its closest allies. When the US goes to war --- as in Iraq and Afghanistan --- London and Canberra go along too. America’s NATO allies face the same pressures. Japan, closely linked since World War II by a mutual security treaty, plays reluctant host to tens of thousands of US soldiers. Israel remains a longstanding partner, even if somewhat diminished under Obama. Over time, all these countries have generated political, bureaucratic and military goodwill in Washington. Even the so-called Major Non-NATO Allies (MNNA), such as Pakistan and South Korea, with institutional linkages built over decades, command greater leverage amongst Washington’s political and bureaucratic class than India does.

Only in romantic relationships is the initial period the steamiest. Relationships between countries warm up more gradually as legislative frameworks are negotiated as the foundations for strategic partnerships. In the US-India relationship only the initial steps have been taken in this process. The defence partnership is no more than a framework, valid for ten years, with a formal agreement still in the future. With New Delhi playing negotiating hardball, it will take years to negotiate the agreements that are needed for real partnership. The End User Monitoring agreement, a political minefield for any Indian government, has been finalised painstakingly. Another political hot potato, a Logistic Support Agreement (LSA) remains to be hammered out; so does a Communication and Information Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA). A formal defence pact can materialise only upon this foundation.

Only after that, for all its political impetus, will the US-India relationship begin to give India what it most urgently needs from the US: high technology. So far, the message has not flowed down from the top floors to the functional levels of the US State Department, the Pentagon and the Department of Commerce, which issue the licences needed for exporting sensitive technologies.

This is especially so with the inwardly focused Obama administration, which does not view India from the balance of power perspective of the Bush-Rice regime. India remains a fellow-democracy, something greatly cherished in the American psyche; and a lucrative market, something that America loves even better. But New Delhi remains marginal to Washington’s immediate foreign policy challenges.

The absence of high profile agreements between Obama and Manmohan could actually benefit India, allowing New Delhi the diplomatic space to reassure longstanding allies like Russia. Mere assurances that “the US-India relationship will not be at the cost of other countries” have cut little ice in Moscow. India can ill afford to jeopardise the strategic technology and assistance flowing in from Russia. But Defence Ministry officials have faced growing annoyance; their interlocutors in Moscow complain pithily, “We give you assistance that America will never consider. But, at the first opportunity, you jump into their laps.”

India remains free to pursue partnerships in its legitimate interest. But those must be harmonised with existing relationships and New Delhi has not yet expended the time and political and diplomatic effort needed for this. Realistically, therefore, the modest outcome of Dr Manmohan Singh’s visit to Washington was not just predictable but has spared New Delhi some embarrassment in its relationship with other allies.


  1. well russia shouldn't be complaining, we still buy ships, subs, missiles, fighters from PAKFA, other new projects show that even if Indian goes for a few US deals..wont hurt much at all. Russia should get used to competition for such deals.

  2. stop worrying about politics..........we will concentrate on defence......arms and equipment

  3. There is no alternative to self-effort to elevate one's own nation.

    India has to make a H-bomb, ICBMs and a Hi-tech manufacturing economy to achieve the status it wants.

    No point trying to goad the falling dinosaur to keep fighting the dragon.

  4. a big failure I can say........I we look at the outcome....and our present negotiation power....what say ajai.........!

  5. I agree with Ajay. We seem to perfer style over substance. Wonder why? Is it a civilisational trait?

  6. Ajai,
    There is a growing opposition in the US against war in Afghanistan (and Iraq). We could see a temporary surge in troop levels but the proposed War Tax could force a decision as early as next December.

    What should India's response be to yet another power vacuum in Afghanistan?

  7. Success or failure is a very childish way to gauge the Indo-US ties. As US slowly weakens from it's current dominant position in the world stage and China starts flexing it's muscle, India and US are the only counter weights for the Chinese dragon. US has already realized this and that is why it is trying to get close to India.

    Obama's policy of appeasement towards all is taken as a sign of weakness not humility. His recent visit to China was mocked by the headline "Obama goes to China, comes back with a T-Shirt". Chinese did not yield anything to him. Obama's policies are already becoming unpopular and questionable in the eye's of US public and his popularity has start to erode. Maybe it's too early to judge his presidency but his smooth talk and big words does not seem to translate into anything beneficial to the US public.

    The problem is, India is still sleeping in it's perennial couch of comfort.India doesn't have any way to counter the Chinese threat either militarily, economically or diplomatically. Dragon is on the move while the elephant lumbers on. Let's see how much man and Lion is in Mr. ManMohan Singh and what he does about this.

  8. we should not start begging hi-tech weapons from america....we should build them ourself...or buy from russia only....

  9. Excellent article Shuklajee! Easily the best on the PM's US visit so far!

  10. another 'buy from Russia only' fella...Two Su-30 crashes both due to technical failures, over 1/2 of our BVR missiles from Russia not working and malfunction well before end of shelf life, Gorshkov delayed till god knows when, submarine poor quality rejections, Russian equipment except the AK is as reliable as Pakistani Govt. still people want to buy from Russia, when was the last time they made a real cutting edge weapon that actually works when it needs to. Even the infamour su-30 had to keep its radars off when it wento UK and US because they knew if the US got a whiff of the radar frequencies the aircraft could be jammed and many critical functions would not function anymore. dont get me wrong Russia lately has a piss poor record. moreover they have no control over the sale of their arms and any idiot can copy them and we have China a major threat all using copies of russian stuff. the chinese being chinese thats as orginal as it gets. Russian stuff is rugged ut not reliable and hence they have no chance in the MRCA even with full-tot coz the mig-35 is just a patched up mig-29 with new gizmos and it would disastrous to buy them, IAF knows this. US is going to be an important strategic partner and hence no sense worrying about politics, two large democracies; its a natural partnership besides the US would rather have a strong India than a strong China in Asia. India has the H-bomb, the Agni-3 on a lighter payload and added stages can hit targets well over 10000km away, even the Agni-2 with RV, HAM can hit targets over 4000km away, we have the ability, just do not need ICBMs as long as we can hit China is good enough, we have no enemies beyond Asia. The hi-tech manufactoring wont come in as long as we keep depending on Russia alone since most russia deals have very little private sector inclusion only the su-30mki has a limited amount of private companies yet its far less than how western vendors go in far more private sector joint ventures etc, this will bring up the overall tech level in the country.

  11. If India and USA do not fight together against China than both will loose the war. The world will not be safe in the hands of Chinese communist dictators. Free democracies should learn that.

  12. Why would anybody in the current US administration want to fight China? At this point, any Chinese move to take over Taiwan will be met with a few security council 'meetings' which China will veto.

    That's Taiwan. What's Tawang?? Do you think that President Obama cares if Tawang is controlled by India or China?

  13. Obama has a tough job on his hands, both inside the US and outside. It would have been a very tough ride for any president, leave alone someone like Obama (who's trying to be nice guy to a population that is refusing to accept the inevitability of change). I'm glad he's being forceful in Afghanistan, unlike on the health care debate. If America fails in Afghanistan, India is in for a lot of trouble... you know that. A resurgent Taliban would target India in ways that make the 26/11 attacks look like child's play. India has a vested interest in making sure Obama is successful in Af-Pak. And we have 18 months to do it... after that US public opinion will turn against the war, and India's on it's own.

  14. Ajaiji,

    You can gauge what takes priority by the amount of news coverage received by the couple that crashed the party at White House compared with the coverage received by Manmohan Singhji.
    Lack of substance in the meeting of state heads was compensated by the media circus over the Salahis. Enough said.

  15. well no body wants to fight to China, not even India, they just want to stay cautious and China being a commy nation automatically puts it under US crosshairs, dont buy into Ofama's sweet talk with Bao, he's just being diplomatic, on any given day US will support India over Pak and China, India is a natural democracy and US will have no moral support to come in India's way. Tawang is not US business and Taiwan well they may talk peace but they will get US support if war breaks against china, moreover Taiwan also showed interset in the brahmos if i remember correctly, we will arm them with lethal weapons and China will be appauled by its losses. The fact is any war with China will quickly spiral upto include Japan, South korea, Taiwan, US, India. we arent the only nation who has long standing disputes with China. hence need not worry about US because on any given day they will support a democracy over a commy and a terrorist nation.

    Indo-US friendship is a rather new one and well you gotta look at the sanctions in the past from US POV, when they saw the BJP led NDA govt. which is sort of an hindu extremist party in the country thanx to Babri and involvement in other secular disputes, even i being an indian would be have been cautious with India. When our country puts retards in power well the world watches. I prefer a frienship that builds up slowly than a friendship that is kinda seductive since day one. so its best india and US take their time understanding eachother's concerns. India and US are natural allies and in order to rid our selves of the terror problem, we need to send a few troops to afgan and help in the trainign of local forces because for terrain like afghan Indian army and paramilitray forces can provide the best training, the ISAF is not as well trained in this terrain and tactics. I think a few platoons from the sikh regiment, BSF, ITBP, light sikh infantry, should be sent to Afghan in a covert manner to train the afghan police, paramilitary and army. I am a air plane full of experienced soldiers to afghan can be done without causing much alarm with a small arrangement with the US, i am sure the PAks wouldnt even know. besides afghans can speak urdu, some even speak hindi...its easy for us to train them. what say ye. Ajay sahab may be you can suggest this to some high ranking politicos if you know any, but offcourse we have to covert or the Pukis will start b****ing again. besides just helping with infra developement, such traning will give us an ally on the other side of PAk if push comes to shove, for the afghans to be good friends we should take more infra projects in afgan. may be sell them at anyway lower prices than western counter parts dhruvs, future LOHs, LCH helos, Arjuns, MTAs, about 4-5 squadrons of LCA mk-1s with Kaveri and local avionics , may be even PAKFA eventually, good way to build alliance is to help in military build up and since we have many back channels into afgan we can succeed in arming them well and win over their hearts. more investment into afghan is welcome.

  16. Nobody gives you esteem you have to have your own.... And the more you update and upgrade the more you will be in current... else you are past... mkk

  17. Sorry Ajai. OT.

    President Obama is for change?
    Funny (but real) comedy script on what's 'changed'.


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