Obama trip welcomes India to high table of global influence

President Obama left India with reassurances of his strong support for a 'strategic partnership' – as well as strong words about his commitment to free trade.

Saurabh Das/AP
President Obama, greets the Indian delegation present at the airport to see him off in the traditional Indian way of namaste as he leaves for Indonesia at the end of their tour of India, at the airport in New Delhi, India, on Nov. 9.

President Obama left India Thursday having won over the country's leadership with a series of small deals, excellent stage management, and a symbolically significant welcome to the high table of global decisionmaking.

In return, he got few significant commitments from the Indian government but managed to accomplish domestically significant tasks, thanks to the business community. He avoided criticisms at home over outsourcing by tallying 54,000 new jobs from Indo-US business deals, and he mended fences with America's business community with a full-throated defense of free trade.

For the Indians, the sum was more than its parts: Obama dispelled fears here that he would go wobbly on key planks of the "strategic partnership" that his predecessor, President Bush, had struck with India.

"The most important thing was to keep momentum going under Bush," says C. Raja Mohan, an Indian strategic analyst. "After Obama's election, we had a lot of concerns."

Those concerns included doubt about his commitment to Bush's civilian nuclear pact, talk of a US push to resolve the Kashmir dispute, and an initial cozying up to China.

Obama furthered the promises of the civilian nuclear pact by lifting export controls on sensitive technologies. The US will also support India's membership into four international export-control regimes governing nuclear and missile technologies, uranium, and armaments.

However, the pact's commercial boon for the US nuclear power industry may be limited if India cannot resolve American business concerns over liability. Under a bill in Parliament, US suppliers could be sued for damages in the case of a nuclear accident, which is a departure from international norms. Obama appeared to win no concessions on this front.

On Kashmir, Obama agreed to stay out if that was India's wish – despite the killing of more than 100 protesters by Indian forces this summer.

And on China, Obama said the US and India were both committed to "open and inclusive regional architecture," meaning that they would involve themselves in East Asia to keep Beijing from claiming hegemony.

"It's really both sides hedging against a possibility without having to commit themselves to containing China. That's what both sides are committed to doing," says Mr. Mohan.

Many of the actual deals were small change, including:

  • US government technical help to predict the start of monsoons
  • joint exploration of India's shale gas resources
  • vague talk of bringing an "evergreen revolution" to Indian agriculture
  • help from the Centers of Disease Control in setting up a disease detection center
  • energy cooperation, with the US and India each spending $25 million to research clean energy.

"The government of India is taxing coal at $1 a ton, and that fund will have $600 million annually – so the $50 million is nothing but peanuts," says Chandra Bhushan, the associate director of the Center for Science and Environment in New Delhi.

But Obama trumpeted the sheer number and breadth of deals as a sign of the maturing bilateral relationship, and skillfully unveiled them gradually over the three-day visit – saving to the end the mostly symbolic support for a seat for India at the UN Security Council.

The lack of a major deal this time around did not bother most analysts. "There was no big bang deal, but you can‚t have those every day," says Mohan.

He also clearly connected with the Indian people who already viewed him favorably. Indian media focused on his dancing with schoolchildren as well as the way he drew connections between India's freedom fighters and his own historic life story. Obama noted how Mahatma Gandhi inspired Martin Luther King Jr., who in turn made his own presidency possible. He also noted how B.R. Ambedkar, a member of the shunned Dalit caste, overcame prejudice to become the author of India’s Constitution.

The US had hoped to get three defense agreements signed. These would have allowed for greater interoperability and technology transfer between US and Indian forces.

Some in the defense establishment here are concerned that signing the deals would leave India leaning too heavily on the Americans, but the issue is still being studied, says Maj. Gen. Ramesh Chopra, a retired Indian strategist.

"India will not jump to anything, on these three," General Chopra says. But the reassurance of a strategic partnership from Obama will help resolve differences. "A lot of the rough edges have been smoothed, details will take time."

From his perspective, the Indians got everything they wanted.

"We have to now see to it that we grasp this opportunity he has given us. Now it is up to others to take this forward," Chopra says.

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