Does the reelection of President Barack Obama make any difference to India’s strategic interests? Does it have implications for the country’s foreign and defence policy as well as national security? I am increasingly prone to think that while the ‘reelection’ part would have some implications for India and its neighbourhood, the ‘Obama’ part would be of less relevance. The ‘Obama part’ is less relevant because whoever becomes the President of the world’s only superpower will essentially choose the beaten track with some minor variations. The ‘reelection’ part will make a difference because the reelected president will be unleashed in his external/defence policy pursuits primarily because he doesn’t have to face yet another reelection and also because his reelection clearly means that his policies have been endorsed by the country by and large. Moreover, I have no hesitation in admitting that Obama is better evil than the rightwing republicans, any day.
I am also persuaded to think that Obama’s policies will not have any ‘direct’ negative implications for the country. Indo-US relations have reached a situation of great cooperation and mutual understanding of the needs, expectations and constraints of each other that it would be difficult for the American President to harm the already robust relationship. Even though Obama keeps talking against outsourcing of American jobs to India, the fact is that he has not done anything against it apart from merely reducing the tax benefits of those forms that engage in this practice. At the very least, status quo will continue, and the bilateral partnership will see new heights at best. That said, Obama’s policies towards the Southern Asian region could potentially have negative implications for the country, indirectly that is.
Before looking at those scenarios, let us look at some of the likely ‘constants’ in Indo-US relations under the Obama Administration. The fast-evolving Indo-US strategic partnership is likely to remain unaffected. After all, the Indo-US strategic partnership is not a one-way traffic; the Americans are beneficiaries too. Secondly, the increasing economic, cultural and people-to-people interaction between the two sides will clearly increase in the next few years to come. The ‘civilian nuclear partnership’ is most likely to continue with the present momentum that is no less promising. The Americans are also unlikely to go back on their promise to help India make its mark in the international system by supporting India’s entry into various elite nuclear clubs, permanent membership of the UNSC etc.
That said, India is also likely to fiercely protect its strategic autonomy. Even though one could argue that the words and deeds of Indo-US partnership have drastically transformed during India’s transition from being non-aligned towards the Cold War rivalry to merely insisting on tis strategic autonomy in its relations with the US, the fact is that New Delhi attaches a great deal of importance to maintaining its autonomy in taking decision on strategic issues. It is important to note here that India is one of the very few countries that have managed to maintain its foreign and defence policy autonomy even while being in a strategic partnership with the US as well a US beneficiary. Most US allies have tended to fall into the overwhelming US embrace pretty soon. The question is whether India will be able to continue to maintain its strategic autonomy for too long.
The new Southern Asia and its challenges
Apart form the Middle East, the other area of strategic interest for the Obama Administration is likely to be the Southern Asian region. With the withdrawal of NATO and US combat troops from the Afghan theater in 2014, the region will witness the official beginning of the Afghan endgame even if not the endgame itself. Given the kind of acrimonious relations that Washington currently shares with Islamabad, one is at a loss when it comes to describing what might be the shape of things to come in and around Kabul. Washington realizes that the way out of Kabul is through Islamabad and hence it is likely to mend its relations with the latter. And yet one is left with more questions than answers. Will the Taliban return to the seat of power in Kabul? Will there be a tie-up between Islamabad and/or Rawalpindi and the Taliban leadership? What attitude will the US adopt towards the neo-Taliban? And what would be the regional security implications of these developments? In particular, what role would India play, and be allowed to play by Islamabad and Washington, in all of these? We will have to wait for answers.
Yet another theater of conflict is likely to be Iran. There seems to be no letting up in Washington’s efforts at putting pressure on Tehran to given up its alleged nuclear weapons programme. Is Obama going to play diplomacy with Iran as he did in the beginning of his first term or is he going to play hardball with it? Will he be able to resist the ever-continuing Israeli demands to use force against Iran? And if Israel decides to go it alone, what will be Obama’s response? Given the fact that the Middle East is already on the boil, how will a military campaign against Iran contribute to worsen it? How will it affect India, not just economically due to its dependence on Iran for energy needs, but also geopolitically and strategically?
Yet another factor that needs to be carefully looked at is Obama’s attitude towards the growing power of China. The rise of China is coinciding with the decline of the United States. Washington is clearly nudging New Delhi to paly ball with it to contain the Chinese rise to Super Power status. It has left no stones unturned in making this logic of classical balance of power clear to India. India has so far resisted Washington’s attempts to go against China knowing fully well that it makes no sense to do America’s dirty job of balancing against China who happens to be India’s next door neighbor and India’s biggest trading partner. Will this trend continue or will India fall into the American pressures? What will be the implications of potential Indian postures vis-à-vis China?
The world waits with bated breath for part-II of Obama’s presidency, so do we.