China concerned at breakthroughs achieved and Obama-Modi chemistry
China, by being in such a haste to downplay the visit of President Obama to India, without even waiting for the visitor to leave India’s airspace, has provided the convincing proof that the visit was a success. The Chinese are obviously concerned at the breakthroughs achieved and at the personal chemistry developed and displayed with such obvious glee by both leaders, especially Prime Minister Modi. It is politically correct, and imperative, for any two countries at the conclusion of a successful summit-level meeting to pronounce that their relationship is not aimed at third countries and is not at the expense of friendship with a third country. This is routine, but it does not always convince or satisfy the third country concerned. In this particular case, the Chinese are not completely off the mark. There is no question but that China has been an important factor in the US tilt towards India over the past decade. It was with China in mind that President G.W. Bush went so much out of the way to even amend the US laws to bring India with the fold of nuclear commerce. Commercial considerations are always present when foreign leaders visit India; this is true of the Russian President’s visits also. Mr. Obama’s enthusiasm for India has likewise something to do with the US-China rivalry. India is big enough and smart enough not to engage with America in an anti-China containment concept, but it has concerns about an assertive China which has not hesitated to flex its military muscles even during the visit of its President to India. It makes good sense for India to welcome American embrace without being suffocated by it.
The big picture that emerges from the visit has two aspects. There has long been a conviction in India over many decades since our independence, among officials as well as analysts, that America never wanted India to become a strong or even prosperous power, mainly due to what it perceived as India’s hostile attitude during the cold war era, and actively acted to keep India ‘down’. America had mortgaged its India policy to the British on Kashmir and other issues and was decidedly anti-India during the Bangladesh crisis. It is not incorrect to conclude after this visit that America has finally and definitively given up this approach and is more than willing to work with India so that India progresses, firmly and reasonably fast to become economically and hence militarily strong. Here too, the China factor is an important consideration.
On India’s side, the big picture is that the Indian establishment has given up its reservations regarding America’s attitude and has decided to put the past anti-India actions of America behind it and to look to the future without hesitation. India became pragmatic in its foreign policy soon after the end of the cold war. Mr. Modi has taken this pragmatism to an unprecedented level, perhaps causing discomfort to some among his own constituency, but as far as the official hierarchy is concerned, there is no reservation toward the Prime Minister’s policy.
These changes in the mindsets of the two countries towards each other have evolved gradually over a number of years and it is because of this slow and measured evolution that the enhanced relationship between India and the US promises to be reasonably long lasting.
It is good that Foreign Minister Swaraj has visited China. China too has offered to take the bilateral relationship to a higher level. This is all to the good. If there is competition between the world’s two largest economies to help India reach a faster trajectory in developing its economy, it certainly will not hurt India. (Is there a hint in all this of what happened, or what we believe happened, during the cold war when we received assistance from both sides?). If Japan joins in this competition, India would surely welcome it; let others like Australia also join in.
However, in this new ‘economic development’ game, we ought not to lose sight of our ‘time-tested’ friends. The Foreign Minister ought to visit Moscow soon. The Russians have for some time been feeling that India has been taking them for granted. This may or may not be the case, but as everyone knows, perceptions often drive relationships, both personal and inter-state. It is also true that explanations and assurances do not always lead to the removal of perceptions, but the effort must be made.
The Obama visit has achieved more than what this writer expected. While the American focus was on securing commercial deals, especially in the big ticket defense sector, it has to be acknowledged that the range of fields in which America has offered to assist us is so diverse and some of the commitments are so specific that it would be fair to conclude that the US is now willing to establish a genuinely bilaterally beneficial relationship. No relationship can be only in one direction or based on good feelings; only mutuality of interests can sustain an equal relationship. The Prime Minister has conducted himself with dignity, while at the same time displaying bonhomie.
Indians seem obsessed about playing a global role. Visiting dignitaries are aware of this weakness of ours. We should not get flattered when they say things pleasing to our ears. If we become strong domestically, both in economic and societal terms, a bigger role will come to us without our having to plead for it.
Personal chemistry between leaders can help a great deal in ironing out differences. But beyond that, there are two factors: national interest and the courage to take tough decisions. A leader well tuned in to public opinion instinctively knows what will sell domestically, but he also must have the confidence to take decisions that might be controversial within the country. Dr. Manmohan Singh was able to push through the nuclear deal about a decade ago and even put his political survival on the line because he was convinced that that was in India’s interests. However, he did not feel strong enough to take the required decisions to help propel the deal towards operational sing it. Mr. Modi could do this because he is clear about his agenda, knows the people’s mood and has a huge popular mandate which gives him the necessary confidence.
Indians swing between contrasting moods. We easily become euphoric when we believe someone is being nice to us, but become extremely critical if the same person does something we consider unfriendly. “Is he friendly to us?” is a wrong question to ask in international relations.