Obama’s India Visit Ramifications for South Asia


While President Obama’s recent visit to India was crucial from the Indian perspective, Sukanya Natarajan and Sabah Ishtiaq understand the importance that US diplomacy holds in the trilateral relationship of India-Pakistan-Afghanistan

The visit of US President Barack Obama to India signifies that South Asia, like Southeast Asia, at long last has accomplished some well-deserved US attention as part of the US rebalance or hinge to Asia. This was the first time a sitting US president had visited India twice to improve relations between the world’s oldest democracy and the world’s largest democracy. This is a welcome change as it highlights that the US and its policymakers understand that there is more to Asia than China, and that an Asia strategy is more than a snatch bag of programs seeking to match China’s efforts. Time and again, East Asia alone seemed the predominant focus of the US policy hinge eastward. In fact, engaging with the outside world and foreign policy issues did not find a mention in Obama’s 70-minute State of the Union address. With the International Monetary Fund expecting India’s economy to grow by 6.3 percent in 2015 and by 6.5 percent in 2016, expected to outpace China, there is good reason for the US hinge to head southward to India. The above mentioned figures will grow if reforms take hold in India. Peace and stability in Asia, a stated goal of the US rebalance to the region, is synonymous with greater commercial opportunities throughout Asia. Trade and economic ties, therefore, need to be part of the means to a strategic solution in the region, and not just the ends in themselves.

In the State of the Union Address, President Obama did not mention India, South Asia’s largest and most important country; one with which both Democrats and Republicans have been cultivating stronger ties. Despite this omission, this was no ordinary visit, as Obama’s trip marked the first time an American president served as the chief guest for India’s Republic Day parade, one of India’s biggest political events that celebrates India’s transition from a commonwealth state to a republic in 1950. President Obama even moved the State of the Union Address from January 28 to January 20 in order to attend this event.

While Obama’s visit to India is crucial from the Indian perspective, the United States administration sees the visit as a more routine operation, though it understands the symbolism behind sending its president to the Republic Day parade. Relations between India and the United States have improved since the Devyani Khobragade incident. Obama’s visit is also a reminder that the United States has not forgotten or neglected India. Beyond this though, it is likely that US-India relations will mostly improve at the level of business and bilateral cooperation.

The key takeaways from Obama’s visit were the nuclear deal, and defence and energy related agreements. The details of the operationalisation of the nuclear deal are not immediately available. In addition, the administration has proposed to support regional economic integration, promote accelerated infrastructure connectivity and economic development in a manner that links South, Southeast and Central Asia, including by enhancing energy transmission and encouraging free trade and greater people-to-people linkages. Also, the importance of safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and over flight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea, was agreed upon between the two countries.

Implications for Pakistan and Afghanistan

Pakistan and Afghanistan are examining the imbalance and the possible ways and means to redress the same post the Indo-US nuclear agreement, and particularly at a time of heightened Indo-Pakistan tensions due to on-going ceasefire violations along the LoC and international boundary.

Pakistan Prime Minister’s Adviser on National Security and Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz addressing a seminar organised by an Islamabad based think-tank on the implications of President Obama’s second visit to India highlighted the possibility of a renewed race for arms in South Asia. According to him, the nuclear agreement would further undermine the credibility of Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and, at the same time, weaken the non-proliferation regime. According to Pakistan, India stands in violation of the United Nation Security Council resolutions on matters of international peace and security, particularly the Jammu and Kashmir dispute, and thus does not qualify for a special status in the Security Council. Prior to President Obama’s visit to India, Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif had requested the president to play a role in resolving the Kashmir dispute.

In this context, the Obama administration has requested both India and Pakistan to promote strategic stability, combat terrorism, and advance regional economic integration in South Asia. Meanwhile India’s new Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar met Pakistan High Commissioner to India Abdul Basit earlier this month to explore the possibility of renewal of bilateral talks. India’s foreign secretary will embark on a SAARC ‘Yatra’ to visit SAARC countries from next month. Restoring peace on the India-Pakistan border in J&K will be a priority for him as New Delhi is keen to strengthen the 2003 ceasefire agreement and for paramilitary forces to exercise restraint on both sides. Petroleum Minister Dharmendra Pradhan had called on Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif in relation to the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline. US Ambassador to India Richard Verma claimed that US would continue to work with both India and Pakistan to promote dialogue, combat terrorism and advance regional economic integration in south and central Asia.

From a Pakistani perspective, the US considers India a possible counterweight to China. To counter this influence, Pakistan’s Army Chief General Raheel Sharif visited Chinese General Fan Changlong recently and termed the two nations as ‘iron brothers’ as reaffirmation of China’s commitment to stand in support of Pakistan. To counter this common claim, Khaled Ahmed points out that ‘Pakistan needs to unclench its jaw on regional strategy, as it suffers from international isolation and a negative construction of its geopolitical vision’. India and China will invariably play a dominant role in Afghanistan in the near future. And with India having a history of positive Indo-Afghan relations, it is high time Pakistan broke out of its shell of isolation in terms of global assistance. Thus, the main idea is to restart a bilateral peaceful dialogue between India and Pakistan.

President Obama discussed the issue of Afghanistan and the withdrawal of US troops by 2016 during the visit. The United States has encouraged dialogue between India and Pakistan hoping that better ties between the nuclear-armed neighbours will lead to cooperation in other areas such as Afghanistan. Talat Masood, a retired lieutenant general of the Pakistan army claimed, “Since US is withdrawing its forces from Afghanistan, it wants India to play a major role and enhance its influence there”. The stakes for India in Afghanistan remain high today as it has invested billions of dollars in Afghanistan, signed a wide-ranging strategic agreement with that country on October 5, 2011, including to help train Afghan security forces, and assisting Kabul in diversified projects. At the same time, US-led military forces are withdrawing troops after a 13-year-long war in Afghanistan. The US and Afghanistan have signed the Bilateral Security Agreement, which guarantees a minimal US military presence in the country beyond 2016. The visit by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to Pakistan in November 2014 was crucial as Afghanistan seeks Pakistan’s assistance in restarting the Taliban peace talks. Under former President Hamid Karzai, Pakistan was accused of providing safe havens to militant groups that carried cross border attacks into Afghanistan. According to Afghan officials, Ghani’s recent visits to Saudi Arabia and China marked an attempt to raise pressure on Islamabad to engage in the Taliban peace process. They stated that China would be in a better position to facilitate talks due to its close affiliation with Pakistan.

Recently, the Afghan reportage confirmed that the Afghan government had suspended the request made for heavy weaponry from India. This request was initially made by former Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Many analysts claim that the request was suspended in order to put to rest Pakistan’s concerns regarding India’s growing influence in the Afghan government. It can, thus, be observed that Afghanistan seeks to strengthen its security cooperation with Pakistan in order to get assistance to negotiate with the Taliban. Afghan forces fear a severe challenge this year as they do not have as many foreign troops to tackle the threat.

It is obvious that US diplomacy holds a key position in the trilateral relationship of India-Pakistan-Afghanistan. Also, it is in India’s national security interest to ensure that Afghanistan does not relapse into a haven of terrorism. Therefore, the three countries need to come to an understanding and cooperate to promote regional cooperation and political stability and sustain peace in the South Asian region.

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Diplomatist Magazine was launched in October of 1996 as the signature magazine of L.B. Associates (Pvt) Ltd, a contract publishing house based in Noida, a satellite town of New Delhi, India, the National Capital.