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Looking Back at Singh’s Visit to Washington

Is India on America’s Strategic Map of Asia?
14 December 2009

by Daniel Michaeli

When I listened to Prime Minister Singh’s speech at the Council on Foreign Relations during his visit to Washington, I was struck by how well Singh seemed to understand his audience. In spite of major differences in American and Indian approaches to global issues from climate to nonproliferation/arms control to human rights, Singh spoke of common values–an approach that speaks to the way Americans of all political stripes think about the world.

But even as Singh and Obama spoke of shared interests and shared values, there is something lacking in Washington’s approach to the strategic aspect of the relationship. The biggest question coming out of the trip is: was Singh able to place India back on America’s strategic map?

The recent lack of American strategic focus on India was most visible during President Obama’s trip to Asia. In his Tokyo speech, intended to represent the administration’s overall approach to the region, the president failed to bring India into his vision of Asia, even as he mentioned six of the ten countries in ASEAN. (It was also disappointing that he failed to mention Vietnam, with which the United States needs to continue strengthening ties.)

Then, in China, a joint statement with Hu Jintao caused an uproar in India. A section on South Asia in the statement read: “The two sides are ready to strengthen communication, dialogue and cooperation on issues related to South Asia and work together to promote peace, stability and development in that region.” As Dan Twining explained, for China and the United States to work together to ensure stability in South Asia relegates India to minor-power status in its own region.

In a way, then, one could say that the most important objective the Singh visit could have achieved is restoring India to America’s strategic map of Asia, as a major power. We share common regional security interests, from piracy in the Gulf of Aden to rebuilding Afghanistan and ensuring neither Afghanistan nor Pakistan are centers of international terrorism. Crucially, too, we share an interest in ensuring China’s peaceful rise.

There has been plenty of discussion, both helpful and unhelpful, about India’s role in Afghanistan. A recent op-ed by Marshall Bouton and Alyssa Ayres, for instance, calls for much greater U.S.-India coordination, including training of Afghan police forces. (The op-ed, though worth reading, unrealistically ignores the problematic Pakistani perceptions that would be created by this kind of cooperation.) But what of the rest of Asia?

A positive sign is that Obama and Singh spoke about Asia-Pacific regional architecture, something that should incorporate both India and the United States. India, Australia, and the United States would do well to coordinate their approaches in this area. But I was disappointed to see little other indication that the conversation between Obama and Singh helped the White House to see India’s broader role in Asia.

While Singh was adept at speaking to American values–indeed, the excitement in the meeting hall at CFR was palpable–, he seems to have been less successful at reminding the administration that India is, after all, an Asian power.

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One Comment »

  • Fizzling of the “G2”: Opportunity for India – Daniel Michaeli: Asia Ruminations said:

    […] Brzezinski, for instance, argued that a G2 could provide “more effective even if informal mediation” between India and Pakistan. Pressure to resolve the Kashmir issue from the U.S. and China would be unacceptable to India: neither country is seen as neutral. (A few reasons: the 1962 border war between India and China, China’s assistance to Pakistan’s nuclear program, the still-simmering China-India border dispute, the complicated but extensive U.S.-Pakistan relationship.) Moreover, such pressure would be seen as insulting to India, which perceives itself as a great power. This came up again after the November Obama-Hu summit. (More in this post.) […]

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