The empire's master strokes: Obama’s visit to India

Obama's second trip to Delhi reveals the empire's anxious strategy in a changing geopolitical environment, which spans from Delhi and Beijing over Riyadh to Moscow.

Rebeka Gluhbegovic
7 February 2015
US President Barack Obama in India. Ranjan Basu/Demotix. All rights reserved

US President Barack Obama in India. Ranjan Basu/Demotix. All rights reserved

President Obama is the first United States president in recent history to visit India twice whilst in the Oval office. The visit was a grand affair where President Obama was made a guest of honour during India’s military parade. The question should be raised however, what could have triggered such a presidential precedent? One would assume that there were significant events or changes within and around India as to cause such precedent. Perhaps we should look into the wider geopolitical situation, followed by India’s hunger for the development of its defence capabilities and then at the recent global events such as the drop in oil prices.

Imperial clumsiness and its challengers

US global priorities have been shifting after the demise of the Soviet Union towards cementing its position as the only remaining super power, keeping at bay and under control emerging pan-European initiatives and its embodiment in the European Union, consolidating and expanding its control and presence in oil and gas rich regions, trying to contain within acceptable frames the bubbly expansion of its major creditor, China, and groupings such as BRICS. This group represents the growing powerhouses of four continents and its almost three billion citizens and attempts to create an alternative dimension in the global arena. A major tool is the projected formation of the BRICS development bank, which would lessen the dependency on and therefore the dominance of the Dollar. One of the most efficient tools for the execution of US global strategies was, besides military dominance, the control of energy resources and related financial mainstreams. On its imperial journey through a post-bipolar world the US, like an elephant in a china shop, has made quite a few clumsy moves that have tarnished its global image, even amongst allies and friends: its unrelenting support for the state of Israel, the instability and destruction in Iraq, the case of Guantanamo Bay, its stance on Syria and its alliances with morally unacceptable partners in the Middle and Near East.

There’s life in the old bear yet

Now geopolitical lines are being redrawn and rivalries reshaped. Tensions between the US and Russia have been rising over issues such as increasing encroachment by NATO on Russia’s perceived spheres of influence, conflicts over Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea, disagreements over Iran and Syria where Russia managed to broker a deal with Bashar al-Assad to give up his chemical weapons much to the discontent of the US.  One of the biggest irritants for the US was that Russia, after China gave him free passage, granted asylum to Edward Snowden and a platform from where he could continue engaging with the public regarding the NSA leaks. These were unwanted assertions of Russia’s role in international affairs and Washington’s perceived domains. And so the latest standoff over Ukraine between the US and Russia has resulted in the US calling for sanctions, a media war on Russia and steps aimed at isolating and cornering the bear.

Modi in Washington. Wikimedia. Some Rights reserved.

Modi in Washington. Wikimedia. Some Rights reserved.

The global swing state India

This is where India comes in. In terms of US geostrategic interests India is not important per se. But India is the consumer, which is providing a market for many industries and countries, including Washington’s foes. It is also a potential buffer zone due to its size and economic power. Thus India is a useful intermediary through which to punish Russia and other discomforting countries, like Iran, and keep competitors, such as China, in check. This is where Washington tries to score on multiple fronts.

For many years India has been putting a lot of effort in strengthening its military and security capabilities, including its nuclear capabilities, given its conflicts and skirmishes with Pakistan and China. It has come to be the world’s largest importer of arms every year since 2010. However it has not managed to develop a significant enough defence industry of its own and thus imports over 65% of its military hardware and software.

India between Russian and US interests

Russia, previously the Soviet Union, has been India’s largest partner in defence since the early 1960s, when the US refused to sell F-104 Starfighters to India and the Soviet Union subsequently stepped in.  In contrast, the US and Pakistan have held a strategic, albeit strained, relationship. Even though India has been praised by Washington as world’s most populous democracy, Washington has always given priority to its regional partner, Pakistan, considering its position and proximity to US priorities in the Middle East, Afghanistan and its cooperation in the War on Terror. As such, India was grudgingly left to limp behind its main rivals Pakistan, who enjoyed the advantage of being supplied with sophisticated US weapons and systems, and China, who was initially importing, if not replicating, Soviet and Russian weapons and which managed to develop its own defence industry to become a significant exporter.

Thus, Russia was India’s most important defence partner. However, the erratic schedules of Russian deliveries, the reluctance on Russia’s behalf to share technology and know-how and the unreliable supply of spares have motivated India to diversify its supply base. Additionally, India is keen to develop its own defence industry and manufacturing capabilities. A further boost is given to this dream by Prime Minister Modi’s ‘Make in India’ initiative. And so the tug-of-war over India’s defence market between Russia and the US begins. President Putin met with PM Modi in December 2014 where they sealed deals whereby Russia would supply India with weapons and oil and build nuclear power plants for India. This comes shortly after Russia concluded deals to supply oil to China and in a greater effort to fight back and make the sanctions imposed by the US upon Russia redundant.

A month after Putin’s visit to New Delhi, it was Obama’s turn to charm. The US-India Defence pact was renewed until 2025 and the vehicle which aims to drive the US-India defence relationship is the Defence Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI) that was initiated in 2012, under which the US and India would work on co-development and co-manufacturing projects. The US benefits from increasing defence ties with India both in terms of its business interests and foreign policy interests. With regards to business interests, it is eager to secure and increase its defence exports to the Indian market. It faces competition from other arms manufacturers, which are gaining innovative edge in certain sectors and thus seeks to secure its military influence and defence industry.

On the foreign policy front, the US increases its defence presence and tries to lessen the space and market that Russia would have to manoeuvre in India. Antagonisms and pressures on India to comply to some extent with the US foreign policy interests may cause some rifts with Russia or within the BRICS block. Whether these pressures will work or not will be up to India. But India has decided to entertain these gifts and gestures from the US with the desire of catching up to its rival China – and the US is happy to have a distraction and balancing power to the Giant Panda. As an additional oiling of the relationship, the US has also declared its support for a potential permanent seat for India at the United Nations Security Council.

King Salman with his deceased half-brother King Abdullah. Flickr/missed Call. Some rights reserved

King Salman with his deceased half-brother King Abdullah. Flickr/missed Call. Some rights reserved

Non-stop from Delhi to Riyadh

The price of oil is also playing a part in this perpetual game of chess. Prices of oil have plummeted to half of what they were a few months ago. The countries most affected by this plummet are Russia, Iran and Venezuela – Washington’s foes. Washington’s allies, the Gulf countries, can afford to produce oil at low prices and have not found it necessary to scale back production. In all probability, prices were driven artificially to such lows out of geo-strategic interests. A telling event is that Obama and his top officials made a quick journey, cutting short the visit to the world’s most populous democracy, to Saudi Arabia to pay respects to one of the last anachronistic monarchs, the deceased King Abdullah. More importantly, the delegation engaged with the new King Salman to maintain the cooperative geo-political strategy –the Saudis keep oil production levels high, and thus maintain a low oil price, in return for promises of prolonged security within the stormy waters of Iraq, ISIS, Iran and the process of de-monarchisation of the Middle East.

The high level delegation sent to Riyadh not only snubbed India, but also highlighted the US priorities of strategic interests over rhetoric for human rights and freedoms. The US president did not have time to join, or send a high ranking official to attend, the international gathering of world leaders and allies in Paris after the recent massacre of editorial staff of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris. The gathering was organized ultimately to demonstrate unity and resoluteness of “free world” to defend democracy and freedom of speech and expression (regardless of their sincerity to those values).

In anticipation of Obama’s India visit, India has encouraged its refiners to cut down on oil imports from Iran. The state-run refinery is also in talks to secure contracts to supply India’s oil appetite with Gulf oil, American approved oil, instead. But not only this - as one of the world’s major importers of crude oil, India has celebrated the drop in oil prices as it has helped correct its fiscal situation, improve its current account and improve inflation. This extra cash now can be spent elsewhere. The Obama visit, the push to increase US defence exports and the talks of richer cooperation between the US and India seem very timely in this context. An added benefit of the timing of the visit is that the US may be trying to compensate for the diminished purchasing power of its defence goods by the Gulf oil producers. 

A forced marriage with the Giant Panda

How does this fit into the US – Russia dynamic? These moves are all pushing Russia into a corner. Due to the US sanctions imposed after Russia’s annexation in Crimea and the situation in Ukraine, due to low oil prices and lower revenue from arms exports, Russia’s economy is crashing and the Russian leadership is being forced to make desperate moves – that is to open its underbelly and almost unconditionally embrace China as its major crude oil and gas client, an economically-stronger partner and hence its almost controller. The Chinese have proven that they move shrewdly and that they are reliable and predictable in the long. Moreover, they own most of US foreign debt. The Chinese will do what is necessary to keep their indebted Western partner in good enough health so as to be able to keep on repaying – that includes effective control of Putin. This near-economic collapse of Russia can have a number of repercussions: Either Putin’s Russia caves in socio-politically under immense pressure of economic hardship and a Bolshevik-type revolution repeats itself in a modern form, this time not against tsars, but against the ex-communist elite turned oligarchs. Or the external pressure will strengthen Russian nationalism and extend Putin’s power, but Russia will still be subject to its firm relation with China. Should this relation turn sour, as happens in marriages of desperation, then the US, the only military global Empire, could step in, invited by the Giant Panda, to enforce order and save him. But not for free of course. A probable price would be writing off a healthy chunk of the US debt to China.

And so, with the unprecedented second visit to an India, which was much treated as of secondary importance, the Empire, facing the loss of global economic and political dominance, is skillfully reshuffling global groupings to the best of its own interest. 

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