President Obama’s recent visit to India represented another considerable and defining step on India’s journey to great power status. Although not reaching the heights of George W Bush’s 2008 visit and the resultant civil nuclear cooperation deal, this visit signifies a more fundamental coming together. Recognising India as a powerful international actor with whom strong relations are necessary and needed, the US has resolutely linked its interests and vision for the next century with India’s rising star.
Gone is any assumption of implicit inequality between the two sides. Instead the Indo-US relationship is now described by President Obama as ‘the defining partnership of the 21st century’. This statement underscores how India has entered the international political stage as a major player and great power. In turn, it also confirms the shift in global power to Asia and its Asian Century, with India and China as the core power centres towards which other countries must gravitate. As the US President further stated in his speech in India’s Lok Sabha; ‘India is not simply emerging, it has emerged’.
In his longest trip to any country since assuming the Presidency, Washington pandered to India. As such, we saw Delhi’s key desires resolutely hit upon (UN Security Council membership, emergence on the world stage, economic powerhouse) and its negative trigger points conspicuously avoided (Kashmir, domestic terrorism and corruption). Agreements to bolster and expand existing trade links (now amounting to $50 billion a year) and military ties (the US and India have more military exercises together than with any other countries), continued to deepen a relationship which has sent three US presidents to visit India in the last decade.
What passed for Indian government rhetoric after the 1998 nuclear tests, has now entered the lexicon of US leaders, with Obama explicitly stating that were India to gain a permanent seat on the UN Security Council (UNSC), this would represent the country ‘assuming its rightful place in the world’. No longer do India’s leaders need to demand a key global role, as they are now lauded and feted by the old guard of this new Asia-centric world order. Previous allusions to India’s parity with Pakistan have also disappeared with a clear differential of expectations from the US towards the two neighbours. For the US, India is now South Asia’s pre-eminent, dependable and constructive power.
However, along with US praise also came US calls for India to be a responsible force in the world. Obama noted a need for the greater projection of India’s democratic values, especially in the context of neighbouring Myanmar’s current opaque national elections and strong Indo-Iranian ties. The issue of human rights was also raised and the fundamentally different approaches held by the west and Asia may cause future frictions between the world’s largest democracies. As long as the Af-Pak conflagration remains at the root of the production of international terrorism, the US will remain closely involved in India’s region.
It is necessary to look through the rhetoric. Although important to enhancing positive, reciprocal relations between India and the US, there are limits to what the US alone can achieve with its support for Indian UNSC permanent membership. While looking positive on the surface, and with the US, the UK, France and (at times) China all now supporting Indian accession, such reform is reliant on a couple of instrinsic factors. First, if India were to join the permanent five members (P5), then what of German, Japanese and Brazilian ambitions? For the former two states, historical legacies aside, their status as great powers in waiting has been apparent for at least the last decade. In turn, Brazil is in many ways rising just as fast as India and China, confirming its core BRIC status, great power potential and UNSC eligibility.
Secondly, can the existing P5 members comprehensively and unanimously agree on the shape and nature of a new expanded UNSC? Just as at the end of the Second World War, any reform will reflect how these powers see the world around them and their place in that world. Will this be a multi-polar entity without over-riding bilateral relations, as is the Chinese preference, for example? In turn, how can the US reconcile its place in a new world order whose constitution may mark a decline in its supremacy? And could a single EU seat replace the pre-eminence of the UK and France? These are all pertinent and difficult questions that will take time, patience and considerable foresight to answer, with no clear guarantee of success.
It is accordingly in the realm of perception that Obama’s 2010 visit to India is most important. By invoking the US’s vision of the future in the heart of India’s democratic system on the first stop of a ten-day Asian tour, with an unambiguous tick in the box of what this means for Indo-US relations, Washington is setting out that future agenda before Asia and the world. As such, India can no longer be ignored. It is a necessary and valuable partner, and this is something on which the rest of the world can take their lead from the US. Just as David Cameron’s visit to India in the summer indicated the UK’s search for a new ‘special relationship’, the US has in many ways been just as transparent. Regardless of material wealth, poverty levels or domestic unrest, the perception of India as a great power has now irrevocably taken hold in western mindsets.
How will Delhi respond? To what extent does it want to be an equal player in the ‘defining relationship of the 21st century’? So long aloof and separated from great power politics (especially during the Cold War), can India exclusively join hands with the US or will it attempt to balance its global relationships along a more multi-polar tangent? The response of Beijing will play into this equation and in turn, if this is the Asian century, then rising India-China relations may critically supplant even these burgeoning Indo-US ties. The region’s reaction over the coming months and, more importantly, the Indian Prime Minister’s next visit to Washington, may answer this conundrum.