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Obama's Indian Visit and India's Prickly Relations with Petulant Neighbours

Updated on January 28, 2015

Visitors come, visitors go. Neighbours are here to stay. Such is the fact of life. Neighbours are seldom a matter of one's choice. You can neither wish them away nor pretend they don't exist. It is more so with neighbouring countries. They are irrevocable geographical entities. One has no choice but to get along with them both in times of peace and discord like estranged spouses under the same roof. Shared borders are often flash points of disputes which make a nation's course of development that much more difficult and painful in terms of economic viability what with its having to look over its shoulder all the time for trouble from its bickering neighbours snooping around. Living in peace with the neighbours is a need-based virtue and mending fences with quarrelling neighbours more of a necessity than an option.

India's Border Problems

India's northern and western neighbours, namely China and Pakistan respectively, have territorial claims over large parts of its territory which form integral parts of the country. India has fought three bitter wars with Pakistan and one with China over their territorial claims during its sixty seven years of existence as an independent nation, besides countless border intrusions leading to skirmishes. In fact, parts of the Indian territory are already under occupation by the two hostile neighbours. Notwithstanding several rounds of negotiations between high level delegations exchanged with Pakistan and China, India's borders with both the countries remain unsettled; and continue to form hotbeds of military action. The fact that all the three countries are nuclear powers has further exacerbated the situation, making lasting peace a distant dream

Terrorism from Across the Border

International terrorist outfits like Islamic State, Al Qaeda and the Talibans as well as a large spectrum of homegrown terrorist and Jehadist elements like Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad have been very active in Pakistan which has, with no qualms, been exporting terror to India and instigating terrorist attacks in several parts of the country

Coastal Security

India has to safeguard a coastline of over 7500 kms long, spanning the Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean. Only days before Obama's visit, two boats carrying suspected terrorists and explosives, which had set sail from the Karachi port, had been spotted by India's Coast Guard, on the international waters of Arabian Sea, trying to sneak into the Gujarat coastline. When challenged, one of the boats was blown up by its occupants who evidently didn't want to get taught while the other fled the scene. Thus yet another bid by the terrorist elements from Pakistan to thwart the peaceful atmosphere in India was blown up by the alert Indian Navy. It is pertinent to recall that the perpetrators of the terrorist attack on Mumbai in 2008 in which166 people had been killed, were Pakistanis who had gained access by infiltration through India's western coastline.

Obama greeted by Modi on arrival at Delhi airport
Obama greeted by Modi on arrival at Delhi airport

Visit and its Significance

India has every reason to feel upbeat about President Obama's visit to Delhi to be the Chief Guest at the celebration of the 65th anniversary of its becoming a Republic and the consequent upgrading of the bilateral relations between the two countries. Obama undertook the visit in preference to a domestic tour of states that the American President traditionally undertakes following his State of the Union Address. China and Pakistan had, however, been keenly watching the developments in their neighbourhood through their own prism of self interest and strategic ambitions for an assessment of the visit's spill over effects on their scheme of things.

PM Modi-Barack Obama's joint press conference

Strategic Cooperation

Several bear hugs and firm handshakes later, and following one-to-one meeing between Modi and Obama marked by bonhomie and camaraderie, and delegation level talks between the two sides, India and the US broke the seven year old logjam in operationalizing their landmark civilian nuclear deal besides deciding to jointly produce military hardware including Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs).

In what Obama termed as a "breakthrough," the two sides cleared hurdles pertaining to the liability of suppliers of nuclear reactors in the event of an accident and the tracking of fuel supplied by the US.

In terms of the joint declaration issued after the talks, the two countries decided to hold regular summits with increased periodicity as well as to elevate the Strategic Dialogue to a Strategic and Commercial Dialogue.

The declaration title "Chalein saath saath; forward together we go" said India and the US agreed to elevate their long-standing strategic partnership and that each step being taken to strengthen the ties is a step towards shaping international security and regional and global peace. The US President extended his country's support to India's inclusion in the Nuclear Suppliers' Group (NSG) as well as induction in the UN Security Council as a Permanent Member.

PM modi at 66th Republic Day celebrations
PM modi at 66th Republic Day celebrations

Defence Cooperation

The two countries renewed an enhanced Defence Framework Agreement for the next ten years and identified four key "pathfinder projects" for joint development and production including the next generation Raven mini UAVs and specialised kits for C-130 military transport aircraft.

Both countries also agreed on a Working Group to explore aircraft carrier technology besides designing and development of jet engine technology.

Modi and Obama at one-to-one talks
Modi and Obama at one-to-one talks

Climate Change

Both the countries agreed to "pursue" a strong global climate pact on emission cuts in the forthcoming UN climate conference to be held in Paris in December this year.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi dismissed that there was any pressure to ink a pact similar to US-China agreement on emission cuts as India and the US announced important steps to promote clean energy and confront climate change.

Chinese Checkers

Enumerating the differences between the US and India on the issue of climate change, agricultural disputes and civil nuclear cooperation, Chinese observers stated that the US President's two day visit was too short to resolve the issues.

Chinese observers were also of the view that the visit was aimed at containing the Chinese and Russian influence on India. China is India's largest trade partner ranking above the US. Besides, India is a fast growing economy and its growth rate is expected to shortly surpass that of China. In the opinion of the observers, the US needed to balance China's influence in this regard, and a breakthrough in India-US strategic relations was unlikely during Obama's visit due to Indian sensitivities relating to Pakistan and climate issues.

As a country that had long maintained non-alignment policy, India was unlikely to shift its diplomatic strategy, not now and not in the future. Consequently, China felt that any cooperation could be treated as nothing but seeking mutual benefit.

China's 'Global Times' argued that the West (including US) was trying to pit the two Asian superpowers against each other—and neither of them should fall prey to it.The West was egging India on to be fully prepared for “threats” posed by its large neighbor. Considering the fact that both sides still had territorial disputes and would probably have wider engagement at many levels, this so-called rivalry between India and China would not stop making headlines in Western media. As both were emerging powers, which had the huge potential of being important forces in the international community, China and India should see more space for cooperation instead of contention. This agreement was fundamental to bilateral relations.

China is embroiled in maritime disputes with several countries in the South and East China seas over the ownership of islands, said to be having huge reserves of oil and gas.

In the discussions held between Prime Minister Modi with President Obama during the former's visit to the US in September last year, prominent among the issues discussed was maritime security to ensure the rights of all nations to peacefully carry out their trade activities in the Indian Ocean where an increasingly belligerent China was aggressively pushing forward its ambitious agenda.

Against the above background, political observers in China were of the view that the US President's visit to India was aimed at containing China's influence in the region. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, however, played down, in a post-visit statement, the thinking that the US was attempting to use India to contain China.

Reacting to the visit, Chinese media started off by brushing it aside as more symbolic than pragmatic, given the "huge divisions" between the two countries which might be as huge as the distance between them, as its official news agency Xinhua put it.

At the official level, however, China reacted sharply to an India-US joint statement referring to the disputes in the South China Sea, saying that only the countries involved in the disputes should work together to resolve the problems. “At the current stage, the situation in the South China Sea is generally stable and there is no problem with navigational freedom and freedom of flights,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said.

As a country that had long maintained the non-alignment policy, India was unlikely to shift its diplomatic strategy, not now and not in the future. Consequently, China felt that any cooperation could be treated as nothing but seeking mutual benefit.

On the issue of India joining the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG), the spokesperson said that India was welcome to join the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG) provided New Delhi fulfilled all the required conditions. She added that the expansion of the group, of which China is a member, needed detailed discussions and consensus among the members. She also said that the inclusion of new members would require “prudence and caution” and “thorough discussion” on the part of the existing members.

Sartaj Aziz, Advisor to Pak PM on National Security and Foreign Affairs
Sartaj Aziz, Advisor to Pak PM on National Security and Foreign Affairs

Pakistan Government's Sharp Reaction

The India-US civil nuclear cooperation agreement, signed in 2008, has been a cause of concern for Pakistan, which argues it would destabilize the strategic balance of power between the nuclear-armed neighbors. Pakistani officials contend that Islamabad should not face discrimination in access to civil nuclear technology and materials. “Pakistan is not averse to civil nuclear cooperation … provided it is based on the principles of nondiscrimination and objective nonproliferation criteria,” said Sartaj Aziz, Adviser to Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on national security and foreign affairs.

Mr. Aziz also reacted to calls prior to Obama's visit for Pakistan to do more to fight terrorism on its soil. “Pakistan rejects any insinuation or aspersion over its commitment to fight terrorism,” he said in a statement issued by the foreign ministry. “Condemnation of terrorism in all its forms and manifestations should not be based on selectivity or double standards.”

Terrorism has clouded relations between India and Pakistan for decades, escalating after the 2008 Mumbai attacks.Tensions were high between the two countries ahead of Mr. Obama’s arrival in Delhi, with both sides trading fire for weeks across the border in the Kashmir.

Pakistani Media on the Visit

Pakistani media argued that India was unfairly targeting Pakistan on the issue of terrorism. To be sure, there was an element of playing to the gallery involved in all such visits. Indian officialdom and its relatively nationalist media would likely try to elicit further comments on Pakistan from Obama and other American officials that could be used by India to portray Pakistan in an even more negative manner.

The Pakistani media also expected the US leader to persuade India to resume the stalled peace process with neighboring Pakistan. Islamabad has been blaming New Delhi for the ceasefire violations along the LoC and working boundary in a bid to distract its security forces from the ongoing fight against terrorism.

Pakistani media also said that the US needed to build strong relationships with both Indian and Pakistan, and could not alienate either of the two countries.

The Pakistani media described the US president’s decision to not visit Pakistan as an “implicit snub.” It also stated that Obama’s India visit did not augur well for China and Pakistan.

Neighbours' Apprehension

India is currently engaged in a battle for supremacy with China to be the primary regional power and any signs that the US was decisively shifting towards it consequent upon the shifting tectonic plates in the geopolitics of the region would not be taken too well in Beijing.

For Pakistan, the worry is that greater economic cooperation between India and the US would automatically be followed by further political cooperation, leaving Pakistan out in the cold, alienated from the diplomatic high table.

© 2015 Kalyanaraman Raman

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    • Kalpatraman profile imageAUTHOR

      Kalyanaraman Raman 

      3 years ago from NOIDA

      Well said. Thanks for stopping by.

    • PC Barnali Nair profile image

      PC Barnali Nair 

      3 years ago

      Border dispute is a cause and a symptom of tension between neighbours. In a stern message to Pakistan, US President Barack Obama has said that safe havens of terrorism within that country "not acceptable" and that those behind the Mumbai attack must face justice. Ahead of his visit to India, President Obama said the US will keep working with India for a future that delivers greater security, prosperity and dignity for all people.

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