Obama’s India Visit Overlooks Geopolitics

Obama’s India trip may have been a diplomatic success but there’s more to international relations than diplomacy.

President Barack Obama meets with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during their bilateral meeting at the White House in Washington DC, November 24, 2009
President Barack Obama meets with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during their bilateral meeting at the White House in Washington DC, November 24, 2009 (White House/Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama’s trip to India this week could be termed as a diplomatic success for both sides as one sees and hears the body language, cheers and laughter.

International politics however, which very much determine how nations play in the world stage has many other components besides diplomacy. Geopolitics is one such element.

Take this itinerary of Obama which included trips to Mumbai’s Taj Hotel where he met the survivors of the 26/11 terrorist attack. As the president of the United States he did his best to understand the pain of the barbaric act which he himself mentioned during his speech before the Indian Parliament. He couldn’t openly refer to Pakistan but made it clear to the Indian audience that this country promotes terror against India. He did mention neighboring Burma’s poor track record on human rights and political freedom and asked India to do more to make the authoritarian regime understand the principles of democracy. This is where the cold realities of geopolitics come into play.

The United States have to make sure that Pakistan doesn’t go far beyond its leverage for success in Afghanistan. It’s a geopolitical reality. America can’t afford not to consider other great powers in its involvement in Afghanistan and Pakistan, including China, Russia as well as Iran.

The United States are able to serve two purposes with this. First, they can attain access to the vital oil and natural gas supplies of the Middle East and second, they can have a clear impact on the behavior of traditional rivals as China and Russia by having American armed forces in their backyards. The moment China and Russia see the back of a US Marine in the Middle East, in South Asia and in Central Asia they will understand that it signals the beginning of the post-American world. This is rightly understood by Obama which means that he needs more presence there for which Pakistan is a key ally in the so-called War on Terror.

The Americans don’t need to court Burma in order to contain China. They can have allies and friends ranging from Australia, Japan, Russia, South Korea and India but India cannot. India needs Burma and supports its authoritarian regime out of a very real sense of realpolitik. India needs Burma’s tacit support for its “Look East” policy. Incidentally, Barack Obama mentioned that India’s “Look East” policy is rightly understood in Washington and extended full support for it. On the other hand, India understands that Obama will not facilitate any way for India to push itself beyond South Asia. So the rhetoric stops there and reality begins.

Now turn to another important aspect. India’s quest for permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council which Obama mentioned will happen and be facilitated by the United States. India has sought a permanent seat on the Council for many years so applause could be heard in parliament when the president extended support for its bid, from both ruling and opposition parties.

Politically, Obama is not naive. Otherwise, we would not be listening to him now even as his former Senate seat was taken over by a Republican in last week’s congressional elections. Obama wants to have maximum leverage on Pakistan to produce results in Afghanistan which should help his reelection in 2012. Pakistan is likely to oppose any extension of India’s say in international decisionmaking which will force it to fall in line with Washington more and stop courting Beijing and the Taliban within its own borders.

From India‚Äôs point of view, the more leverage the United States are able to exert over Pakistan, the more India can assert itself in the Asia Pacific region and compete actively with China’s rise. If America gets itself away from Afghanistan without clearing much air on Pakistan, it signals that India’s strategic circle will be much occupied with controlling Pakistan and not China which, in the long run, will affect India’s growing clout. China would like precisely that to contain India in South Asia and be able to compete itself more actively with the United States, not just in the Pacific but in Africa, Latin America and even Europe as well. This is a great game indeed and Obama’s India visit has only started it.