When U.S. President Barack Obama touched down in India last week on Air Force One—part of a staggering 40-aircraft, six-armoured-car entourage—his was the biggest trip to India of any U.S. administration. And the scale of Obama’s much-discussed retinue matched the sizable gesture the U.S. made toward India, as the President described the India-U.S. friendship as “one of the defining and indispensible partnerships of the 21st century.” Other presidents have fostered closer ties with India, but Obama stayed in the country longer than he has in any other, and announced America’s backing of a permanent seat on the UN Security Council for India, making it the second nation—after Japan—to earn such a distinction.
But there was an equally significant, though more implicit, action that came with the strengthening ties between the world’s largest democracies. Shirking the long-time habit of U.S. presidents to pair a stop in India with a trip to the country’s archrival, Pakistan (long seen as America’s most important strategic ally in the region), Obama continued on to three other democracies (Indonesia, South Korea, Japan)—without any such nod to Islamabad. Though the U.S. has been working on “de-hyphenating”—or separating—relations with India and Pakistan for about a decade, four of the five previous trips by U.S. presidents to India were either preceded by or followed with stops in Pakistan, mainly to avoid upsetting either of the long-standing rivals in the zero-sum game that characterizes U.S. relations with the two nations.
Sometimes, though, bolstering one friendship comes at the cost of another. For Obama, the economy was the thing—inspiring his administration to forge ahead in its partnership with India, an emerging global power, even if it meant damaging the strategic partnership with Pakistan at a critical time in the Afghan war effort. “Obama understood the importance of the economic relationship with India,” says Shuja Nawaz, the director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council of the United States. “And because the recent political campaign at home has focused on economics, that tilted the balance in favour of trade and jobs in India.” Seen in that light, the trip was a success: Obama secured $10 billion in Indian purchases of American aircraft, jet engines, locomotives, and gas turbines, which will create 50,000 jobs for the flagging U.S. economy.
Indeed, the visit was also a reflection of the South Asian country’s increasing global influence and its challenge to rival China, and also further recognition by the United States that countries like India and Brazil will be major economic players in the coming decades. And though the announcement that Washington would back India for a seat on the UN Security Council was more symbolic than substantive (such an attempted reform would be subject to China’s possible veto), it confirmed the shifting power dynamics in the region.
In what many analysts said was a bid to appease Pakistan, before the Asia tour the U.S. announced $2 billion in military and security aid for Pakistan (a complement to a $7.5-billion package of civilian aid over five years that was approved last year). Despite that, Islamabad reacted to the India trip and the deepening friendship between Washington and Delhi with characteristic hostility, describing the president’s call for a top UN role for India as “power politics” lacking morality. “It is incomprehensible that the U.S. has sought to support India, whose credentials with respect to observing UN charter principles and international law are at best checkered,” a statement from Pakistan read.
Even with that public anger, some Pakistanis understand that, for Washington, economic concerns may currently be paramount. “Pakistan is a net consumer of American taxpayer benevolence,” wrote Pakistani analyst Mosharraf Zaidi in a recent column. “India is a net contributor to the American taxpayers’ bottom line. What part of ‘more money’ is so difficult for the Pakistani nationalist elite to understand?” And Cyril Almeida, an analyst and columnist with Dawn, the largest English-language daily in Pakistan, notes that there’s a part of the narrative about Pakistan-India-U.S. relations that’s often missed. “There’s what’s said publicly” in Pakistan, he says over the phone from Islamabad. “Ostensibly, Pakistan is up in arms over the U.S.-India friendship, and since it’s a zero-sum game, anything that’s seen to benefit India is seen to hurt Pakistan.” Privately, though, Pakistanis realize that India and the U.S. share more in common on strategic issues than Pakistan and the U.S. do, particularly since India began liberalizing its economy in the early 1990s. “So what often gets missed is the fact that while we complain, we understand the limitations Pakistan has.”
But Pakistan hasn’t always been the spurned one. Since the inception of a Pakistani state, the U.S. has enjoyed closer ties to Pakistan than India, in particular during the Cold War when India was closer to the Soviet camp (though it officially took a non-aligned path). Since 9/11, Pakistan has been seen as an ally with the U.S. in the war on terrorism. As part of that partnership, since 2005 America has shelled out more than $1 billion a year to fight extremists, and close to $2 billion last fiscal year.
It’s a friendship that has to some degree been defined in negatives—counter-terrorism, counter-extremism, counter-insurgency, not to mention concerns over Pakistan’s nuclear proliferation. The relationship has recently frayed, with accusations from Washington that elements of the Pakistani defence establishment have continued to actively support the Afghan Taliban while failing to secure the NATO supply routes from Pakistani ports to supply depots across the Afghan border.
India, on the other hand, has much to offer the U.S.: a robust economy, strategic positioning in terms of helping to guard the vital Indian Ocean sea lane across which most of the world’s oil moves, and a role as counterbalance to China in Asia. While the U.S. has been struggling to bounce back after the financial crisis, its economy shrinking by 2.4 per cent last year, India’s GDP is expected to increase by 10 per cent in 2010. Indians also make up the largest skilled migrant group in the U.S. Pakistan cannot offer any such benefits.
There’s another source of tension in the trilateral relations: much of Pakistan’s frustration over strengthened U.S.-Indian ties is a result of Kashmir. Before assuming the presidency, Obama said he would help find a solution to the problem of the disputed territory, claimed by both sides and at the heart of two wars fought between India and Pakistan since 1947. Since then, he’s remained neutral, in line with U.S. policy, since 1990, of non-interference on Kashmir unless invited. But any evidence of favouritism is bound to increase Pakistani suspicions, and Obama’s trip to India and his Security Council announcement fuelled fears that he intends to take the Indian side.
Whatever the future holds, Pakistan may have to get used to playing second fiddle to India. “There is this sense in Pakistan of constant betrayal—they want the U.S. to back them against India,” says Walter Andersen, associate director of the South Asia Studies program at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. But, he adds: “India is eight times larger than Pakistan, and growing every year. It’s always going to be big—and there.”