Most international visits by presidents and prime ministers are business-as-usual affairs. Agreements that have been in the works for some time are signed with a ceremonial flourish, but little of a game-changing or truly strategic nature emerges.
Such business-as-usual exercises are not meaningless. They are useful occasions to lend political support at the highest level to ongoing relations. But these are not remembered.
Barack Obama’s first-ever state dinner was organized for Manomhan Singh during a business-as-usual visit, and this was trumpeted as a great symbol of close ties. Yet that state dinner is remembered in the US only for gate crashing by the Salahis. Nobody remembers who the guest of honour was.
Visits that are remembered are gamechanging ones, like the George W Bush-Manmohan Singh nuclear summit. Can President Obama make his visit a gamechanging one? Here are two suggestions. First, he must visit the Tawang monastery in Arunachal Pradesh. Second, he must declare emphatically and repeatedly that the US will do everything it can to stop China from supplying two new nuclear reactors to Pakistan.
Obama wishes to have good relations with China and Pakistan, not just India. Politics dictates that he will try to be all things to all the countries he visits, and avoid statements and policies that may strengthen relations with one country at the expense of the other. Yet, if the longterm strategic partnership proposed by Bush and supported by Obama has substance, it must include the vision of India as a democratic counter to an economically and militarily powerful China that might throw its weight around aggressively in Asia. Hopefully this will not lead to hostilities, and neither India nor the US should even remotely think of any sort of military pact.
What is needed is a US gesture that will show strategic support for India without totally alienating China or creating the potential for military confrontation. An Obama visit to Tawang will be exactly such a gesture. It will be an effective way of signaling US support to India’s claims in Arunachal Pradesh.
China will of course express outrage, since it claims that Tawang is part of Tibet and hence of its own territory. China even objected to the Dalai Lama visiting Tawang.
It has protested against any projects financed by the World Bank or ADB in Arunachal Pradesh. So, Obama will pay a price in China if he visits Tawang, but only a modest one. The proposed Indo-US strategic partnership will lack substance if the US does not back India on Arunachal Pradesh.
The second key strategic issue relates to Chinese nuclear reactors to Pakistan. At the recent US-Pak talks, Pakistan demanded parity with India in getting a waiver from provisions of the US non-proliferation laws. The US replied that Pakistan was not on par with India and so could not get identical treatment.
However, if China is allowed to supply new reactors to Pakistan, Islamabad will get a status far higher than New Delhi’s. India had to make major legislative changes, separate defence reactors from civilian ones, and accept IAEA inspection as a condition for civilian nuclear cooperation. But Pakistan is on the verge of getting all its wants without any conditions at all.
When China joined the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the group’s rules did not affect a deal already signed to supply two Chinese reactors to Pakistan. But the new proposal to supply two more reactors will clearly violate NSG rules. Nevertheless, China wants to go ahead and is testing the waters.
In Washington DC, opposition to this Chinese proposal has been astonishingly muted. India faced major fireworks when it requested a resumption of civilian reactors.
But opposition to the Pak-China deal has been so low-key that some observers feel that the Obama administration will allow the deal to go through after some token opposition. Defence analyst Ashley Tellis is among the observers warning Obama to take a much stronger line, and tell China bluntly that the US and NSG will not tolerate such a deal.
Pakistan has played a double game with the US in Afghanistan. Yet Obama has been obliged to give Pakistan a lot of rope because all his major supply routes to Afghanistan run through Pakistan. Having imposed sanctions in Iran, the US cannot route supplies through that country. Other routes in central Asia have very poor infrastructure. So, logistics give Pakistan huge leverage over the US. This is all the more reason for the US to get tough with Pakistan on the nuclear deal with China. This will not affect logistics to Afghanistan. And China cannot complain if it is told in the bluntest terms to abide by rules of the NSG.