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Obama visit: Who's buying what

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CHIDANAND RAJGHATTA Musings on life, politics and economics from TOI's Washington correspondent

Let's play connecting the dots. President Obama is travelling to India, Indonesia, Japan and Korea next week. Prime minister Manmohan Singh would have finished his swing through Japan, Malaysia and Vietnam by the time the US President lands in India. Meanwhile, secretary of state Hillary Clinton, who is not accompanying Obama to India, is zipping through Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, Australia and New Zealand. Now connect these dots. Notice a big red dot missing? What to make of this?

 

The question popped up at a White House briefing previewing Obama's visit to India. There was a titter of laughter in the James Brady Press Room. "I'm just going to presume you're talking about China and not another country that we're not visiting, " Ben Rhodes, the loquacious deputy national security adviser said. Of course, you have to be an idiot not to see the pattern.

 

For the record though, Rhodes rejected the idea that the US was pursuing the idea of encircling China. Obama had visited Beijing early in his term;he was meeting his Chinese counterpart at the G-20 summit in the multilateral part of the four-nation trip, and President Hu was visiting the US early next year. A little later, the administration added a China pit-stop to Clinton's itinerary. Washington, he maintained, will continue to engage China.

 

But Rhodes and his colleagues left little doubts that they now consider India a "cornerstone" (the new buzz word, used several times during the briefing ) of US strategic outreach in Asia. Each of the countries we're visiting are democracies and close friends with the US, piped in Bill Burns, the India pointman in the Obama administration. These democracies were also proving that they can advance and foster economic development just as well as China. Rather like the United States.

 

Make no mistake, Washington is recalibrating its strategic calculus in what is decidedly seen as an Asian century. It is reasserting itself as an Asia-Pacific power and hauling India along for the ride. It's almost as if Europe has fallen off the map and Atlanticists and (former ) Sovietologists are out of business. Kurt Campbell, the East Asia pointman for the administration, has visited New Delhi twice and is dialoguing constantly with India. The nuclear deal with India was as much part of this recalibration vis-a-vis China as anything else it was meant to achieve. And as much as Washington formerly acknowledged China's interest in South Asia, it now pushes for an India foothold in East Asia.

 

These are tectonic policy shifts. The question is: will India bite? There is understandable reluctance in New Delhi about becoming an American cat's paw in the new Great Game. There is a constituency in India which feels Washington is hyping the China threat to sell vast a quantity of arms to New Delhi and other Asian powers to counterbalance Beijing in the region. Some Indian pundits question why we should antagonise a big neighbour we have to live with next door for the promises of a fickle superpower whose support in the past has been dodgy.

 

Washington understands this unwillingness. India can never be a treaty ally of the US;which is why the officials used the terms "friend" and "partner" for India and "allies" for countries such as Japan and South Korea. But because India is pussyfooting around, it is also denied the privileges that Japan gets. On the flip side, after seeing Pakistan's fate (despite US "privileges" ) you'd think that it's better to be beyond American range than be embraced by it.

 

In fact, the one good upshot of all these strategic shifts is that Washington has decisively moved India out of the former hyphenation with Pakistan, a fact Obama officials repeatedly stressed, much the same way as the Bush folks would emphasise. It's only the Indian media that has not cottoned on to this. There were repeated questions at the briefing on whether President Obama would raise the Kashmir issue (as demanded by a hectoring Pakistani foreign minister), on whether the US would address Pakistan's concern about India's role in Afghanistan etc, even though Washington has summarily rejected Islamabad's prescriptions. The different trajectory and prism with which the US views the two countries was on stark display towards the tail end of the briefing when White House spokesman Robert Gibbs broke in to announce the arrest of a Pakistani-American planning to bomb the Washington metro system.

 

Pakistan is a tactical headache, a terrorist state in all but formal designation. China is a strategic bellyache. India is the new heartthrob. The US has served notice to India about the new great game. The ball is in India's court.

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