February 11, 2009

HARRISONBURG— Today in a commentary for National Interest online, the web edition of the foreign policy journal The National Interest, Dr. J. Peter Pham, Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University, raises concerns about indications that the strategic partnership between the United States and India forged during the Bush administration may be given “short shrift” or otherwise “ being subordinated outright to short-term (and shortsighted) preoccupations” under President Barack Obama:

First, the new administration seems to have signaled that approach to south Asia—insofar as it can be said that it even has a coherent policy towards the region—will be focused predominantly on Afghanistan and Pakistan…

Second, even more disconcerting, especially to observers in India, is the Obama team’s apparent acquiescence to a moral equivalency between India’s control of Jammu and Kashmir and Pakistan’s support of jihadists across the entire region—a perspective that fundamentally misreads the realities on the ground …

Third, while to his credit President Obama has picked respected centrists for key positions on his economic team—even naming President Ronald Reagan’s chief economic advisor, Martin S. Feldstein, to the new Economic Recovery Advisory Board—the fact that his presidential campaign pandered to populist fears about outsourcing and free-trade agreements raises concerns that the administration will use the current crisis as a pretext to slow down or even roll back the progress being made in trade talks by the U.S.-India Trade Policy Forum… Indeed, one of the most egregious protectionist elements in the stimulus bill making its way through Congress, the ban on using imported iron and steel in infrastructure projects, is already being interpreted in India as a swipe at two of the country’s largest firms, ArcelorMittal and Tata Steel, respectively the world’s largest and sixth largest steel producers.

Fourth, while no prejudicial steps have yet been taken in this direction by the new administration, no one has forgotten that then-Senator Obama was the author of a “killer” amendment aimed at eviscerating the historic 2006 Henry J. Hyde United States-India Peaceful Atomic Cooperation Act , which cleared the way for India to buy U.S. nuclear reactors and fuel for civilian use… While the subsequent “123 Agreement” signed last fall by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Indian External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee opens the door for American and Indian firms to participate in each other’s civil nuclear energy sector, it remains to be seen how easy it will be to get licenses from the Obama appointees to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission…This task will be further complicated if United States ratifies the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (a step which the president has promised to see done) and India, as is likely, does not yield to pressure to sign the accord.

The article concludes:

Given the incredible progress that has been made in U.S.-India relations over the course of the last decade, it would be absurd to declare that an irreparable breach has been opened up. Furthermore, President Obama is just settling into the White House and the Indian general elections, which may well bring a new occupant to the South Block of New Delhi’s Raisina Hill, are due by May. Thus, there is a narrow window during which it will be possible to quickly put aside the new administration’s rather awkward first interactions with India, without any great damage done to the foundations underlying the geostrategic partnership. This rare opportunity to smooth tensions and to recalibrate our approach going forward is one which President Obama and his foreign-policy team would be well advised to avail themselves of.

The full text of Dr. Pham’s commentary, “Ignoring India,” can be accessed by clicking here.