Monday, May 17, 2021

Obama’s savvy bet on India’s rise

With the big exception of India, all the Brics economies are slowing. For the first time since China’s cultural revolution, India will outgrow its Himalayan neighbour next year, according to the International Monetary Fund. On Sunday, Barack Obama became the first US president to visit India twice and the first to be invited as chief guest to its Republic Day parade. There is little downside to his India bet and a long-term upside. America’s ability to adjust to a multipolar world will be shaped by whether New Delhi and Washington get along. The fact that Mr Obama has hit it off with Narendra Modi ÔÇö his political opposite in many ways ÔÇö speaks volumes.

That said, it would be a surprise if Mr Obama could pull off the kind of deal that he did in China last November. The Obama-Xi Jinping climate change accord put lifeless international talks back into play. India’s stance will be critical to the outcome of the Paris summit later this year. Galvanising Mr Modi’s enthusiasm to do something on emissions is one reason Mr Obama so readily accepted his invitation (and made sure his annual State of the Union address did not clash with India’s Republic Day). It is hard to imagine Mr Obama going to such lengths for America’s traditional allies, whether Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israel, or David Cameron’s Britain.

Nor should he. The rise of India is a geopolitical fact of our time. The manner in which it rises is critical to the future of the world. Managing that requires the sort of patience that comes hard to US statesmen. There is an inverse link between India’s strategic importance to the US and its visibility on America’s immediate radar. Mr Obama did not even mention India in his address to Congress last week. Yet the timing of both his visits is revealing. The first took place in November 2010 shortly after Mr Obama’s first midterm electoral “shellacking”.

This is happening after his second. It is as though Mr Obama is seeking refuge in the bigger picture. While Congress messes around with partisan gimmickry, Mr Obama is peering over the horizon at the world that is unfolding. What then will his visit achieve? Alas, a photo-op with Michelle at the Taj Mahal is off the menu ÔÇö Mr Obama had to cut that leg to attend King Abdullah’s funeral in Saudi Arabia. The serious answer is that it will be hard to measure.

India will never be a military ally of the US. Though New Delhi fears an expansionist China, Mr Modi last year rolled out the red carpet for Mr Xi. He also hosted Vladimir Putin and refuses to join the US-led condemnation of Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Japan’s Shinzo Abe is Mr Modi’s best friend. Mr Obama is his newest. India is hedging all bets.

The American mindset tends to see the world in a Manichean light ÔÇö you are either with us or against us. That will not work with India. Neither China nor India wishes to proselytise the world in its own image. Their rise marks a rupture with an epoch marked by the universal zeal of Europe and now the US. Having been born in the Pacific and partly raised in Indonesia, Mr Obama is unique among US presidents in being able to grasp this. As noisy democracies, the US and India are the two rogue actors of global deals. Neither can be trusted to ratify what their diplomats have agreed. Both hammer out deals that their legislatures then refuse to sign. In contrast, China has a pretty good record in sticking to deals.

India continually walks back from what others believe it has agreed to on trade. It also reneges on its climate commitments ÔÇö last year Mr Modi repudiated India’s signature on the Bali deal. The US is no different. Capitol Hill is littered with deals it has spurned ÔÇö the Kyoto treaty on global warming among them. Again, Mr Obama is temperamentally well attuned. Few US presidents have had so much difficulty persuading counterparts that they speak for Washington. In March, Mr Netanyahu will attempt to trash Mr Obama’s nuclear talks with Iran in an address to the joint houses of Congress. Which other country would tolerate this? The specific answer on Mr Obama’s India motives is threefold.

In addition to bridging gaps in the US-India civil nuclear deal, which seems to have been achieved before Mr Obama touched down, he needs India for the Paris talks to succeed. Mr Modi wants to quintuple India’s solar power capacity and the US can help. The fact that he also wants to double India’s coal output undermines that. Mr Obama is guilty of the same cognitive dissonance. Last week he urged the US to step up its fight on global warming while also boasting about rising oil production. There is no chance of a meaningful climate change deal unless the US and India see eye to eye. Second, Mr Obama wants a piece of India’s rising growth. China may well never return to the double digit growth rates of the past generation.

India ought to be able to step into its shoes. US technology can help it along. Mr Modi knows that. Third, Mr Obama needs a strong India as a hedge against a rising China. India needs the US for similar reasons. Neither leader will say anything in public about that. But as Mr Obama watches India’s nuclear missiles at the parade on Monday, the symbolism will speak for itself. The US once bent over backwards to thwart India’s nuclear ambitions. Mr Obama will be there in the stands as they roll past.

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