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Is the Obama administration ignoring India?

February 27, 2009 11:50 IST

India's non-inclusion in United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's first overseas trip to Asia has elicited diametrically opposite views from two South Asia experts.

While one argues that China's inclusion in Clinton's itinerary is a clear indication that for the Obama administration, New Delhi is not in the same league as Beijing, the other contends that her itineraries are not illustrative of the priorities that the administration attaches to particular countries.

Besides China, Clinton's trip to Asia included visits to Japan, Indonesia and South Korea.

Stephen P Cohen, who heads the South Asia Programme at the Brookings Institution, told rediff.com, "I think this administration is not quite sure about their map of Asia and India doesn't seem to be part of it."

"There are a lot of signs, which are quite, I won't say alarming, but, interesting," he said, and added, "The way in which they have put India in the National Security Council under China. The same guy who is in charge of matters concerning China also looks at Indian issues, even though he is from East Asia, not South Asia."

Jeff Baden, a specialist on China, heads the Asia Division in the NSC. So far, no one has been appointed as the director for South Asian affairs in the White House.

Cohen acknowledged that including India on Clinton's trip to Asia would have had a significant symbolic value. "It is really impressive that India doesn't seem to figure at all in the American foreign policy," he said.

"They certainly don't seem to have taken any special interest in India, as compared with the Bush administration," he added.

Cohen pointed out that so far, "Nobody has raised the issue of the Indo-US nuclear deal with India. It sort of has simply vanished from the screen. So we'll see what happens. But I am not encouraged by the first couple of weeks."

When reminded that the administration's Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, had also visited India during his trip to South Asia, Cohen retorted, "He went there because of Afghanistan and Pakistan (to include India in any regional agreement), not because of India."

Dismissing the argument that America's relations with India were on track and didn't need immediate attention, he said, "You can make that argument but they (the Obama administration) are worried about their immediate priorities. India doesn't seem to be able to help them out in Afghanistan or Iraq and certainly not in the case of Pakistan."

"India is not making trouble, but I think that's the way it's going to be -- that India is unable to help America in the short-term, in its short-term strategic objectives," he analysed.

Cohen added that Clinton visiting China and not India clearly proved "China's growing power -- and so much for Chindia! India was overblown by the advocates and now it's going to be undersold."

"The Chindia metaphor didn't correspond to reality," he argued, adding that, "In terms of  economy, military power etc, China is miles ahead of India."

However, former assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs in the Clinton administration, Karl F Inderfurth, who was a foreign policy adviser on South Asia to the Obama campaign, disagreed with Cohen's views.

He stressed that absolutely nothing should be read into the fact that India was not included in Clinton's Asia itinerary.

Inderfurth, who is currently a professor of international relations at George Washington University, told rediff.com, "You can only do so much at one time, and this trip has a certain coherence and consistency to it."

When queried if India's exclusion in Clinton's itinerary meant that it had been relegated to the second tier in Asia for the Obama administration, Inderfurth asserted, "Absolutely not."

"I don't think one can judge the itineraries of secretaries of state as being definitive statements about the priority countries have in terms of foreign policy," he argued.

"I believe this was a good opportunity for her to travel to Asia. Clearly, her first stop in Japan was to send a signal to those who have sometimes been of the view that Japan is sort of dropping in order of importance to the United States. This was meant to reinforce the importance of Japan as an ally of the US in Asia."

He reiterated, "There is absolutely no reason for India to feel slighted. This administration will not need to be reminded of the importance of India because Hillary Clinton knows that directly from her own experience as First Lady, as Senator and the role that President Bill Clinton had in getting this new relationship going in the right direction."

"So, I look forward to seeing her in South Asia and India many times. I know that this is one region of the world that she has been fascinated with," he said.

Inderfurth's views were echoed by US Ambassador to India David Mulford, during an interaction at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, with a few select journalists, think-tank analysts and scholars, diplomats from the subcontinent and some mid-level administration officials.

Taking strong exception to the contention that India is being ignored by the administration, Mulford said, "The new administration understands the importance of the US-India relationship."

He said, "It is quite clear to me that India will be every bit as important a priority to them as it was to the previous administration."

Mulford acknowledged, "That doesn't mean they'll handle every issue the same way. But there's no doubt about the fact that it's important to them."

He added, "You have to give some space to the Obama administration because it's a new administration. They are very challenged, they are very busy, they have got a lot of other things to do. The fact that they haven't done some things first with India may reflect the fact that they think the relationship is in such good shape that they don't have to address it immediately."

Mulford assured his audience, "I have no doubt that the relationship will be every bit as important, and I wouldn't really worry about that -- I wouldn't think it's worth speculating about really."

Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC