Foreign Policy Blogs

James Jones Comes A-Calling But Storm Clouds Gather

jones-and-menon2James L. Jones, the U.S. national security advisor, was in New Delhi last week for a two-day trip aimed at preparing the ground for President Obama’s state visit that will take place on November 7-10.  The trip offered a preview of some of the deliverables that will come out of the Obama visit, but also illuminated areas of friction that could forcefully intrude upon the proceedings. 

Jones is the leading edge of a parade of senior U.S. officials that will descend upon New Delhi in the coming months.  Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was in Pakistan and Afghanistan earlier this week, will make her own special trip to India later on, as will William J. Burns, the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs.  Richard C. Holbrooke, the U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, also visited New Delhi in the wake of Jones’s trip.

Jones met with a slew of Indian leaders, including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Home Minister P. Chidambaram, Defense Minister A.K. Antony, and Shiv Shankar Menon, Mr. Singh’s national security advisor.  His brief covered a range of issues, including lobbying on behalf of Boeing and Lockheed for a very lucrative Indian air force contract for advanced fighter aircraft, as well as discussions on counter-terrorism cooperation and the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  In a statement at the end of the visit, the Indian government described the talks as “positive, constructive and forward looking.”  (Also see the separate statement put out by the White House.)

Mr. Obama’s visit in November provides a key opportunity to rebut critics who charge that his policy toward India has been heavy on rhetoric and symbolism but bereft of substantive achievements.  While in New Delhi, Jones signaled that one of the visit’s outcomes will be the formal signing of an agreement struck earlier this year regarding India’s right to reprocess U.S.-origin spent nuclear fuel.  This is one of several issues that require resolution before the civilian nuclear accord can go into effect and one on which nonproliferation advocates in the Obama administration had taken a strong line.  Wrangling about the details had gone on for months between the two capitals, even dashing New Delhi’s hopes that an agreement could be announced during Prime Minister Singh’s own state visit to Washington last fall. 

(Another piece of unfinished business flowing from the nuclear deal is Indian legislation governing the liability of U.S. firms that supply power reactors to India’s energy sector.  Given the vagaries of the country’s politics, Washington’s hopes that the Indian parliament will pass this legislation in time for Obama’s visit will almost certainly be disappointed.)

Obama’s visit will also see movement on another issue of import to New Delhi – the removal of U.S. controls on technology transfers to several Indian government agencies, including the Indian Space Research Organization, the Defense Research & Development Organization, and the Bhabha Atomic Research Center.  These controls are a remnant of the sanctions Washington levied in the wake of the 1998 nuclear tests, and New Delhi sees them as incompatible with the strategic entente that has developed between the two countries in recent years.  Jones signaled to his Indian interlocutors that the administration was working to accommodate their concerns.  (In a related move, Japan last month lifted its own technology controls against India that were enacted following the nuclear tests.)

As with the bilateral nuclear deal, the lifting of U.S. controls will require Congressional action, though the Obama administration’s new effort to reform the U.S. export control system will help push the issue onto the legislative agenda.  With Congressional attention increasingly focused on the mid-term elections, it’s very unlikely that the issue will be conclusively resolved by the time the President lands in New Delhi.  But he should be able to make enough positive noises to satisfy his Indian hosts.

Several dark storm clouds, however, threaten to make an appearance while Mr. Obama is in India.  The president’s visit will take place against the background of two other events that will cast very wide shadows.  The first, occurring less than a week before Obama’s arrival, is the Congressional elections in which the Democratic Party is expected to incur major setbacks.  The second is the launch around this time of the Obama administration’s review of policy options in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  The first event will have obvious implications for the second, which in turn will have serious consequences for U.S.-India relations. 

If the Democrats suffer huge electoral losses, the president might be tempted to shore up his domestic political base by accelerating the drawdown of U.S. military forces in Afghanistan, without paying too much heed to Indian security concerns there.  In this respect, it is important to note that earlier this month 153 House Democrats, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, voted in favor of legislation requiring a clear timetable for withdrawal. 

A second potential spoiler in November lies in the tightening U.S. sanctions regime against Iran.  New Delhi has long had close links with Tehran, driven in important measure by India’s dependence upon Iranian oil resources.  And with New Delhi feeling that the Obama administration has slighted its interests in Afghanistan, India is also tightening relations with Iran as the political endgame in the country comes into sight.  A senior Indian official was quoted in Livemint  as describing New Delhi’s recent efforts to re-engage with Tehran as a policy “recalibration” caused by the “scenario unfolding in Afghanistan and India’s determination to secure its national interests.”

The close India-Iran relationship has long been a source of consternation in Washington.  Three years ago, senior members of the U.S. Congress sent a toughly-worded letter to Prime Minister Singh, linking final approval of the nuclear cooperation agreement to New Delhi’s stance on Iran’s nuclear program.  Earlier this month, President Obama signed into law a set of tough new unilateral penalties against companies helping the Iranian petroleum sector, a move that affects a number of Indian enterprises that want to develop oil and natural gas fields there. 

New Delhi immediately and rather vocally complained about the impact of the sanctions.  A few days after the sanctions were enacted, Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao gave an important address on the India-Iran relationship.  She highlighted the “unique” civilizational ties and “the instinctive feeling of goodwill” between the two countries.  She spoke of how ties with Tehran are a “fundamental component” of Indian foreign policy and how there has been a recent “convergence of views” on important policy issues.  Regarding bilateral cooperation in Afghanistan, she argued that India and Iran “are of the region and will belong here forever, even as outsiders [read the Americans] come and go.”  And referring to the new U.S. sanctions, she stressed that:

We are justifiably concerned that the extra-territorial nature of certain unilateral sanctions recently imposed by individual countries, with their restrictions on investment by third countries in Iran’s energy sector, can have a direct and adverse impact on Indian companies and more importantly, on our energy security and our attempts to meet the development needs of our people.

 P.J. Crowley, the U.S. State Department spokesman, reacted to Ms. Rao’s address by stating that “business as usual” with Iran by America’s friends and partners was no longer acceptable.

As if to underline the divergence over Iran, New Delhi hosted the Iranian minister of economic affairs & finance just prior to James Jones’s arrival.  The Iranian official brought with him a 30-member business delegation and closed out his two-day visit by signing agreements on energy, transportation and counter-terrorism cooperation.  The Indians and Iranians also discussed the building of an undersea natural gas pipeline.

The policy crucibles of Afghanistan and Iran mean that the nascent U.S.-India strategic entente will be facing its sternest test yet just as President Obama alights in New Delhi.  What should be an opportunity to celebrate the new era in bilateral relations could well spell out its limits.



David J. Karl

David J. Karl is president of the Asia Strategy Initiative, an analysis and advisory firm that has a particular focus on South Asia. He serves on the board of counselors of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy and previously on the Executive Committee of the Southern California chapter of TiE (formerly The Indus Entrepreneurs), the world's largest not-for-profit organization dedicated to promoting entrepreneurship.

David previously served as director of studies at the Pacific Council on International Policy, in charge of the Council’s think tank focused on foreign policy issues of special resonance to the U.S West Coast, and was project director of the Bi-national Task Force on Enhancing India-U.S. Cooperation in the Global Innovation Economy that was jointly organized by the Pacific Council and the Federation of Indian Chambers & Industry. He received his doctorate in international relations at the University of Southern California, writing his dissertation on the India-Pakistan strategic rivalry, and took his masters degree in international relations from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.