As Obama bets on Asia, regional players hedge
Asia forms the crossroads of success or failure for Barack Obama's grandest foreign policy designs. This impression has crystallized over a year in which the president has shown himself indifferent to Europe, sentimental and somewhat conflicted about Africa, perplexed by the Middle East and largely oblivious to Latin America.
Obama's choices about China, India, Japan and Pakistan loom at least as large as the urgent challenges of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The president has outlined the need for the United States to shed burdens abroad to help repair the badly damaged American economy. That means that Obama must settle discarded U.S. burdens -- and power -- across a range of international organizations in which Asian nations are becoming increasingly influential.
The president consigned the Group of Eight industrial countries to leadership oblivion in his recent State of the Union message, omitting any mention of it while singling out the G-20 forum of developed and developing nations. This was no oversight: His administration hopes to shift climate change negotiations out of the unmanageable U.N. format that doomed the Copenhagen summit in December and place these talks in the G-20 process, according to U.S. officials.
Asia's giants, India and China, present differing and opposed models of international cooperation. A G-20 world needs at its center a dynamic U.S.-Indian relationship to help bridge that organization's divides between haves and have-nots and their different political systems. But here in New Delhi, Indian officials increasingly fear that the Obama team does not see it that way.
Indians are flattered that the only state dinner Obama hosted last year was given for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, whose remarkable intelligence and gracious manner would make him a welcome guest anywhere. But they also detect an air of ambivalence blowing their way from Washington -- and are reacting by hedging against a quick U.S. pullout from Afghanistan that would bring greater U.S. reliance on China and Pakistan, at India's expense.
Romanced by the Bush administration to balance China's inexorable rise in military and economic power, India finds itself out of sync with the Obama administration on some key issues. There is no open conflict. But neither is there the air of excitement and innovation about the U.S. relationship that I found on my last trip here 18 months ago.
Since then, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has explicitly rejected balance-of-power politics as a relic of the past. Yet India, Japan and other Asian states fear that without a supportive U.S. hand on the scales, they will be swamped by China's growing military capabilities and its increasingly aggressive, and effective, diplomacy.
The somewhat fanciful notion of a G-2 directorate in which the United States and China collude to determine global economic and political direction is increasingly colliding with reality. Tensions over Taiwan, trade and Tibet make the G-2 unworkable, as recent events have again shown. But the specter lingers for Asians as well as Europeans that Obama will be tempted to try -- even though a failed G-2 would be the worst possible outcome for everyone.
"The G-2 carries the implication that the United States would leave Asia to China to run," says B.J. Panda, a rising young political star here. Adds another Indian strategist: "We have to balance the Chinese, irrespective of what the U.S. and others do."
Obama's emphasis on setting an initial date for withdrawal from Afghanistan in his Dec. 1 policy speech, even as he sent additional U.S. troops, stirred doubt here about U.S. strategic patience. So have the frequent U.S. military visits to and overblown praise for Pakistan's army leadership, despite credible evidence of high-level Pakistani involvement in cross-border terrorism directed at India.
The dominant impression from three days of informal conversations organized here by the Aspen Strategy Group with Indian officials and analysts is that Pakistan has become a second-tier problem for India, even as it increasingly preoccupies Washington. What one Indian analyst described as "Obama's nuclear alarmism" also gives Pakistan increased leverage over Washington.
India has recently moved troops away from the Pakistan frontier while increasing deployments into border areas that China is claiming in pugnacious and offensive rhetoric. In a break with its past opposition to foreign bases in the region, India has secured military transit and stationing rights at an airbase in Tajikistan. And Singh's government lavishly welcomed Japan's new prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, on a recent three-day visit that included publicity about plans for joint military maneuvers in the Indian Ocean.
These are clear signs of Indian hedging: seeking allies for worst-case scenarios while accommodating China on economic matters. The Obama administration's failure to reaffirm clearly that India's rise is in U.S. strategic interests has contributed to this hedging. That is a mistake the president should quickly correct, in the interests of his own vision of a new world order centered on the Pacific and Indian oceans.
The writer is a contributing editor to The Post.