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18 May 2012, Gateway House

Hillary Clinton’s ‘Pivotal’ Moment

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's recent visit to China, India, and Bangladesh is keeping with the U.S. pivot to Asia. The choice of countries has strategic significance for the U.S., where India is flagged as balancing the rise of China, and Bangladesh as a strategic base in the Bay of Bengal.

Director, Gateway House

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This month, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made what may be her farewell visit to the region – a region growing in importance to the U.S. as per its much-hyped ‘pivot’ to Asia announced by the Obama administration last November. The much-touted visit may not have left the lasting impact she desired.

Clinton was in China for an annual dialogue. The visits to India and Bangladesh, however, were virtually forced upon them at short notice. Bangladesh was a pure last-minute add-on while India was made necessary, presumably to press the Iran issue – this, despite the U.S.-India dialogue being only a few weeks away.

Perhaps the choice of countries had some perverse strategic significance, starting with China, the rise of which the U.S. hopes to stall, followed by Bangladesh and India. India is often flagged, especially in the U.S. Congress, to play the role of balancing the rise of China. A strategic understanding with Bangladesh was in the works to make it the chief lieutenant in the Bay of Bengal. Myanmar had already been drawn into the fold by Secretary Clinton in a November 2011 visit.

Without doubt, some serious business must have been conducted in all three destinations but the sound of the debris created by an arrogant superpower trampling the sensitivities of her interlocutors was deafening, including in the U.S. putative rival, China.

Not that the international or local media covered itself with glory. As far as they were concerned, the visits were about the blind activist, Chen Guangcheng, Muhammad Yunus, and Mamata Banerjee respectively.

In China, where the United States is neck-deep in debt, Secretary Clinton and U.S. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner still tried to bully their Chinese counterparts during the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, on the overvalued Yuan by claiming that the roughly 13% revaluation of the last two years was not enough to address America’s trade deficit. Even as Mr. Chen was unceremoniously bundled out of the American Embassy before the commencement of the talks, Secretary Clinton said that “he was leaving in keeping with his wishes and our values.”

Obviously Chinese media followed the official line, characterizing the fourth session of the Strategic and Economic dialogue as having helped to manage their differences and deepen strategic trust. The Western media, on the other hand sought to use the diplomatic disaster to remind the Chinese government that it needed to do much more on issues of human rights and freedom of expression. A week later it is becoming clear that while the U.S. has won an increase in foreign holdings in Chinese banks (from 26% to 49%) and tariffs have been lowered, Mr. Chen has had trouble applying for a passport and his family, including his mother and nephew, have been tortured – all no doubt in keeping with American values.

In Dhaka, Clinton signed a “Joint Declaration on Bangladesh-U.S. Dialogue on Partnership” which establishes a bilateral framework for an annual dialogue. Bangladesh probably hopes to use this framework to obtain “duty-free and quota-free” access to the U.S. market for its ready-made garments. However by referring to Bangladesh as “a key player in maintaining security in the Bay of Bengal, Clinton gave the game away and exposed her own agenda: that of incorporating Bangladesh into a network of countries that will prop up its “pivot to Asia” and resist an expansive and aggressive China. It will be interesting to see how Bangladesh manages to balance its interests and obligations to its new best friend, the U.S., with those of its old close friend, China and now even Russia, both of which have undertaken to supply Dhaka with up to $1 billion worth of weaponry. And there is always its neighbor India to be kept in good humour.

Old habits die hard. Clinton’ decision to spend equal time with her friend Muhammad Yunus, recently removed from the Presidency of Grameen Bank because he had crossed the retirement age of 70, and the gratuitous warning to the government of Bangladesh not to undermine all the good work done by him and the institution, would have been hard for Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to swallow. Equally unacceptable was the public admonition to both the Bangladeshi Begums – the present and former Prime Ministers – of her (Clinton’s) vision of their country as a democracy and the injunction that they must act responsibly to maintain unity and investigate the disappearance of opposition political figures.

The India visit started with blemishes. The logistics for the visit were all upside down. Clinton first met Mamata Banerjee, then the Prime minster and Sonia Gandhi, and lastly her counterpart, the External Affairs Minister. Normal protocol has it the other way around. The whereabouts of the Indian and Bangladeshi players in such high-level visits, were also helter-skelter. Pranab Mukherjee, India’s Finance Minister – hopefully soon-to-be President – was in Dhaka when Clinton landed in Delhi. The Bangladesh Foreign Minister was in Delhi at the same time as Clinton, as was a large trade delegation from Iran. This may have been the result of the governments of India and Bangladesh, already in the delicate process of normalizing their commercial and political relations, scrambling to accommodate the somewhat last-minute desire of Clinton to visit.

Nevertheless the encounter with Mamata Banerjee, the Chief Minister of West Bengal, certainly flattered the latter who was reported to have blushed telling the press that Hillary Clinton, who knew all about her struggle against the communists, had wanted to meet her in Kolkata because of Time magazine’s recent listing of her among the world’s 100 most influential. She also claimed that the U.S. (through its companies) would invest billions in West Bengal, which they had earlier been unable to because the communists were in power. Clearly Banerjee has forgotten the many visits made by the communist finance minister to the U.S. and the West, to invite foreign investment to Bengal.

But then parody took over, after Bengal’s Banerjee asserted that neither the sharing of the Teesta waters nor FDI in retail had figured in her talks with Clinton, and the visit dissolved in ill-will and confusion. The U.S. Consulate in Kolkata countered asserting that they had, followed by Bengal finance minister Amit Mitra’s letter to the consul general demanding that they say no such thing – perhaps worried that the Communists would attack Banerjee on the issue.

By the time Clinton met foreign minister S.M. Krishna, India had moved on – or was trying to, notwithstanding the striking Air India pilots. So aggressive was Clinton at the joint press conference on the purchase of oil from Iran, that even the normally mild Krishna was constrained to read out a statement asserting India’s multi faceted relationship with Iran. The presence of an Iranian trade delegation in India helped to save some shred of dignity – for a week. India has since announced that it will buy 11% less oil from Iran than last year. It is unclear whether this will be enough to save us from the truly draconian sanctions announced by the U.S. against countries that don’t do enough to reduce oil purchases from Iran.

In the end, India will have to view the Clinton visit from the lens of self-interest. The second Indo-U.S. strategic dialogue is scheduled to take place from June 11-13 in Washington D.C. Prior to that, on May 20th, is the NATO summit in Chicago which will focus on Afghanistan. The Pakistanis have been invited, subsequent to their announcement of the probable re-opening of NATO supply routes to Afghanistan. So far it appears that India – so often referred to as a valuable partner in Afghanistan – will not be at the table where the post-NATO scenario in Afghanistan is determined.

It is past time for the U.S. to match its assurances to India by using its political capital to ensure that India is at the negotiating high table. There’s little in the bilateral for India if the U.S .continues to club us together with not-invited Iran and staying-away Russia – the three regional leaders with the most at stake in deciding the future of Afghanistan. The new secretary of state would do well to keep this in mind when he or she begins to give substance to the U.S. ‘pivot’ to Asia.

Neelam Deo is India’s former ambassador to Denmark and Ivory Coast, and served in Washington and New York. She is the director and co-founder of Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. 

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