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11 October 2010, Gateway House

Obama’s Focus on South Asia

A report on Stephen Cohen a key South Asia expert‘s lecture titled “Obama‘s Foreign Policy: Focus on South Asia” at Nehru Centre in Mumbai on October 7, 2010

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About a year ago, Stephen Cohen, the South Asia political and security expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC, decided to reacquaint himself with India and Pakistan. As part of this initiative, Professor Cohen set out on a tour of India, sponsored by the State Department, during which he delivered a series of lectures and meet informally with many analysts and experts.

An old India hand, who had lived in the country in the 1960s and has visited it several times since, Prof Cohen has seen many ups and downs in the bilateral relationship between India and the U.S.. The current bilateral environment, he says, is good and should be allowed to get better.

“Even a visit by the U.S. President (Obama) cannot spoil the relationship,” he said jokingly during a reception thrown for him by the U.S. consulate in Mumbai.

He also gave a lecture in the city’s Nehru Centre during which he focused on President Obama’s foreign policy and its focus on the region.

Cohen cited a piece by his former student, Sumit Ganguly, on what the Americans can bring to the table when they visit in November 2010. Can the United States give India a seat on the United Nations Security Council? Can they stop Pakistan from launching terrorist attacks against India? The answer to both is, no. The Indo-U.S. relationship is a relationship of equals and has reached a point where India can solve its own problems. It should be a partnership defined by what India can bring to the table too. With the conclusion of the Indo-U.S. Nuclear Deal in 2008, the ball was in India’s court.  The Indian government responded by proposing the Nuclear Liability Bill which was not welcomed well by most Americans.

American perceptions about Afghanistan and Pakistan

Even though the U.S. and several other countries have contributed towards the security coalition in Afghanistan, Cohen said that nobody is certain about which direction the Afghanistan war is heading or whether it is even the right war. America, Cohen said missed an opportunity by directing its strategy, manpower and resources towards Iraq, when they could strengthened the Afghan government. As a result of the U.S.’s unbalanced policy on Afghanistan, Pakistan enabled Afghanistan’s displaced Taliban elements to regroup.

According to Cohen, Afghanistan is “America’s first foreign policy priority in South Asia” and the second priority is Pakistan, not India. But Pakistan is a country which is supporting both sides of the war due to vested Pashtun interests and is gripped with a fear of India. “Thus, encirclement from India,” said Cohen, “and India’s presence in Afghanistan is what alarms Pakistan the most.”

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh echoed India’s views on the war when he visited Washington in November 2009. But India’s demand that the U.S. fight the Taliban till every last marine is not a viable proposition. “In a partnership of equals,” Cohen stated firmly, “India needs to put forth its assets too.”

In addition, he admitted that the nature and integrity of the Pakistani state left him perplexed. He said Brookings Bellagio papers which attempted to chart out a future for Pakistan have been characterized by universal pessimism. What should American policy therefore be?  Cohen said that the survival of the Pakistani state was imperative and its implosion or takeover by Islamists or the military was a scary proposition.

How does the U.S. view India?

As an extension of the Bush strategy, Americans view India as the rising power in South Asia and one that is vital to the U.S. and strongly supported in Washington.

Cohen doubted the competition between India and China because China started its reform 15 years before India did and which propelled it ahead. The Obama administration differs from the Bush administration in an important aspect – it wants to cooperate with India, China and Russia and not necessarily contain China.

A rising China could be either peaceful or aggressive. The episodes on the India border and in the South China Sea may indicate that China has become assertive. If China were to turn hostile, Cohen opined that the U.S. would be compelled to work with India and even Japan, with whom they have shared interests. China’s rising power and its military presence in Asia leaves many Americans concerned. In keeping with the U.S. view, Cohen believes that some Southeast Asian states would not want to find themselves in the presence of a single rising power.

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