US Vice President Joe Biden will be in Mumbai and Delhi, July 22-24, and is expected to reinforce the message sent by American trade and commercial interests who hope to gain greater traction in the Indian market, by reiterating the issues last raised by the visiting Secretary of state John Kerry. On the basis of Finance Minister Chidambaram’s and Commerce minister Anil Sharma’s Washington trips, GOI has already eased up in certain areas. But no grand concessions will be made in the context of the US government not easing up on the issue of the mobility of skilled labour in IT and other sector and the vexed matter of H1B visas.
This only highlights the differences within the US policy circles about just how to deal with India without also dealing with Pakistan. These differences were emphasized by the public disagreement between two recognized experts — Steve Cohen of Brookings and Ashley Tellis of Carnegie. At a recent launch of the former’s book — ‘Shooting for a Century’ (nice play on words) — a pessimistic take on the future of Indo-Pak relations, Cohen called if not for re-hyphenation than to treating South Asia as a single policy unit, without considering the complications arising out of falling back on the old ways of thinking that do not take into account the quite enormous and widening disparities in every respect between the two main subcontinental states. Tellis, more realistically, affirmed that that the United States has ‘no intrinsic interests’ in South Asia beyond ensuring India and Pakistan do not come to nuclear blows — which, as I have argued, is about as plausible as present day UK having a nuclear exchange with France for very different sets of reasons, of course!
Indeed, the evolving US rebalance to Asia substantially washes its hands off South Asia in particular, and the Indian Ocean in general — a case I have detailed in my forthcoming book — ‘India’s Rise: Why It’s Not a Great Power (Yet)’ to be published in Sept/Oct (2013) in Washington by Potomac Books (formerly Brassey’s). It is therefore left to India as the central power in the Indian Ocean region to decide whether it wants to continue being tethered to the small-weak-but-great-nuissance of a Pakistani state, or act the big power in the extended Indian Ocean region (encompassing Central Asia on the landward side) and largely shut out China from straying to west of the Malacca Straits.
Power vacuum is being created by the US pulling out of Afghanistan, more fully than earlier indicated by Washington. The skeletal US Special Forces presence in that country and the perpetuation of the ‘drone war’ against the Taliban is neither here nor there, subject as these will be to US calculations of short-term gain.
Whether Biden will explore these kinds of topics of salience to India and the other countries of the region is doubtful. That they will not be resolved to anyone’s satisfaction is a certainty.