Heavy symbolism of Obama's India visit

Obama's long, sought-after 'pivot to Asia' seems to be finally coming to fruition.

    Heavy symbolism of Obama's India visit
    Obama and Modi are expected to sign a new defence cooperation agreement, writes Aftandilian [EPA]

    US President Barack Obama's trip to India is laced with symbolism. He will be the "Chief Guest" at India's Republic Day parade, a proud event for Indians that not only celebrates India becoming a republic in 1950 and adopting a democratic constitution, but also highlights India's military might by displaying its latest weaponry and honouring its past wars.

    No previous US president has been given this honour.

    Another act of symbolism will be Obama's visit to the memorial to Mahatma Gandhi, India's revered independence leader whose non-violent resistance to British colonialism was an inspiration for the American civil rights movement, particularly Dr Martin Luther King, Jr.

    Indeed, the recent release of the film "Selma", which portrays King and other civil rights leaders being attacked by angry policemen and mobs in Alabama, has reinforced this connection. Obama even invoked the story (albeit briefly) in his State of the Union address.

    Symbolic connections

    As the first African-American president, Obama has a symbolic personal connection to Gandhi (and India) like no other US leader. Without emulating Gandhi's success in using non-violent resistance, the American civil rights movement might not have succeeded in convincing white America at the time that segregation and second-class status for African Americans was morally wrong, and this, in turn, might have delayed the success of the movement and opportunities for someone like Obama.

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    Aside from these important symbolic aspects of the visit, Obama's trip comes at a time when there appears to be mutual interest in bolstering bilateral ties for strategic and economic reasons.

    Obama's long, sought-after "pivot to Asia" seems to be finally coming to fruition after being delayed by instability in the Middle East.

    He sees China as the rising power in the East and wants to do what he can to check China's regional ambitions and build up American power in the Asia/Pacific region with the help of its friends and allies.

    India, which has had problems with China since the 1950s, seems to be a willing partner in this endeavour, though both India and the US will be careful not to portray their enhanced strategic ties as being "anti-China".

    Nonetheless, building friendships around China's periphery is also something that is being pursued by India, as witnessed by its warm reception of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last year.

    Although enhanced US-India military cooperation started under George W Bush, Obama has deepened it. Obama and Modi are expected to sign a new defence cooperation agreement, as the existing one is set to expire this year. Bilateral military exercises have grown in frequency, and the US and Indian navies in particular seem to have institutionalised their annual exercises.

    Arms supplier

    In addition, US military sales to India are up. In 2013, in fact, the US became India's largest arms supplier, surpassing Russia, France, and Israel.

    Other defence issues involve ways to possibly enhance the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI), signed in 2012, that is supposed to involve the co-development and co-production of defence technologies.

    Outside of the security realm, trade links between the two countries continue to grow. US business sees India, with its large population and growing middle class, as a huge market, and India is eager for more US investment.

    High-ranking Pentagon officials have made several visits to India to move this initiative forward, and it is possible that the two leaders might announce a joint project.

    The issues of Afghanistan and counterterrorism assistance will also likely be on the agenda.

    India will want to be assured that there will be no "cutting and running" from Afghanistan given the ongoing instability there, and counterterrorism talks will likely involve not only groups operating in Pakistan, like Lashkar-e-Taiba, responsible for deadly Mumbai attacks in late 2008, but ISIL as well.

    Growing trade links

    Recently, pro-ISIL graffiti on a bathroom wall at Mumbai's international airport, warning of an attack on Republic Day, have concerned Indian security officials.  

    Outside of the security realm, trade links between the two countries continue to grow. US business sees India, with its large population and growing middle class, as a huge market, and India is eager for more US investment.

    The new US ambassador to India, Richard Verma, recently said that he hopes to increase trade from current levels of $100bn to $500bn in the coming years. Both Obama and Modi are expected to address a group of American and Indian CEOs.

    There are still bumps in the relationship. The much-touted civilian nuclear power deal that was signed by both governments in 2008, has yet to move forward because of differences over liability for accidents. In addition, an agreement by India to reduce carbon emissions is not in the cards, but the US still hopes that India will back a global climate pact that will be negotiated in Paris at the end of 2015.

    That said, Obama hopes that one of his legacies will be to put the US-India relationship "in a fundamentally different place" than it was when he took office, in the words of Ben Rhodes, his deputy national security adviser.

    Obama's visit will try to make this happen.

    Gregory Aftandilian is a Senior Fellow for the Middle East at the Center for National Policy in Washington, DC. He is a former Middle East analyst for the US Departments of State and Defense, and a former staffer of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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