Michael KreponObama in India; Xi in Pakistan

Trend lines on the subcontinent have become more pronounced after President Obama’s visit as chief guest at the Republic Day parade and reports of Chinese President’s Xi Jinping’s upcoming visit for Republic Day celebrations in Pakistan. The juxtaposition of Obama’s visit in New Delhi with a near-total power blackout in Pakistan was brutally stark. While Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi were signing up to a new ten-year defense framework agreement, Pakistani Chief of Army Staff Raheel Sharif was visiting Beijing.

China and Pakistan will remain “all-weather friends,” with Beijing picking up some of the slack of a contracting U.S.-Pakistan relationship. Chinese help with arms co-production and development – presumably a subject of discussion between Gen. Sharif and his hosts – will grow as Washington gravitates more toward New Delhi. None of the joint ventures in defense production announced during Obama’s visit were eye-popping, but this trend is unmistakable and will be given further impetus by incoming Secretary of Defense Ash Carter.

The George W. Bush Administration hyped a transformation in U.S.-India relations, symbolized by a civil-nuclear agreement. A weak Congress-led Indian government couldn’t begin to meet the hype, and the nuclear deal became a glaring example of the gap between promise and performance. Obama is now working with an ambitious, results-oriented counterpart who enjoys wide popular and parliamentary support. The impasse over liability needed to be addressed to demonstrate Modi’s ability to deliver. Whether a “breakthrough” has been found to facilitate plans by Westinghouse and General Electric to build nuclear power plants in India is still not clear, but at least New Delhi can now claim to have gone the extra mile in finding one.

The hype of the Bush administration has now been replaced by a mutual agreement not to over-promise while working in a more concerted fashion where interests are in concert. Symbolism and substance are in greater alignment. One area of converging interests relates to China’s more assertive behavior in the Asia-Pacific region and the Indian Ocean.

Beijing downplayed the significance of Obama’s trip to New Delhi, but has surely noted that the joint statements released after Modi’s visit to Washington (shortly after receiving Xi in India) as well as after Obama’s trip both referenced maritime muscle flexing by China’s Navy. Here are the relevant passages from the “U.S.-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region” released during the Obama visit:

We affirm the importance of safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and over flight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea.

We call on all parties to avoid the threat or use of force and pursue resolution of territorial and maritime disputes through all peaceful means, in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The Indian Navy is hard to find in the South China Sea, but it’s rare for New Delhi to poke at the Dragon. China poked first with port visits along the littoral of the Indian Ocean. Xi Jinping made an error in judgment when his visit to India in September, 2014 was accompanied by aggressive patrolling by the PLA along the disputed Sino-Indian border. Modi’s message to Xi (translated from the Hindi), was, “Even such small incidents can impact the biggest of relationships just as a little toothache can paralyze the entire body.”

Xi’s more muscular approach to asserting China’s interests around its periphery has generated push back from a more assertive Indian leader. New Delhi isn’t in the business of containing China; it is in the business of seeking more trade and investment with China – while improving conventional and nuclear capabilities oriented toward China. Modi’s success in improving relations with the United States could help him leverage improved relations with China. How these two confident, dynamic leaders choose to deal with their border dispute will be telling.

Where does this leave Pakistan? Closer to China and farther behind India. Pakistan’s sense of insecurity wasn’t helped by the Obama visit, and subsequent steps demonstrating greater U.S.-Indian cooperation will be vexing. Washington’s choices mirror the divergent national fortunes of India and Pakistan. The United States has never been able to move beyond a transactional relationship with Pakistan. Washington will continue to help Islamabad refinance its debt and help Rawalpindi’s undertake counter-terrorism operations, while waiting for Pakistan’s leaders to come to grips with the underlying sources of its economic and internal insecurities. U.S. ties with India have the potential to move beyond a transactional relationship because they have far greater upsides.

A presidential visit with perfect pitch to India produced discordant notes in Pakistan. National Security Advisor Sartaj Aziz issued a statement of concerns, qualms, and disappointments, touching on familiar bases, especially U.S. nuclear deal-making with India and assisting India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group and other oversight bodies. Pakistan has not yet taken initiatives to recast its position in the nuclear order and to facilitate its entry alongside India into the NSG.

The rapport between Obama and Modi can come in handy in the event of another nuclear-tinged crisis on the subcontinent. India-Pakistan relations cannot improve in the absence of dialogue, but Modi is focused on more important diplomatic initiatives. In the past, dialogue has been interrupted by grievous acts of terror on Indian soil perpetrated by groups like the Lashkar e-Toiyba. The Pakistani government has yet to clarify whether its new counter-terrorism plans apply to the LeT. The absence of dialogue diminishes India. Another attack against India by the LeT or another group finding sanctuary within Pakistan will further diminish Pakistan.


  1. Saima Sial (History)

    Michael it is an interesting analysis, however it glossed over the border disputes that remain festering between India and Pakistan. It is ironic how improving US-India relations may project positively for the future of Indo-Chinese border dispute as opposed to Pakistan-India relations that are facing serious setbacks because of the same improved US-India relations. Recent Indian aggression across the working boundary shows that it’s not the fear of an alleged infiltration by Pakistan, but Indian aggressiveness under the order of Modi, who has stated on record that, “it’s time for bullet not dialogue”. With the coming of a new leadership in India, great hopes were associated by Pakistan in improvement of relations, however, unfortunately, Modi has being working on quite the opposite of what one can claim to be positive “diplomatic initiatives” towards Pakistan. The suspension of dialogue (Foreign Secretary level talks) between India and Pakistan came when Pakistani High Commissioner met with Kashmiri leadership, a known practice; is a case in point.

    Finally, before one debates on whether Pakistan has taken initiatives to “recast its position into NSG”, it needs to be asked why States make efforts to normalise? The process of incentivization could help fast track normalisation. An objective criteria set for prospective membership irrespective of specific outlier States in mind, could be an incentive in itself for a state to start thinking of recasting its position. It would also prove that the international community led by U.S. is earnestly seeking to strengthen the nonproliferation norms by mainstreaming all outliers, irrespective of geopolitical exigencies.

    • Krepon (History)


      Thank you for contributing this comment. You raise important questions.

      My colleague at Stimson, Julia Thompson, is sifting thru the data about firing along the Kashmir divide. She is looking for trends.

      Outsiders who try to determine who fired first on different occasions can’t be sure. I have come to the conclusion that it is in India’s interests to have a quiet, albeit contested border with Pakistan. If this assumption is correct, then it is not in India’s interest to start firing. If it is in Pakistan’s interests to prevent a status quo-oriented settlement of the Kashmir issue, and to raise grievances about the status quo, it follows that it is also in Pakistan’s interests to initiate firing along this contested border. I would not argue that this is true for every instance of firing; I would argue that this is the case for the preponderance of instances.

      There is a new twist here, as you say, in the form of a declaratory Indian policy on responding to fire in a more concerted way.

      On your second point, I agree that a criteria-based approach to membership in the NSG is advisable. I feel this way about civil-nuclear agreements, as well: these accords will weaken nonproliferation norms, so these norms ought to be buttressed in other ways.

      If outliers want to be mainstreamed, what norm-building steps are they willing to take? India has found it possible to avoid meaningful compensatory steps because its market is so inviting. Pakistan doesn’t have this leverage.


    • Anjaan (History)

      1. Democratically elected Kashmiri leadership and the separatist Hurriyat leadership are not the same thing, as far as the people of India are concerned.

      2. It is an age old practice of Pakistani army providing cover fire to facilitate infiltration of the armed terrorists into India … who are you trying to kid here … ?

    • krepon (History)


      I allow a few of your comments to get thru my filter because I would like ACW readers unfamiliar with the subcontinent to get a sense of one segment of Indian public opinion.

      If you read my comment without your own filter, you would have realized that we’re talking about the same thing regarding initiation of firing along the LoC.


  2. RG (History)

    In your last paragraph, what does the sentence “The absence of dialogue diminishes India” mean?

    When the Pakistani government is sheltering LeT, JuD, Osama Bin Laden, Al Qaeda, and then allows them to launch an attack in Mumbai 2008 and Parliament 2001 and countless attacks in to Kashmir. How is it that India is suppose to have dialogue? Would you suggest that the absence of dialogue with ISIS diminish the US?

    The question you should ask is, how will the Obama administration ensure that Pakistan shuts down and arrests these terrorists to prevent further attacks on India, Afghanistan and the rest of the world?

    • Krepon (History)


      Do you make no distinction between ISIS and Pakistan?

      The track record of major powers that refuse diplomatic engagement with a troublesome neighbor is not great. Behaviors aren’t changed and problems aren’t addressed. (Exhibit A is U.S. relations with Cuba.)

      Everybody understands that engagement will be broken off after egregious acts of terrorism. But previous governments in India have felt it wise to try to normalize relations with Pakistan. I expect the Modi government will, as well.


  3. Kuram Narayana (History)

    US and India have coincident security interests and also socio-political commonality. In open societies, this should foster kinship and sisterhood. Unfortunately because of the myopic views of the world, the last 60 years have been wasted by these two democracies. Naturally when the interests align, contrarian societies suffer the consequences; China and Pakistan are such prime examples. Pakistan thinks that it can shelter terrorists and use terrorism against India. Unfortunately, for too long, US has looked the other way round with its wayward client state. US should have punished Pakistan for what it is. Absence of this commitment to punish Pakistan has hindered Indo-US relations. Almost all US analysts tend to ignore this basic facet of India’s thought process. True, there is a synergy of thought on China. But unless US unhinges itself from its Pakistani affliction and the State Department removes Closet Pakistanis from its ranks, even Modi will be forced to retrace his steps by the Indian population. This much is given and it is for the US administration to respond concretely.

  4. Ali (History)

    kashmir is the main issue between Pakistan and India. keep in mind that organizations or groups fighting against indian army are supported by kashmiris. world knows better how india infiltrated in East Pakistan. Nepal, China, Bangladesh, srilanka and pakistan are all indian neighbours. non of these countries is happy with indian policies

  5. Muhammad Umar (History)

    I completely agree with you Michael, Pakistan has to stop with its grievances against the United States and focus on itself.

    As far as the LoC violations are concerned, I am not sure I buy into your argument. I believe Pakistan gains nothing by violating the cease fire agreement. I understand that you are not saying that Pakistan initiates it every single time, but are arguing that majority of the time Pakistan is responsible. If that were true, then why would the Pakistanis call for UNMOGIP inspections? Why would they request flag meetings on the LoC? India has in the past denied international inspectors, and have cancelled flag meetings on many occasions. Pakistan has reached out to the international community many times over the past decades in an attempt to negotiate peace along the line of control, and working boundary-India has always opposed these efforts.

    I look forward to Julia’s findings, hopefully they can help all of us shed some light on the situation along the LoC and WB.

    I think it’s time to let Kashmiris decide their own fate. Let them have a vote, even an independent state if that’s what they desire.