It must be pretty exciting being the first people invited round for tea by the most popular family in the world. Even the ethereally low-key Prime Minister Manmohan Singh must have gulped down just a hint of excitement – a little twitch of the whiskers – when he found out he was ahead of the British, the Germans, the Chinese – everyone. But as always, the politics behind the glitz and jewel-encrusted curry dinner is a complicated diplomatic tangle.
In fact, all the talk of “natural allies” and “no stronger friend than the United States” is designed to make up for the fact that the US has bigger fish to fry in the region. The state visit to China last week resulted in a milestone document for future Sino-US relations, a blueprint for shared global leadership. By contrast, the joint announcement between Singh and Obama did little more than trot out the usual promise to share more intelligence on counter-terrorism/science/stuff.
Meanwhile, the relationship that really gets Obama’s team sweating at the moment is that with Pakistan – a precarious nightmare in which the US desperately tries to keep the support of an increasingly illegitimate Pakistani government for its fight against certain Taliban groups on the AfPak border, knowing that the army would much rather be fighting the Indians, whom Obama is having round for dinner along with Steven Spielberg and music from Jennifer Hudson and AR Rahman. Quite a juggling act.
India visibly bristles when the US makes its overtures to Pakistan and China. A passing comment in the joint statement between Hu Jintao and Obama said both sides would help promote improved relations between India and Pakistan. India’s commentariat and politicians almost choked on their aloo gobi at this presumptuous intrusion in their affairs. China quickly clarified that this did not mean any direct involvement, as if such a clarification was really necessary.
The harsh reality is that India is not a natural ally of the US so much as a potential spoiler. If India was to cause trouble over Kashmir, this could cause serious problems for Obama’s Afghan plans (which are due (as always) in the next few days). Nor can the US afford any complications on the restive Sino-Indian border in Arunachal Pradesh that might draw it into a fraught disagreement between two allies.
When Obama refers to “natural allies”, he is referring in part to India’s much-vaunted democracy. Of course, this reading of democracy ignores the huge swathes of corruption, cr0nyism, dynastic nepotism and gross ineffiency that litter the Indian political landscape, but it is an easy way to congratulate India, which prides itself on having preserved many of the political freedoms absent in China. It also refers to the Indo-US nuclear deal which, as well as making US companies an estimated $100 billion, was a symbolic invitation for India into an exclusive club of trusted, top-table friends. As with the pageantry at the White House this week, such moves carefully caress the Indian ego (which enjoys a good caress but Obama’s real concerns lie elsewhere and the important thing is to keep India from rocking the boat.