Six Things to Watch from Hillary Clinton’s India Tour

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US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (L) and President of the India's United Progressive Alliance (UPA) Government Chairperson Sonia Gandhi shake hands prior to a meeting at the Gandhi Residence in New Delhi on July 19, 2011. (Photo: Saul Loeb - AFP - Getty Images)

President Obama grabbed hearts and headlines with his state visit to India last fall, and there was a lot of talk about bringing the two countries closer together. It’s “a defining partnership of the 21st century” between “natural allies” who have committed themselves to a “strategic dialogue.” What does it all mean? It’s up to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to sort that out during this week’s trip to India. She arrived Monday night in New Delhi, had meetings on Tuesday with top officials, including the Prime Minister and National Security Advisor, and heads Wednesday to the south Indian city of Chennai. It’s a delicate time for U.S. interests in the region. The raid that killed Osama bin Laden has all but unraveled the U.S. alliance with Pakistan; Afghanistan is steeling itself for the withdrawal of U.S. troops; and India is seen by many U.S. voters as a serious economic threat, not an opportunity. Those challenges make this visit especially important. Here are six things that are or ought to be on the agenda:

1. Pakistan. The mutual suspicion between the U.S. and Pakistan has reached a level of intensity that perhaps only India can appreciate. And yet, even after cutting $800 million in aid to Pakistan Washington is sending the message to New Delhi should work on improving its own relationship with Islamabad. Former state department official Karl Inderfurth has been the most visible proxy:

“She [Clinton] will encourage India to do all it can to engage Pakistan, to find areas where they might be able to break down some of their barriers and build some kind of confidence in each other.”

India is doing just that, despite the disruption of last week’s triple bombing in Mumbai. Talks planned for next week between the Indian and Pakistani foreign secretaries are still on, as is a lower-level meeting on cross-border trade in Kashmir. Why is India doing as the U.S. says and not as it does? The U.S. does not want to further destabilize the Pakistani government, and India can score an easy win with its new “strategic partner” by staying the course. And, as Ashley Tellis of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told Reuters, “The Indians see the United States as finally waking up to the problem of Pakistan, and they do not want to interject themselves into that process.” As for Clinton, she said on Tuesday that the U.S. was “encouraged” by the ongoing talks between India and Pakistan.

2. Terrorism. The July 13 serial bomb blast in Mumbai immediately raised concerns about the possibility of Pakistani involvement. Inderfurth appeared on television on the night of the bombing to say it was “inconceivable” that Pakistan might have been involved, asserting that this attack was the work of an “indigenous” group. It’s not clear whether he was privy to any specific U.S. intelligence, but Indian officials seem to have come to the same conclusion. The investigation has focused on Indians who are already under suspicion for their involvement in local jihadist groups. Still, that doesn’t mean India ought to go it alone. The ill-defined “Indian Mujahideen” is a loose network operating all over South Asia and the Persian Gulf, and draws at least ideological support from Lashkar e Taiba. To understand the Indian Mujahideen, investigators here will need the support and expertise of their counterparts in the FBI and CIA. India and the U.S. are the two most visible and valuable targets for South Asia’s jihadi militants; or, as Clinton put it on Tuesday, “We are allies in the fight against violent extremist networks.” Her visit should make intelligence sharing between them permanent, no matter what the source of last week’s attack.

3. Afghanistan. The Indian foreign ministry spokesman made sure to use the phrase “regional issues of interest” in his briefing about Clinton’s visit. It’s a signal that New Delhi is keen to have the U.S. publicly acknowledge India’s role in Afghanistan’s uncertain future. The Associated Press reports that Clinton will deliver a message to allay fears that the Taliban (seen by India as a Pakistani proxy) will gain the upper hand, reassuring India that the U.S. “will not support Afghan reconciliation with insurgents unless it is inclusive and protects the rights of minority groups, religions and women.” This is a tricky balancing act. Pakistan resents any Indian involvement in Afghanistan, and India hasn’t reached total consensus about whether it should rely on soft power in Kabul, as it has in the past, or engage more forcefully. Clinton will spell out the U.S. regional vision in a speech Wednesday in Chennai.

4. China. That would also be the obvious place for Clinton to address China’s assertive presence all over South Asia, from Pakistan to Nepal to Sri Lanka. India and the U.S. are both concerned, but India does not want to be seen as a pawn or strategic “balance” against China. Even if Clinton does not mention the word China during this visit (it would be considered a faux pas by her hosts, who prefer that she focus on them), it should appear during her meeting with National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon, a former Indian Ambassador to China. India is rapidly expanding its naval and air capabilities with the help of U.S. equipment, and the two countries should establish a clearer understanding of their China strategies.

5. Human rights. The region is going through a bit of a human rights crisis at the moment, from Sri Lanka to Bangladesh to Burma. These are all countries where India has traditionally wielded significant influence, but it has rarely used its status as the world’s largest democracy to advocate for democratic values elsewhere. During his speech to the Indian Parliament last November, Obama eloquently called on India to live up to its ideals in Burma. Since then, India seems to have turned up the political pressure on Sri Lanka. Human rights is another sensitive subject in India (it certainly does not want to talk about its relevance in Kashmir, the northeast or Chhattisgarh). Even if Clinton doesn’t mention it publicly, it could be a fruitful area of future cooperation.

6. Jobs. But the same cannot be said of jobs, at least in the short term. Clinton has devoted nearly half of her India trip to Chennai, where she will try to make the case that cities like Chennai, where Ford  recently announced a $72 million investment, will create jobs in the U.S. That’s a tough sell; consumers in Chennai and, for that matter, China, might well be the engine of American economic growth, as my colleague Michael Schuman has argued. But it may not be enough to reverse American job losses in time for the 2012 election.