U.S.-India Relations: Observations on the Khobragade Saga

The Devyani Khobragade affair keeps getting curiouser and curiouser.  Ms. Khobragade, a diplomat posted at India’s consulate general in New York was arrested the other week by U.S. authorities on charges of visa fraud and labor law violations relating to her employment of a nanny/housekeeper who accompanied her to the United States.  The manner of her brief detention has sparked widespread outrage in India, riling U.S. relations with New Delhi in the process.  As more details come to light – including revelations of U.S. actions to “evacuate” the nanny’s family from India as well as growing speculation that the nanny was a CIA mole – it’s clear that what at first appeared to be a relatively straightforward matter is anything but.  (See here and here for a detailed chronology of events as they are currently known).  Still, though they may require revision as more information emerges, at this point it’s worth making three observations about the unfolding saga. Continue reading

Time for Some Realism in U.S.-India Relations

In a piece on Foreign Policy’s website the other week, Tim Roemer, the immediate past U.S. ambassador in New Delhi, urged Washington officials to pay closer attention to India as a geopolitical and economic partner.  In his view, the country needs to be at the center of the U.S. strategic pivot to Asia and both capitals must, among other things, start work on a free trade agreement.  India’s success, Roemer emphasizes, is “a linchpin in America’s success in the 21st century.”

Roemer’s bottom line is correct but it’s still an odd exhortation to make given the recent visits to New Delhi by senior Obama administration officials – Secretary of State John F. Kerry last June and Vice President Joe Biden a month later – as well as the September summit meeting between President Obama and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in Washington.  Strange, too, in light of the Obama administration’s efforts to craft a long-term strategic partnership, one that features greater Indian access to the latest U.S. military technology and a defense trade relationship that goes beyond a focus on one-off transactions to include joint research and co-production efforts. Indeed, this proposal was conveyed by then-Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta during a trip to New Delhi in June 2012, during which he made clear that Washington sees India as a “linchpin” in the pivot strategy.  Mr. Kerry also used similar language during his own visit.

It’s true that the Obama administration in its first year displayed little interest in pursuing high-level engagement with India, a development abraded sensitivities in New Delhi, where elites had grown accustomed to the pride of place their country enjoyed in America’s strategic calculus during the George W. Bush years.  But since then, the Obama team has harkened back to the Bush administration’s emphasis of building up India’s strategic potential as a check against the rise of Chinese power.

So, the problem now is not U.S. indifference but Indian ambivalence. Continue reading

Sorry China – The U.S. is the One Making Space History

This past weekend, China became the third country to land a spacecraft intact on the moon.  The unmanned Chang’e-3 probe subsequently deployed a robot rover that will explore the lunar surface for the next three months, while the landing vehicle will conduct scientific experiments for the coming year.  Beijing’s accomplishment is notable since it was the first time it attempted such a maneuver and the event is an important milestone for Beijing’s aspiring space program.

It’s also being hailed by many in China as a major display of national power.  Referring to the political slogan introduced by Xi Jinping, China’s new leader, the Xinhua news agency exclaimed that “the dream for lunar exploration once again lights up the China Dream.”  Another state-run news agency, sounding a bit like North Korean propaganda, even crowed that “the whole world again marvels at China’s remarkable space capabilities…”

But the hoopla coming out of China is overblown on several counts.  First, the success of the Chang’e-3 comes 41 years after the Apollo 17 mission delivered two astronauts and a rover vehicle on the moon (December 1972) and 37 years after the last unmanned probe landing by the Soviet Union (August 1976).

Second, it elides over the interplanetary efforts by India, China’s rival in the space race that is shaping up in Asia (see here and here for more background).  Six weeks ago, New Delhi launched a probe that is scheduled to reach Mars orbit next September after a 420 million-mile journey.  If all goes according to plan, India will become the first Asian country and the fourth in the world to reach the Red Planet.  Two years ago, a Chinese probe destined for Mars failed to leave Earth’s orbit when its Russian launch vehicle malfunctioned; the probe eventually crashed into the Pacific Ocean.

Finally, it’s the United States that remains the country pioneering the final frontier.  I’ve noted in an earlier post how the U.S. private entrepreneurs are inaugurating a new era in space transportation, taking on tasks that were heretofore the province of national governments.  No other company better illustrates this development than the Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, established by Elon Musk, PayPal’s co-founder and the inspiration for the character of genius billionaire/superhero Tony Stark in the Iron Man movie series.

Three years ago, SpaceX became the first private company to launch and return a spacecraft from orbit.   Then, in May 2012, it began carrying supplies to and from the International Space Station (ISS), filling the void left by cutbacks in the U.S. manned-space program and demonstrating a capability to do what no national government currently can do: deliver and bring back to Earth significant amounts of cargo from orbital platforms.

And two more recent exploits demonstrate how SpaceX remains at the forefront.  In September, after deploying a small satellite in orbit, a SpaceX rocket performed an unprecedented maneuver by re-entering the earth’s atmosphere at hypersonic speed without burning up.  The plan for a controlled descent to the Pacific Ocean went awry, however, when the vehicle spun out of control and fragmented upon hitting the water.  But SpaceX is confident that it can perfect its design for reusable rocket engines and plans to try again in February during its next cargo run to the ISS.

And earlier this month, SpaceX ventured beyond low-Earth orbit to place a communications satellite into geosynchronous orbit – approximately 22,000 miles above the Earth — for a fraction of the going market rate.  This is the first time that a privately-built launch vehicle has delivered a private commercial satellite into orbit.   According to the Wall Street Journal, the deployment credibly establishes SpaceX “as a low-cost alternative to legacy satellite-launch providers backed by U.S. and foreign governments.”  In recognition of the company’s successes, NASA last week announced that it is leasing iconic Launch Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to the firm.  SpaceX currently has a backlog of more than 50 missions for NASA and commercial customers, including 10 cargo runs for the ISS.

Beyond just hauling around cargo, SpaceX, along with another start-up called Blue Origin and run by Amazon.com co-founder Jeff Bezos, is in the running for NASA contracts to send humans into space.  A Silicon Valley-based startup called Moon Express plans to send a landing vehicle to the moon in late 2015, with the long-term objective of mining resources.  A new company, called Planetary Resources, has announced plans to extract minerals from asteroids.  Co-founded by Peter Diamandis, the impresario behind the X Prize, the firm has received investment capital from Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt and co-founder Larry Page, as well as James Cameron, the Hollywood director and explorer.

The expanding U.S. commercial space industry illuminates a strategic trend that underscores America’s staying power but which tends to get lost in the hype and hand-wringing about China: How private-sector dynamism is supplementing and in some cases supplanting governmental efforts to push forward the frontiers of science, technology and imagination.  As The Economist puts it, “China is busy re-living the past for much the same reasons that America and the Soviet Union lived it the first time round. [But] the future lies elsewhere.”

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The China Hype is now being tested in Asia

Criticizing the conventional wisdom about the inevitability of China’s global ascendancy and American strategic decline is a regular preoccupation for this page.  Indeed, a recent post took aim at the prevailing notion, subscribed to by a wide-ranging group that includes Barack Obama and Sarah Palin, that Beijing can translate its vast holdings of dollar-denominated assets into policy leverage vis-à-vis Washington.  So, it’s worth underscoring several developments this week that bear on these points.

One is a commentary piece by Ian Bremmer, the high-profile political risk guru who during the height of the China hype a few years ago was advising (herehere and here) that the future belonged to state-managed capitalism that Beijing, among others, practices.  Yet in a New York Times op-ed piece a few days back, he concedes that …

… although China’s economic influence is growing — it is now the lead trade partner for 124 countries, compared to just 76 for the United States — its power to influence other nations is slight. It has achieved little of what policymakers call ‘capture,’ a condition in which economic or security dependence of one country on another allows the more powerful to drive the other’s policy making.

And he concludes that “neither China nor anyone else appears ready and able to fill America’s superpower shoes.”

Bremmer was hardly alone in his prophesying about how the explosive growth rates China was then racking up would reshape the contours of international politics.   Economic policy expert Arvind Subramanian, for instance, colorfully opined that America’s growing financial dependence could eventually allow China to evict the United States from its long-established strategic position in the western Pacific.  Like Bremmer, he too has now walked back this view.

And events currently playing out in the skies over the East China Sea have so far failed to conform to Subramanian’s expectations.  It is unclear what prompted China’s attempt to establish unilateral control over the area’s airspace, though the move could be related to the growing demands in Beijing that Washington show greater deference toward China’s strategic interests in East Asia.  The New York Times quotes a White House adviser as saying:

‘It’s pretty clear this isn’t really about the [Senkaku islands dispute].’ Declining to speak on the record about a sensitive strategic issue, the official added that it was about a desire by some in China, including the People’s Liberation Army and perhaps the new political leadership, ‘to assert themselves in ways that until recently they didn’t have the military capability to make real.’

The adviser added: ‘They say it’s in response to our efforts to contain them, but our analysis is that it’s really their effort to push our presence further out into the Pacific.’

Philip Stephens, the foreign affairs columnist at the Financial Times, has come to the same conclusion.

But whatever the Chinese calculus, the prompt pushback by the United States, in the way of dispatching military aircraft unannounced into the zone as well as vocally reaffirming the U.S.-Japan security alliance, is at odds with the Subramanian thesis.

Australia is an excellent case study for whether China can use its economic power to bend policymaking in other countries.  A staunch U.S. ally and an outpost of American influence in Asia, the country has also benefited mightily in recent years from China’s voracious appetite for mineral resources.  A small but prominent group of opinion leaders has sprung up arguing that Washington, for the sake of global stability, needs to strike new power-sharing arrangements with Beijing in the Asia-Pacific region.  Hugh White, a retired senior defense official, has taken the lead on this front, though he is joined (here and here) by Paul Keating, a former prime minister.  Indeed, the release earlier this year of a new defense white paper spelling out a more conciliatory strategic approach to China seemed to exemplify the kind of policy “capture” that Bremmer talks about.

But the “capture” thesis suffered a sharp rebuke with Tony Abbott’s sweeping election victory three months ago.  The new prime minister in Canberra is unabashedly pro-American, suspicious of Chinese economic influence, and has taken to calling Japan “Australia’s best friend in Asia.”  His government also is siding with Washington and Tokyo in the present crisis over the East China Sea, and has banished the just months-old defense white paper from government websites.

Events in Asia are now furnishing a real-world test for ideas that became fashionable at the peak of the China hype, when we were told incessantly that Beijing was all set to rule the world and that America was in danger of becoming China’s bitch.  So far, however, developments have belied what many would have predicted.

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