Ian Hall is right to doubt that President Obama's recent trip to India did much to build a really substantial US-India strategic partnership. But there is bit to learn from it anyway about how Obama and Prime Minister Modi are approaching the big strategic questions in Asia today – and that makes the visit worth a second look.
The first thing to see is Modi's attempt to revive a proposal for strategic consultations between America, India, Japan and Australia. This 'Quad' idea first emerged almost decade ago from the trilateral US-Japan-Australia strategic consultations but it was scuppered by Kevin Rudd soon after he won office. He worried that it would look like the beginnings of a coalition to contain China, which of course it was.
One would expect Mr Abbott to be much more enthusiastic about it. The Quad seems to fit perfectly his ideas for Australia to build closer strategic links with each of the other parties to defend the existing regional order against China's challenge. Indeed it is noteworthy that Canberra has not yet (as far as I have seen) come out with a statement welcoming Mr Modi's proposal. Perhaps following President Xi's visit last November, Mr Abbott is starting to think more carefully about whether this kind of coalition-building is the best way respond to China's growing power and ambition. Or perhaps he just has other things on his mind.
Second, Mr Modi's willingness to refloat the Quad idea reinforces a lot of other evidence that he is keenly looking for partners to help balance China's rise. He is keen for closer links with Japan (he's even considering buying Japanese submarines), and seems willing to take the strategic relationship with America into new territory. The joint statement issued with Obama during last week's visit was low on specifics, but it did explicitly align US and Indian strategic aims in the Western Pacific, which is an important symbol of India's willingness to identify itself with US efforts to counter China's rise. That was certainly how it was read, and welcomed, in both the US and Indian press.
However, it is probably a bit soon to declare that Mr Modi is now a fully committed supporter of America's efforts to resist China's challenge in Asia. Like Abbott, Modi tends to send mixed messages. Just this week, as Brendan Thomas-Noone has mentioned, India's foreign minister joined his Chinese and Russian counterparts in what seemed a very pally meeting in which they declared their shared commitment on a new international order based on multipolarity. Not quite what Washington has in mind.
Like other new and relatively inexperienced leaders, Mr Modi might think that walking both sides of the street with America and China is smart diplomacy. Alas, it is not that easy. India has wide range of interests at stake in its relationship with China, and India cannot afford to subordinate those interests to the concerns of America or Japan, or Australia.
Third, and perhaps most interestingly, Mr Obama's visit to India tells us something about the evolution of his policies towards Asia. Whether or not he gets India's unflinching support against China, this is clearly what he wanted, and what the visit was designed to deliver. The scale of the visit itself shows how serious he is about this.
It was planned as a visit to India alone, not just a stop on a regional tour. The program – including long hours watching India's Republic Day parade – sent strong messages about Obama's commitment to building a substantive strategic relationship with India, directed against China. The US press was clearly briefed to read the whole visit this way, as they did.
We can draw three conclusions from this. The first is that, despite dramas in the Middle East and Europe, Obama still sees China as America's major strategic challenge, and he sees that challenge growing sharply. This reinforces the message on China in his Brisbane speech last November, which received much less attention than it deserved. He described the dangers posed by China, and the choices faced by Asia in response to it, in far starker terms than he had ever done before.
The second is that he has understood that his response to it so far — the pivot/rebalance – has not worked. His trip to India was his big effort to re-boot the pivot and re-energise America's efforts to resist China's assault on US primacy in Asia.
Third, despite the hugs, it didn't work, because India is not willing to make the preservation of US primacy its principal strategic aim in Asia.
Photo courtesy of White House.