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US-India strategic dialogue: Move beyond symbolism

June 08, 2010 17:47 IST

Washington seems to be putting in a lot of effort to impart a new dynamism to its ties with New Delhi. But most of it is at the level of symbols. It is time now to move to the substance, writes Harsh V Pant.

The US held its first ever strategic dialogue with India last week. US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, had decided to institutionalise this dialogue during her trip to India last summer. The US already holds such strategic dialogues with China and Pakistan. The dialogue with India last week covered a whole gamut of issues including high technology trade, science and technology cooperation, civil nuclear cooperation, human resource development and security issues.

US President Barack Obama attended the reception hosted by Clinton for External Affairs Minister S M Krishna. This was reportedly done to counter a growing perception that India does not figure as prominently in the Obama administration's foreign policy agenda as it was during the George Bush period.

At the reception, Obama once again underlined that New Delhi was 'indispensable' to the world order the US hopes to build. Obama had also called Prime Minister Manmohan Singh before the Krishna-Clinton meeting and the two had agreed that the strategic dialogue was an important milestone in the development of the US-India strategic partnership.

Just a few days back, the Obama administration released its National Security Strategy and a central part of the new strategy is expanding US engagement with "other key centres of influence -- including China, India and Russia, as well as increasingly influential nations such as Brazil, South Africa and Indonesia."

The new NSS describes a world in which emerging powers are beginning to erode some elements of American influence around the globe. It describes an America 'hardened by war' and 'disciplined by a devastating economic crisis'. It insists that the US "will maintain the military superiority that has secured our country, and underpinned global security, for decades."

The document's treatment of China and India is markedly different. Though it welcomes a China "that takes on a responsible leadership role in working with the US and international community," it makes it clear that the US "will monitor China's military modernisation program and prepare accordingly to ensure that US interests and allies regionally and globally, are not affected."

The treatment of India, meanwhile, is all positive. The NSS says "the US and India are building a strategic partnership that is underpinned by our shared interests, our shared values as the world's two largest democracies and close connections among our people." It also underlines that "India's responsible advancement serves as a positive example for developing nations."

The US-India strategic dialogue, therefore, took place in a context where Washington seems to be putting in a lot of effort to impart a new dynamism to its ties with New Delhi. But most of it is at the level of symbols. It is time now to move to the substance. The focus of the dialogue was on strengthening cooperation on energy, climate change, education, trade and agriculture, and strategic issues.

Predictably, the 'Singh-Obama 21st Century Knowledge Initiative' was prioritised and food security and health partnership between the two got a boost. A global disease detection centre in India is being planned as one of the flagship science and technology ventures between the US and India.

On two crucial issues, terrorism and Afghanistan, the joint statement issued at the end of the dialogue, struck all the right notes. The US not only committed itself to bringing the perpetrators of Mumbai attacks to justice but also assured India of its continued support in ongoing counter-terrorism investigations. India has been given access to David Headley, the Lashkar-e-Tayiba operative who has confessed to its role in the Mumbai attacks. Welcoming India's vital contribution to reconstruction, capacity building and development efforts in Afghanistan, Washington has also undertaken to regularly consult Delhi on Afghanistan.

But clearly this will not be enough and a lot of work will be needed to impart momentum to flagging Indo-US ties. The soaring rhetoric of the joint statement needs to get converted into tangible steps that the two sides can take to strengthen a relationship that is important for both the US and India. The two nations need to realise the full potential of bilateral defence trade by moving ahead on export control issues.

If the US considers India as a strategic partner then it should give serious consideration to changing its export control laws that continue to hurt India. Though they have been substantially liberalised, India remains concerned about continuing restrictions on crucial military technology that India needs. A number of Indian organisations such as the DRDO, ISRO and the DAE continue to remain on the so-called 'Entity List'.

For its part, India will have to expedite the bill giving accident liability protection to American firms that the Indian government seems to have put on hold due to political compulsions.

For New Delhi, it is imperative that it seeks greater clarity on the role of Pakistan in Afghanistan, especially in the emerging reconciliation plans with the Taliban. The US officials under Obama have signalled that India's role in Afghanistan was not helpful and Pakistan's sensitivities in Afghanistan should be given greater prominence.

This was most clearly revealed in the leaked assessment of General Stanley McChrystal who argued last September that "increasing Indian influence in Afghanistan is likely to exacerbate regional tensions and encourage Pakistani counter measures in Afghanistan or India."

Pakistan-backed terrorist groups have been targeting Indian interests with impunity in Afghanistan. It is only a few days back that India had issued a demarche to Pakistan to convey New Delhi's concerns about ISI-backed LeT militants targeting Indo-Tibetan Border Police security convoy en route from Jalalabad consulate to the airport.

India should also seek clarification on the US stand on China-Pakistan nuclear reactor deal as there are signs that the Obama administration may be softening the US position toward Sino-Pak nuclear cooperation. It's indeed an irony that an administration which so strongly wants to strengthen the nuclear non-proliferation treaty is acquiescing to the nuclear duopoly of China and Pakistan -- the single most important factor in wrecking the foundations of the NPT. For India this is particularly worrisome as Sino-Pakistan nuclear cooperation will hurt Indian security in fundamental ways.

The Bush years are a tough act to follow but the Obama administration has made some diplomatic gaffes that were clearly avoidable. New Delhi should be looking beyond rhetoric and should resist getting flattered by the atmospherics. It should not be afraid to raise issues that have complicated Indian ties with the Obama administration over the last year and a half.

Most significantly, for this strategic dialogue to have any meaning, India will have to first figure out what it wants out of its relationship with the US. For far too long it is the US that has driven Indo-US relationship. It is now time for India to get some clarity on its strategic agenda.

Harsh Pant teaches at King's College, London.

Harsh V Pant