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India-US: After the euphoria, skepticism

By Aziz Haniffa
Last updated on: August 12, 2010 22:10 IST
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The first unofficial US-India Strategic Dialogue organised by The Brookings Institution and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce in Washington, DC threw up some hard questions. In the first of a five-part series, Aziz Haniffa covers the entire gamut of the high-profile event.

Notwithstanding the lofty declarations and euphoria of the first US-India Strategic Dialogue chaired by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Indian External Affairs Minister S M Krishna — including President Barack Obama's visit to the State Department to announce his visit to India in November — the unofficial dialogue that followed threw up plenty of skepticism, particularly among the Indian participants.

Doubts about the Obama administration's commitment to a strategic partnership with India were raised by the likes of Lalit Mansingh, former Indian ambassador to the US and former Indian foreign secretary, and Kanwal Sibal, former Indian foreign secretary and former deputy chief of mission in Washington, DC, in two separate panels titled 'American and Indian Strategic Interests in Asia' and 'Where is the US-India Strategic Relationship Headed in the Coming Year?'

The conference was held under the joint aegis of The Brookings Institution and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry.

Martin Indyk, vice president and director, foreign policy, at Brookings, said this dialogue between Indian and American policy experts would take place on an annual basis alternating between Washington and New Delhi.

Mansingh said, "While official discussions are held in sanitized surroundings and they come out with politically correct statements, we have no such restraint here. We are a group of scholars, entrepreneurs and former diplomats. But we don't represent our governments, and therefore we can speak frankly."

And, speak frankly he did.

"What one has heard from the American leadership (at the strategic dialogue) is music to my ears at least and I'm sure music to many Indians," he said, but added that there was no denying that there was a perception deficit since the advent of the Obama administration. The question often asked in India, he said, is: "Does America have a coherent view of what's going to happen in Pakistan, or is it lurching from crisis to crisis and finding ad hoc solutions?"

President Obama, Mansigh said, kicked off his presidency "by being very critical of the Pakistani military, alleging that the military had taken the Bush administration for a ride, the Pakistani military will be made accountable for the kind of defense supplies it has been receiving, and the Pakistani military will have to accept the leadership of the democratic government. (But) what we are seeing today is the steady reversal of that projected point of view…"

"We know Pakistan as the source of terrorism in India, but the US also knows Pakistan as a source of terrorism throughout the world," he said. "So, why is there that we still have a gap — that when it comes to Pakistan, America talks about or assumes it is dealing with its terrorists, and when it comes to us we have to deal with our terrorists? In our view, there is no such thing as separate terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and Taliban and Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Tayiba. They're part of the same franchise. They work together. It is a corporate enterprise, and I think India and the US have to look at it as one entity, not as separate entities."

In Afghanistan, he said, while India "has been patted on the back for a wonderful development aid program… America has to recognize that Afghanistan is rightfully important for India's security interests, and to exclude India from any kind of political solution, to give precedence to the sensitivities of the Pakistani army, is to not want India to be there… Because quite clearly if the (US) withdrawal takes place, it is the neighbors of Afghanistan who will have to deal with the emerging situation in Afghanistan."

With regard to Beijing, Mansingh said, "Like it or not, the Bush administration had a clear-cut view of China. There was a global vision, and there was a certain rule for China. I think the present dialogue is missing out on China… China is intruding into our (Indian) security space in a big way, and it's an odd coincidence that China's behavior towards India has been at its worst in the last 65-odd years, coinciding with the first year of the Obama administration."

On Iran, Mansingh said, "My message to our American friends is don't push us too hard. Iran is in our neighborhood. Iran is an important supplier of hydrocarbons for India, which we desperately need. And don't ask us to join you in blanket sanctions against Iran nor commerce nor supplies. We need gas and oil from Iran. It is vital for our economy."

And, he complained that there is no big ticket item with regard to India in the Obama administration unlike the nuclear deal in the Bush administration. "Why can't the US say 'Yes, we think India is worthy of becoming a member of the (United Nations) Security Council'?"

Sibal was even more candid.

"If the hardcore issues are being ignored," he said, "and the accent is largely on soft-core issues, or the accent is on issues on which India and the US can cooperate multilaterally, or at the global level, then the question would — can — legitimately be asked that are these multilateral, global issues a part of a bilateral strategic partnership between India and the US?"

The hardcore issues, Sibal said, are China's proliferation activities — especially in Pakistan — and Afghanistan.

He said on the so-called "five pillars, under which there are so many areas we have identified as areas in which we can deepen our relationship, the question that comes to my mind is whether these areas have been conceived in a strategic context, or these are simply the areas that present themselves, objectively, as India's needs and the capacity of the US to fulfill those needs."

Sibal also asked, "Can we say realistically that this issue of trust, or the element of distrust — whichever way you put it — has been fully overcome by the India-US nuclear deal?"

The trust deficit, he said, "Still remains. And, this is fueled by the fact that… large segments of the Indian public opinion still are not persuaded that the US has the right policy in terms of India, Pakistan, or Afghanistan."

Prashanth Parameswaran of the Project 2049 Institute challenged Sibal, saying that he disagreed with his notion that the US seeks India to look beyond the neighborhood as a ploy to eschew New Delhi to neglect its regional issues.

"Within India itself," Parameswaran said, "there seems to be debate between whether to take a more narrow, or a regional approach — sort of focusing on regional problems in its neighborhood like Pakistan, Afghanistan — or willing to take a more global approach to certain issues. Or whether to take a more reactive approach to foreign policy or a more proactive approach…. It's striking how little global strategic thinking is taking place in India. And, I don't necessarily just mean in the government of India, I mean amongst the think tanks, I mean amongst the sort of broader cognoscenti, India's foreign policy is still very much in a reactive phase, and not in a proactive phase."

Karl F Inderfurth, former assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs in the Clinton administration and currently professor of international relations at George Washington University, recalled that he was in UK recently at a conference with the title, 'Is India Ready for Superpower Status.'

He said he had "mentioned that to (Indian) Ambassador (to the US Meera) Shankar and she said, 'Oh, no, no, no, no! We are a developing country. We will talk about that later.'"

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Aziz Haniffa