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'India is important, a long-term work in progress'

By Aziz Haniffa
November 23, 2009 13:11 IST
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Attempting to parse the symbolism and the substance of Tuesday's summit between US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is a wasteful exercise feels former diplomat Teresita C Schaffer, currently Director of the South Asia Programme at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

'Substance' takes time to achieve, and much of it is built on the bedrock of such 'symbolic' high level meetings, Schaffer argued.

Equally, the former diplomat said, it was meaningless to harp on the US obsession with Af-Pak and to suggest that as a result, India has gone off the radar.

The Af-Pak problem is immediate and urgent, Schaffer says. "India is important, a long-term work in progress -- for the United States, policy is driven by the hope of what could go right. These are different operating styles. It's harder to do 'important' than 'urgent,' and the administration is using action-forcing events like the PM's State visit to ensure it doesn't lose focus on the 'important'."

The MoUs and other announcements that will emanate from the summit are, Schaffer argues, important -- if not in themselves, they will provide a measuring stick for a relationship that has been elevated to the ranks of the 'strategic'. "I look forward to the day when we won't need measuring sticks to define our relationship, but we are not there yet," she said.

On the question of whether Washington had slotted India in the Asia 'A Team' or 'B Team', Schaffer said. "Unfortunately, the United States is still a prisoner of its bureaucratic structure, and sometime in the last 40 years, East Asia appropriated the term 'Asia'.

"I've been fighting a lonely battle to get back to a definition of Asia that includes the whole continent, or at least the part east of Afghanistan and perhaps Iran," said Schaffer. "And here, I believe India can do both countries a favour by responding to, and indeed encouraging, the US interest in keeping 'Asian security,' meaning the real, larger Asia, on our bilateral agenda."

Schaffer said Beijing's recent muscle-flexing indicated that "China is playing a kind of 'Good Cop, Bad Cop' game to keep India off balance", but said it was unlikely China would figure majorly at the Obama-Singh summit.

Granting the many contentious issues between the US and India, Schaffer said "We don't have to agree on everything – but we do need to put some effort and energy into working together on these issues.

"Take climate change, for example: China has been developing a bilateral understanding with the US, and with India," Schaffer said. "Is India trying to develop an understanding with the US of where we might go, where there might be flexibility on both sides, what kind of package needs to be put together? That's how you start working together on global issues, even where positions are far apart."

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Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC
India Abroad