Nicholas Burns, the lead negotiator on the US-India nuclear deal in the Bush administration, has said that Washington must reassure New Delhi that it is a "valued strategic partner."
In an interview given to the Council of Foreign Relations in Washington during Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit to Washington, Burns, who was US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs in the Bush Administration and is now a professor at the Harvard University's Belfer Center, said: "We have not yet heard a clear statement from the Obama administration that India's rise to power is in the strategic interest of the United States."
Admitting that Dr. Singh's visit might highlight disagreements on climate change and global trade talks, Burns, however, said: "For a relationship that had been filled with good news and a series of positive developments really from President [Bill] Clinton''s last years in office throughout the George W Bush administration, one of the challenges now will be to deal with these differences." He also said that it was not completely fair to say that the Obama administration has neglected and paid insufficient attention to India, or that it does not have a clear policy on India.
"Many Indians in and out of government are complaining that they feel that the Obama administration has not paid sufficient attention to India. I would say in response to that that it's not totally fair; the president did make Prime Minister Singh his first state visitor, which is a great act of symbolism that sends the message that India is important to the United States," said Burns.
"Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had a very successful trip to India during the summer, so I would not say that the Obama administration has neglected India. But, we have not yet heard a clear statement from the Obama administration that India's rise to power is in the strategic interest of the United States. That was clearly the policy of the last two presidents. I happen to believe that as we look around the world and look for partners and allies to help us cope with these enormous global challenges, India can be one of our great partners," he added.
He said that the Obama administration needs to reassure the Indian government and the Indian people that India is a priority. Second, he said there is a danger of focusing too much on Pakistan and China, and that an unintended signal might be that India is no longer as important in American eyes, particularly given President Obama's trip to Beijing just this past week where there is a suspicion among some in the world of a G-2 grouping, a condominium of Chinese and American interests.
"There is a great sensitivity in India as to some of the things that were said, even in the joint statement by the two countries. The Obama administration needs to be very careful to recalibrate and make it crystal clear that India is a valued strategic partner. So, I do not think the Obama administration has mishandled relations, and they have a number of very good people focused on it, but they have not perhaps articulated in the fullest extent why India is important," said Burns.
"I look out at a world which is very complex, where we face a great number of transnational challenges-terrorism, proliferation, climate change, pandemics, food shortages, just to name a few, and India is going to be critical to the resolution of all those problems," Burns added. "We cannot resolve them any of them without India''s participation with us, and as fellow democracies, and with the very strong bonds that the Indian American community has created for us, this is a real opportunity for President Obama, and I''m not sure they''ve grasped it yet," he said.
On what to look out for during Prime Minister Singh's state visit beyond the symbolism of the visit itself, Burns told CFR that there would be two important aspects -- First, the areas where both countries and their respective governments could and should be working together.
""For instance, we should have further cooperation on education, on space, on science and technology, on agriculture. There''s our defense relationship where India is foregoing its long-term dependence on Russian military technology. There''s now an opportunity for India to select and decide to purchase the most sophisticated American military technology that would cement our military ties. So there are a number of opportunities here on the positive side of the relationship," he said.
The second thing to watch out for was the looming differences in the relationship, and what steps these partner countries would take to deal with them. For instance, he said there was the issue of climate change, where, despite some better dialogue in the last few months, the two countries are very far apart on a global solution at Copenhagen and beyond.
Trade was another area where bilateral differences haven't really sunk. "If the world trade talks are going to be revived, can India and the United States cooperate more effectively? And [there''s] the possibility that we may not see eye-to-eye on Iran. Now, India has been very careful. It''s not a supporter of the Iranian government, but if President Obama decides to go in the direction of economic sanctions against Iran, will India agree to join those sanctions? So, as is so often the case in diplomacy, success or failure will not be a question of just how well we do together on the issues where we agree, but it''s how well we can manage the issues where we disagree," Burns said.
He also said that it would be a great strategic mistake for the United States to view India through the prism of Pakistan or Afghanistan. Burns said: "One of the great conceptual breakthroughs that we said publicly, "we''re going to de-hyphenate America''s relations with India-Pakistan." He said Washington's relationship with India and with Pakistan is fundamentally different.
"While Pakistan is an enormously important country to the United States, we shouldn''t subordinate the U.S.-India relationship to it, and I do see over the last six or seven months, many Americans inside our government and outside our government being very critical of India," he said.
"It is in the American interest to separate these two countries. Obviously we need to have a strong partnership with Pakistan on military and economic engagement. But our relationship with India will be very different. It will be focused on the broader problems of the region, so India is a very valued partner," Burns said.
He also said that the U.S.-India civil nuclear agreement is a major step forward for both countries, and is clearly in the interests of both countries."I hope the Indian government will be patient and understand that I''m sure the Obama administration will meet all the commitments that have been made by the U.S. government in years past. Having said that, it''s going to be important to work on these technical details," Burns said, adding that the highest hurdles have been surmounted.
Burns also said that he admired Prime Minister Singh and his commitment to peace, his restraint in the wake of the Mumbai attacks. The United States, he said, needs to be very clear about openly and publicly supporting a much greater Pakistani cooperation with the Indian government on the Mumbai issue.
"There''s no question the attackers came from Pakistan. They were inspired by Pakistani terror groups , and therefore, the Pakistani government has an obligation to crack down on those groups, not to allow the people who perhaps were the masterminds of this attack to be walking around free and able to produce further future terrorist attacks," he said.
He did not see the United States openly mediating between India and Pakistan on critical issues like Kashmir, but added that Washington is uniquely positioned in South Asia. "We can be a quiet advocate for the two countries to find a way forward to avoid the worst-case situation, which would be a nuclear war between the two, to avoid confrontation, to avoid conflict, and to work out a process where Indians and Pakistanis can come together," Burns said.