Structural limitations to blunt India-US strategic dialogue

Author : C.Uday Bhaskar

US secretary of state Hillary Clinton will arrive in New Delhi late Monday for the second India- US Strategic Dialogue with external affairs minister SM Krishna, the first having been held in Washington DC in June 2010.

India has had an estranged relationship with the US, since May 1974, when Delhi under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi carried out the Peaceful Nuclear Explosion and the distinctive Indian mix of reticence, ambiguity and prickliness has confounded the Beltway about how to deal with Delhi (friend/foe, ally/adversary?) and this grey sheen has been the abiding leit motif of the bilateral on both sides.

From the Indian perspective, the manner in which the White House has shaped and pursued its relations with Beijing and Islamabad through the Cold War decades has generated deep-seated concern about how much damage US policies have done to the Indian interest and the 26-11 terrorist attack on Mumbai is illustrative of the ambivalence and anxiety.

In short, India and the US need to harmonise the dissonance that characterises their short-term and long term objectives within the constraints of their respective political DNA and electoral compulsions.

The July 19 high-level political and strategic dialogue takes place against the backdrop of the Mumbai terrorist attack of July 13 ; the mixed signals about India's nuclear status apropos the exceptional waiver accorded in September 2008 at the NSG; the fact that India 'surprised' the US leadership in its fighter aircraft choice; and that the Indian nuclear liability bill makes civilian nuclear cooperation less viable for potential US entities, among other areas of muted discord and divergence.

This is not quite the texture that a nascent strategic partnership between two large democracies should exude - but this qualitative index reflects the structural limitations that inhibit the bilateral relationship between the US and India and reiterates the need for more candid and objective exchanges of this nature between the two sides. For the record, since the completion of the historic July 2005 civilian nuclear cooperation agreement between India and the US in late 2008, during the last phase of Bush II, there has been speculation that the bilateral agreement between the world's oldest and largest democracies has lost its political traction and that the Obama administration had a different perception of the relationship.

It was to allay this fear that Ms Clinton visited India in July 2009 interand in a much appreciated symbolic act, she first visited Mumbai on July 18 that year and expressed her solidarity with the victims of the 26/11 tragedy by staying at the Taj Hotel.

In the intervening months PM Manmohan Singh was given a red-carpet welcome at the White House and President Obama paid his first visit to India - but the relationship remains limited and is yet to acquire the vitality and robustness that was hoped for in 2008.

An illustration of this was provided in early July when it was revealed at the India-US High Technology Cooperation Group meeting in Delhi that despite all the sanctions and high technology denial regimes having ostensibly been lifted by the US, the trade in this sector was under $ 8 billion.

For sure both sides will reiterate their commitment to improve on this figure but the structural limitations persist. India and the US do not have a clear roadmap about what is 'strategic' in their partnership against the backdrop of the opaque and contradictory global systemic. Post 9/11, the US and India are differently grappling with the scourge of religious radicalism and related supra-nationalism and pre-meditated terror.

The July 13 attack in Mumbai is the most recent reminder of the tenacity of this challenge. The state sponsorship to the scourge is now globally recognised and the Osama bin Laden operation is testimony to US discomfort with its ally in the global war on terror.

It is only in recent months that the White House is talking 'tough-love' to the GHQ in Rawalpindi. Terrorism and the support to such groups by the Pakistan Army as part of its security 'strategy' has been an intractable nettle for both India and the US.

It merits recall that when US Secretary of State General Colin Powell visited India and Pakistan in July 2002, he noted of an interaction in Islamabad: " President Musharraf has said, he's going to end the cross-border infiltration, its going to be permanent, and in due course, the (terrorist training) camp issue will resolve itself."

The astute Powell, who had just designated Pakistan as a major non-Nato US ally, added: "I said to him (Musharraf)...I heard you, I am pleased at that reassurance, but I cannot confirm what you are we have to keep pushing you..."

Ms Clinton will have to continue this effort - for state sponsored terrorism and how to deal with the source remains the next strategic hurdle in the India-US relationship.

For Delhi, the challenge will be to overcome its traditional diffidence about strategic issues and exude a sense that UPA-II has a cogent template about the bilateral relationship with the USA and the political resolve to protect and nurture the Indian interest for the long term.

(This article first appeared in the Economic Times on July 18, 2011)
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