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18 June 2012, Gateway House

India-U.S.: Another big bilateral shift

The third India-U.S. Strategic Dialogue saw more talk of ‘mutual capabilities’ than of a mere alliance. The larger endeavour in the bilateral is to find the right fit as partners, where both countries can preserve their strategic autonomy and benefit from their unique positions in the international community.

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Concluding the third round of the Indo-U.S. Strategic Dialogue, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton remarked that even in “affairs of the heart” – as she had once described relations between the two countries – there are ups and downs but “that doesn’t make them any less heartfelt or any less of a commitment.”

The commitment has certainly deepened as the India-U.S. relationship has widened to cover almost “every form of human endeavour” that it took more than 4,000 words to describe in a joint statement. Areas once taboo now have real cooperation. From counter terrorism, intelligence sharing, police training to cyber security, the two countries are sharing information in quantity and quality once unimaginable.

On the margins, the U.S.-India Business Council held its own show to highlight concerns about the Indian economy. U.S. businessmen and officials listed the problems – opening of the retail sector, the recent retro-active tax law, lack of predictability in the investment climate and creaky infrastructure. Foreign investors are being scared away.

It is not as if Indian officials don’t know the economic challenges India currently faces. Sam Pitroda, the prime minister’s innovation advisor and Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna tried to put a brave face on it, asking for patience and reciting India’s inherent advantages. But it is hard to defend India’s current political dysfunction and its many scandals, which have taken the sheen off the story.

What Indian diplomats don’t want is for the economic challenges to become a bilateral moan-and-groan. That’s because the bilateral relationship is in solid shape. There is no political dissonance, as both sides asserted throughout the “India Week” in Washington.

On the eve of the dialogue, Clinton announced a waiver for India from Iran sanctions, removing the sword of Democles and vastly improving the atmosphere. It came with a condition, though: the waiver applies only for 180 days and U.S. officials want “continued progress” on reducing oil imports from Iran to maintain the pressure on Teheran. Fortunately, Indian oil imports have diversified with Iraq appearing as a significant supplier.

Three major announcements were made – a trilateral dialogue including Afghanistan, a memorandum of understanding between Westinghouse and Nuclear Power Corporation of India and India as the current chair of the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation agreeing to promote the US as a dialogue partner.

The vision of big picture too, couldn’t be better. Both sides are starting to view most of the world’s problems in the same light. After three decades of damaging policies, Americans are even looking at Pakistan the same way India does – as a hothouse of trouble. Seeking convergence on Afghanistan is the biggest bilateral shift since the nuclear civilian deal was signed in 2006. The initiation of the trilateral dialogue with Afghanistan flying clear above Pakistan, is a measure of where the Americans are vis-à-vis Pakistan.

The new dialogue will give an opportunity to India, Afghanistan and the U.S. to discuss in detail the post-2014 scenario when NATO troops depart. How many U.S. troops will stay behind under the U.S.-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership Agreement signed May 1 remains to be negotiated. The Pentagon wants around 40,000 troops while the White House is pushing for a smaller number of 10,000 to 15,000. The bigger hitch is the U.S. demand for immunity for its forces from Afghan law enforcement and how to finesse it. This killed the idea of a US military presence in Iraq.

India is obviously worried about the chaos that may ensue in Afghanistan with a resurgent Taliban and a meddling Pakistan. Washington wants New Delhi to do more in Afghanistan but what that “more” is, has not been defined. Just a year ago, the Obama Administration was echoing Pakistani concerns about India’s presence in Afghanistan asking New Delhi to hold back. Now with U.S.-Pakistan relations spiralling downward on a daily basis, the enthusiasm for India is growing.

The fear is that it can vanish just as quickly. Official India is a worried about taking a deeper plunge only because the Americans are asking it do so.

India has agreed it will train Afghan police and security forces but on its territory. It has also made it clear that a deeper involvement in a country that Pakistan considers its backyard can only come with an improved security environment. If everyone (read Iran, China) had a stake in Afghanistan, the task would be easier.

Another difference that has emerged in an otherwise harmonious engagement is over that loaded word “responsibility.” Though the Pentagon would like to transfer some responsibilities to friendly countries such as India, New Delhi remains wary of being part of coalitions, and anything that might smell of NATO. The Americans reportedly sought India’s help in anti-piracy operations off the Horn of Africa but New Delhi was hesitant.

The larger endeavour in the India-U.S. relationship is to find the right fit as partners. India is not a follower of the kind Americans are used to and that is becoming clearer with time. It will preserve its strategic autonomy and even create strategic ambiguity around its thinking. American politicians at the top understand this; it is the bureaucracy that pushes for a return on every move it makes.

Clinton and U.S. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta have internalized the main idea that while India wants closer ties and is moving in that direction rapidly, it does not want to be a “groupie.” They also know it will not be a treaty ally.

Evidence of Indian independence was visible this month. While Panetta was in New Delhi June 6 enthralling Indian audiences with his asides on Pakistan and urging India to take on a larger role in Afghanistan, Krishna was attending a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation where China and Russia were also discussing Afghanistan – from their perspective.

Messaging-by-itinerary continued: Krishna went to Washington for the strategic dialogue and then flew to Cuba, a country the U.S. loves to hate, for a meeting of senior Indian diplomats based in Latin America. India will also attend the Non-Aligned summit to be held August 26 this year in another of America’s bête noirs, Iran.

The message has been received in Washington. The language used by American interlocutors is increasingly about “mutual capabilities” rather than the terminology of alliance. There is more accommodation and less insistence on established routines. Panetta showed flexibility in trying to find “practical solutions” to perennial problems. For example the U.S. will no longer make defence technology transfer to India conditional on signing what it calls “foundational agreements” which India considers either unnecessary or intrusive.

Panetta and Clinton, both keen supporters of India, take a broad view of the relationship. So long as the general direction is positive – which it most definitely is — they will let India set the pace of engagement.

Seema Sirohi, an international journalist and analyst, is a frequent contributor to Gateway House.

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