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India-U.S.: Converging interests, at last

The second Indo-U.S. strategic dialogue is taking place in New Delhi during a sorrowful national moment and in fragile regional circumstances. The latest terrorist attack on Mumbai, by groups with probable links to the Taliban, coincides with the pull-out of the American forces from Afghanistan.

The recent assassinations of two Afghan Governors by the Taliban are serious blows to U.S. hopes of negotiating a gradual exit from Afghanistan. Simultaneously, U.S.-Pakistan relations hit another low last week with the U.S. withholding $800 million in aid to the Pakistan army. As the U.S. exits the region to suit its political timetable, India’s interests will be precariously exposed.

Yet India is the only country in the Asian matrix where the U.S.’ bilateral friendship is progressing, albeit gradually. Both U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton condemned the July 13 Mumbai blasts and reaffirmed support in punishing the perpetrators. However India, especially Mumbai, remain skeptical. Despite its assertions, the U.S. has, in the past, turned a blind eye to the activities of Pakistani-supported terrorist groups in India. Nonetheless, Clinton’s delegation is heavy with security experts, such as James Clapper, Director of the National Intelligence Agency, and Jane Lute, Deputy Secretary in the Department of Homeland Security. India must use the strategic dialogue as an opportunity to focus on regional security issues, ranging from the Afghan-Pakistan region to the Indian Ocean.

For there is much to be gained from India. Even as China continues its meteoric rise, the remapping of relations between the other major Asian countries, including Japan and South Korea, is underway. One example is the upgrading of the trilateral dialogue between India, the U.S. and Japan – all three democracies. The U.S., Australia and India have also raised their profiles in regional organizations like the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the ASEAN Regional Forum. Part of the motivation would be to balance Chinese ascendance – a rise that is looking less “harmonious” than China wants the world to believe.

The entry of the Chinese navy into the Indian Ocean shows that the region is increasingly becoming a play pool for aspiring maritime powers.  China has a legitimate interest in protecting its energy and trade flows with the Gulf and Africa. But combating Somali piracy should not become the thin edge of the wedge in overturning India’s primacy of geostrategic and commercial interests. The U.S. and Indian navies could make their collaboration on security and surveillance – a showpiece of strategic cooperation.

Another area of Indo-U.S. cooperation is the deepening of people-to-people ties. The creation of the post of an Advisor on the Diaspora for India, by the U.S. State Department, reflects the seriousness with which Washington wants to bring the Indians resident in the U.S. into the ambit of the strategic dialogue.

In particular, there are two domains in which that Diaspora can make game-changing contributions: one is education; the second is science and technology. The Information and Communications Technology (ICT) industry has already proved a critical catalyst for the bilateral relationship; a partnership in education that encourages the exchange of teachers, scholars and other academic experts could be a valuable backward integration strategy, for the supporting schools that feed the ICT industries in both countries. If followed up with regulatory and legislative changes, the U.S.-India Higher Education Summit, planned for later this year in Washington, could redefine the future of India.

Partnering on scientific and technological initiatives is a space for which the returning diaspora is most suited. The Science and Technology Endowment Fund, with annual financing of $2.5 million shared between the two countries, can energize the entrepreneurial skills and scientific acumen of the diaspora. It can recharge India’s shambolic science education and take Indian manufacturing to a more sophisticated level.

Admittedly, a deepening relationship will also expose disagreement and misalignment of priorities – that is already evident. For instance, progress on nuclear energy cooperation remains stalled by the refusal of U.S. companies to accept the Indian law on insurance liability. The recent amendment by the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) to its guidelines restricts the sale of Enrichment and Reprocessing (ENR) technologies to countries, like India, that have not signed the Non Proliferation Treaty. This overturns the clean waiver the group had extended to India in 2008.

Tibet could re-emerge as an issue. The virulence of the Chinese reaction to President Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama this weekend reveals the Middle Kingdom’s continuing paranoia over Tibet. Together with unrest in Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia – which account for almost two-fifths of Chinese territory – China’s periphery may well be its “soft underbelly.”  While the weekend reaction may only be a war of words between the U.S. and China, it is India that has a contiguous border with Tibet (China). Thus, New Delhi should be alert to the evolving situation without being sucked into the U.S. positioning against China.

Though the Indo-U.S. relationship has developed unevenly in the past, this time both New Delhi and Washington are downplaying the irritants. The exclusion of Boeing and Lockheed Martin by India, in the shortlist of potential suppliers of the multi-role fighter jets, is not being allowed to overshadow the $8 billion worth of defense purchases already picked up by U.S. companies.

This is proof that optimism about the Indo-U.S. relationship is greater than the divergence on tactical matters. Both governments recognize that the diaspora can play an integral role to promote an inter-dependent, complimentary, balanced and strategic exchange. Whether the official representatives can relay that passion and seize the opportunity, only time will tell.

Neelam Deo is Director, Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations, Mumbai, and former Ambassador, Denmark and Ivory Coast. Akshay Mathur is the Geo-economics Fellow at Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations, Mumbai. 

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