U.S. and India must move beyond symbolism

by , , and

LONDON — The United States held its first ever strategic dialogue with India early June. It covered a whole gamut of issues including high technology trade, science and technology cooperation, civil nuclear cooperation, human resource development and security issues.

U.S. President Barack Obama attended a reception hosted by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for Indian External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna. This was reportedly done to counter a growing perception that India does not figure as prominently in the Obama administration’s foreign policy agenda as it was during the Bush period.

At the reception, Obama underlined that New Delhi was “indispensable” to the world order as the U.S. hopes to build. Obama had also called the Indian prime minister before the Krishna-Clinton meeting and the two had agreed that the strategic dialogue was an important milestone in the development of the U.S.-India strategic partnership.

Recently the Obama administration released its National Security Strategy (NSS) and a central part of the new strategy is expanding U.S. engagement with “other key centers of influence — including China, India and Russia, as well as increasingly influential nations such as Brazil, South Africa and Indonesia.”

The new NSS describes a world in which emerging powers are beginning to erode some elements of American influence around the globe. It describes an America “hardened by war” and “disciplined by a devastating economic crisis.” It insists that the U.S. “will maintain the military superiority that has secured our country, and underpinned global security, for decades.”

The document’s treatment of China and India is markedly different. Though it welcomes a China “that takes on a responsible leadership role in working with the U.S. and international community,” it makes it clear that the U.S. “will monitor China’s military modernization program and prepare accordingly to ensure that U.S. interests and allies regionally and globally, are not affected.”

The treatment of India, meanwhile, is all positive. The NSS says “the U.S. and India are building a strategic partnership that is underpinned by our shared interests, our shared values as the world’s two largest democracies and close connections among our people.” It also underlines that “India’s responsible advancement serves as a positive example for developing nations.”

The U.S.-India strategic dialogue, therefore, took place in a context where Washington seems to be putting in a lot of effort to impart a new dynamism to its ties with New Delhi. But most of it is at the level of symbols. It is time to move to substance.

The focus of the dialogue was on strengthening cooperation on energy, climate change, education, trade and agriculture, and strategic issues. Predictably, the “Singh-Obama 21st Century Knowledge Initiative” was prioritized, and bilateral cooperation in the areas of food security and health got a boost. A global disease-detection center in India is being planned as one of the flagship science and technology ventures between the U.S. and India.

On two crucial issues, terrorism and Afghanistan, the joint statement issued at the end of the dialogue struck all the right notes. The U.S. not only committed itself to bringing the perpetrators of Mumbai attacks to justice but also assured India of its continued support in counterterrorism investigations. India has been given access to David Headley, the Lashkar operative who has confessed to its role in the Mumbai attacks.

Welcoming India’s vital contribution to “reconstruction, capacity building and development efforts in Afghanistan,” Washington has also undertaken to regularly consult Delhi on Afghanistan.

But clearly this will not be enough and a lot of work will be needed to impart momentum to flagging Indo-U.S. ties. The soaring rhetoric of the joint statement needs to get converted into tangible steps that the two sides can take to strengthen their mutually important relationship.

The two nations need to realize the full potential of bilateral defense trade by moving ahead on export-control issues. If the U.S. considers India as a strategic partner then it should give serious consideration to changing its export control laws that continue to hurt India. For New Delhi, it is also imperative that there is greater clarity on the role of Pakistan in Afghanistan, especially in the emerging reconciliation plans with the Taliban.

U.S. officials have signaled that India’s role in Afghanistan has not been helpful and Pakistan’s sensitivities in Afghanistan should be given greater prominence. India also seeks clarification on the U.S. stand on the recently announced China-Pakistan nuclear reactor deal as there are signs the U.S. position toward China-Pakistan nuclear cooperation may be softening.

The Bush years are a tough act to follow, but the Obama administration has made some diplomatic gaffes that were clearly avoidable. New Delhi should be looking beyond rhetoric and should resist getting flattered by the atmospherics. It should not be afraid to raise issues that have complicated Indian ties with the Obama administration over the last year and a half.

Most significantly, for this strategic dialogue to have any meaning, India will have to first figure out what it wants out of its relationship with the U.S. For far too long the U.S. has driven the Indo-U.S. relationship. It is now time for India to get some clarity on its own strategic agenda.

Harsh V. Pant teaches at King’s College.