It is a sign of their strengthening relationship that the India-U.S. dialogue now includes discussion of problems outside South Asia

The June 13 U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue left some commentators in both countries complaining that there was less to it than met the eye. We disagree: it seems to us to have finally — almost by stealth — begun shifting the U.S.-India conversation toward something that deserves the name “strategic,” centred on policy consultations on the world beyond South Asia.

Huge agenda

Both governments emphasised the breadth of the binational dialogue. In the week before the ministerial meeting, the United States government hosted six other bilateral events on health, women’s issues, education, science and technology cooperation, cyber-security, and counter-terrorism. The full list (23 dialogues!) includes some important items, better funded than in the past — but tends to produce glazed eyeballs even among hardened policy wonks.

The stage was set for this year’s discussions, however, by two actions that had nothing to do with the actual meetings: the U.S. waiver of potential sanctions on India’s oil trade with Iran, and the memorandum between Nuclear Power Corporation of India, Ltd. (NPCIL) and Westinghouse committing both sides to work towards early works agreements on things like preliminary licensing and site development, aiming at an eventual nuclear power plant in Gujarat. Neither of these actions eliminates a problem. Secretary Clinton’s Iran waiver authority can only be exercised for 180 days at a time. India’s nuclear liability regime remains a serious problem for U.S. companies wanting to build power plants in India, and it is not yet clear that their concerns have been met. But both provide a sense of progress and temporary relief from a serious irritant. Both governments showed they were serious about their relationship.

Strategic start

The strategic significance of this year’s encounter lies elsewhere — in the increasingly serious consultation the two governments have undertaken on issues beyond India’s immediate neighbourhood. The first two topics for such exchanges were Indian Ocean security, probably the most important foundation stone for India-U.S. security ties, and East Asia, which the two sides have been discussing with considerable sophistication for the past two years. The joint statement referred to an “open, balanced, and inclusive architecture” for Asia, and expressed U.S. and Indian support for regional forums that include India, China, Southeast Asia, and the United States. Translation: neither side contemplates a quasi-alliance to “contain” Beijing, but both will remain engaged together throughout the Asia Pacific region.

These were low-hanging fruit, where the overlap between U.S. and Indian strategic interests was apparent to both sides. In the past year, these have been supplemented by discussions on Afghanistan, West Asia, and Central Asia. In Afghanistan, the U.S. has long welcomed India’s economic role, but now also looks on a carefully calibrated Indian security role as a stabilising factor. Both countries recognise that as the U.S. gets closer to its planned withdrawal of combat troops, it will be essential to deal both with Pakistan’s relationships inside Afghanistan and with its extreme anxiety about Indian intentions there. This will complicate the way the U.S. and India deal with each other on Afghan affairs. But having defined important common goals, they should be able to surface any disagreements, hopefully before they become important obstacles.

Still missing

These are serious steps toward a relationship that deserves the name “strategic.” They do not, at least at this stage, represent the development of joint policies by India and the U.S., but they are candidates for what one might call parallel policies, where India and the United States may be able to proceed independently in ways that reinforce one another. This is a good way to try out selective partnership, the only kind of partnership realistically open to India and the U.S.

If this partnership is to grow and flower, the strategic discussions need to extend to subjects on which the two countries have more serious disagreements. The top candidate is Iran, where they need to embark on a longer-range discussion about how different contingencies in Iran would affect the region and the world. This could be uncomfortable, but candid discussion is essential for two countries whose vital interests are so powerfully involved.

A more difficult candidate for bilateral candour is Pakistan, where India and the U.S. have some interests in common and others that differ. Pakistan’s high suspicions of both will be aggravated by any suggestion that they are colluding on Pakistan policy. Finding the right formula for a systematic discussion will require unusual delicacy.

Economic relationship

The economic conversation needs a different kind of help. Bilateral trade in goods and services has now topped $100 million, and a substantial economic relationship has helped to keep both governments engaged even at times when speed bumps threatened the relationship. But a long list of issues on both countries’ economic agendas never seems to go away, as Minister Krishna acknowledged in a speech to a business group the day before the dialogue. For the U.S., these include India’s restrictions on foreign investment, intellectual property and, more recently, India’s apparent move away from its international tax treaties. For India, the hardy perennials involve primarily visa issues. The two governments need to bite the bullet and settle some of these issues.

Finally, both governments need to find ways of keeping their leaders directly involved. India and the U.S. both consider themselves unique countries, and expect exceptional treatment from their friends. This makes them peculiarly vulnerable to disappointment when either government is preoccupied by an election, another international crisis, or a domestic political challenge, as has happened to both governments with distressing frequency in the past year or so.

The standard technique for shoring up high level attention is using “action-forcing events” like visits and meetings to force decisions on stalled issues and focus leaders’ attention on a relationship that is important but not in crisis. This is how the U.S. has made many of its important decisions on U.S.-India relations in the past couple of years. It works, but it leaves champions of the relationship frustrated much of the time. The good news, however, is that despite our leaders’ distraction and the frustration of their advisers, strategic convergence is gradually being worked into both countries’ policies.

(Teresita and Howard Schaffer are former U.S. ambassadors, with long years of service in South Asia. They are co-founders of southasiahand.com. Howard Schaffer teaches at Georgetown University; Teresita Schaffer is a non-resident senior fellow at Brookings Institution.)

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