U.S.’ 'frustration' over stalled nuclear deal

Nisha Biswal said there may be an opening to address nuclear liability issues between US and India. File photo.   | Photo Credit: AY

Facing sharp questions on Capitol Hill regarding prospects for reinvigorating ties with India, U.S. administration officials painted a mixed picture of hope, pinned on the new Indian government’s pro-business outlook, and frustration, in certain policy areas such as civil nuclear energy, where progress has ground to a complete halt.

In an hour-long panel session on “Indispensable Partners - Reenergising U.S.-India Ties,” on Wednesday hosted by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Nisha Biswal, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, was at one point candidly asked by Senator John McCain, “Strategic agenda – what is our overall strategy?”

Strategic uncertainty?

When Ms. Biswal began to speak of India’s hopes for growth and prosperity bringing region-wide benefits the Senator interrupted her to say, “You still haven’t outlined a strategy,” adding “A strategy [implies] specific measures to ensure certain aspects of security… you haven’t mentioned China [and] Japan, or the strategies and threats that we are facing.”

Senator McCain, who recently concluded a visit to India, further underscored, “Prime Minister Modi and Indian leaders are deeply concerned about [U.S.] President [Barack] Obama’s decision to fully withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan by January 2017 regardless of conditions on the ground.”

However it was the India-U.S. civilian nuclear agreement that got top billing in the discussion, with U.S. concerns fixed on India’s nuclear liability law and the obstacles that it may pose to American companies seeking to supply reactors and other nuclear components to the country.

Nuclear impasse

Answering a question on where the deal stands at the moment Ms. Biswal said, “We share your frustration in terms of the lack of progress over the last six years. While we did get some small progress… with respect to the previous government, we see some areas of expanded opportunity with the new government.”

Although she clarified that the Obama administration had not yet had detailed discussions with the Modi government on the way forward, she added, “We believe that there may be an opening to address nuclear liability issues either through a legal framework or through other frameworks that can help create more surety… so that it is not unlimited liability as the companies are rightly concerned.”

Other unresolved issues that found mention in the panel’s wide range of subjects included the Bilateral Investment Treaty, protection for intellectual property rights in India and the need to sustain and deepen cooperation in counterterrorism cooperation and defence.

Earlier articles on the n-deal:

>Civilian nuclear deal: India-U.S. joint statement

>Prime Minister's statement on civil nuclear energy co-operation (full text)

>India-U.S. nuclear agreement: text of statements, articles and editorials

Adding momentum in defence

On the last subject Amy Searight, Deputy Assistant Secretary Of Defence For South And Southeast Asia assured the Committee that defence cooperation between the U.S. and India had reached the point where it was “expected and routine,” and U.S. Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel would be travelling to India in August to take this forward.

“The bottom line is that we want India to have all the capabilities it needs to meet its security demands and we want to be a strong partner in that effort,” she said, emphasising both military-to-military ties and growing defence trade.

Dr. Searight said that the bilateral Defence Trade and Technology Initiative was a key pillar of this relationship, and under its auspices the U.S. was ready to move from co-development and co-production to procurement and sales.

She added that regarding proposals for co-development and co-production the U.S. had identified projects for cooperation with India and “Once the new government shows interest in the proposals already offered, we will follow up.”

Yet Dr. Searight said that Washington would continue to advocate on behalf of U.S. industry for needed changes in the Indian system including reforms to the offsets system and promoting the U.S.’ foreign military sales route.

India is currently participating in the ‘Rim of the Pacific’ or RIMPAC military exercises in Hawaii, she noted, and “For the first time an Indian frigate has joined large multilateral activity.”

Revisiting Khobragade

Finally the Devyani Khobragade episode was flagged yet again with Senators quizzing Ms. Biswal about what lessons had been learned after last December’s diplomatic crisis.

Responding, she said, “Despite the fact that we had this very uncomfortable and unfortunate situation… at the end of the day we have developed closer ties and closer communications with our two systems as a result.”

On religious freedom

Speaking in a second panel at the Senate hearing Lisa Curtis, Senior Research Fellow at the Heritage Foundation reviewed the wide range of cooperative efforts in the bilateral space and also touched upon the question of India’s religious freedom rights.

She recommended that the U.S., “should engage India on religious freedom issues to ensure that Modi follows through on his promises to meet the needs of all Indian citizens and stays away from controversial policies supported by hardliners within his party and associated organisations.”

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Printable version | Jan 28, 2022 5:54:01 AM |

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