Estrangement and engagement

The challenge is to extricate India-U.S. dialogue from the pattern of complaining against or making excessive demands on each other

January 16, 2014 01:08 am | Updated May 13, 2016 09:40 am IST

The handling of Indian Deputy-Consul General’s case by the U.S. Government is symptomatic of a deepening divide between India and the United States. President Barack Obama in 2010 declared India-U.S. relations to be “the defining partnership of the 21st century.” He told Prime Minister Manmohan Singh later that “India is a big part of my plans.” There is actually no plan to show, big or small. Even as both governments struggle to put the recent incident to rest, the high-handed U.S. action has guaranteed that the manner in which it transacts business with India will change.

India’s foreign policy goals today include creating a facilitating environment for India’s continuing transformation; securing access to markets, investments, technology, energy sources, and strategic minerals needed for development; coping with the impact of climate change; securing the global commons — outer space, the oceans, transportation and communication networks, and cyber-space; and reforming the United Nations and Breton Woods institutions, even while the United States and other industrialised countries are moving away from the open, democratic and rule-based conditions for international commercial and financial exchanges. Except the latter, these are not generally at odds with U.S. interests.

Closer home, India seeks to combat terrorist groups in the subcontinent, maintain maritime security, including by protecting the two choke points of the Indian Ocean — the Gulf of Hormuz and the Straits of Malacca — and promote stability in India’s larger neighbourhood and the world. Indeed, many of these are also U.S. goals.

Dramatic change The dramatic change in India-U.S. relations, a full decade after the end of the Cold War, was propelled by India’s economic growth and, paradoxically, by its nuclear weapon tests of 1998. India’s relations with the other great powers began to change too, but only in synch with and partly as a consequence of the transformation of the India-U.S. relationship. It became clear also that the future success or failure of India’s external engagement, including that with the United States, would be determined by India’s economic performance.

The India-U.S. bilateral agenda straddles myriad fields. If a relationship were to be judged by the number of bilateral summits — Dr. Manmohan Singh has had six bilateral summits with Presidents of the United States — and ‘full-spectrum’ official dialogue mechanisms — there are now 35 of them in operation, spanning civil nuclear industry, counterterrorism, cyber security, culture, defence, energy, higher education, health, space, and science and technology — then there is no denying the multi-faceted interactions between the two countries.

Meetings must be judged by desirable outcomes, not by their count but by their content. U.S. leaders had committed to support India’s permanent membership of the U.N. Security Council and to the four principal international export-control groupings. But without proactive diplomatic pursuits — like when U.S. was seeking Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG)’s approval for the Civil Nuclear Agreement — many Indians see these as empty promises.

The United States is India’s most important trading partner. Bilateral trade in goods and services exceeded $100 billion last year. While the standalone picture is satisfactory, the comparative one is not. India is only the 13th largest goods trading partner of the United States.

Of the two-way trade in goods (2011) of $57.8 billion, precious stones (diamond and gold) accounted for $12.6 billion. Mutual investments have been modest by global parameters — from India, estimated at about $10 billion; and from the United States, about five times that. The nearly three million persons of Indian origin who contribute significantly to American economy, and 100,000 Indian students on U.S. campuses, symbolise strong people-to-people ties. Except for information technology, however, the two countries have not found good ways to leverage this link.

The size of National Security Agency (NSA) operations in India and the foot-dragging on access to David Headley have left an adverse impact on the Indian psyche. At the same time, U.S. business and government representatives complain about India’s nuclear liability law, tax regime and intellectual property rights protection. India continues to have concerns about U.S. protectionism, changes in immigration laws affecting movement of India’s skilled workers, and the absence of a response on concluding a totalisation agreement exempting temporary Indian workers from paying U.S. social security taxes, which amount now to $1 billion annually.

Future agenda The challenge is to extricate India-U.S. dialogue from the contentious and transactional pattern of exchanging ‘crib’ and ‘laundry’ lists, complaining against or making excessive demands on each other. Fresh ideas to be explored include a bilateral investment treaty, a comprehensive cost-benefit study of a free trade agreement, monsoon weather forecasting, clean energy technologies, and U.S. investments in innovative technologies to increase productivity and build manufacturing capacities — without which there cannot be significant growth of employment and consumption in India.

India has proven through its resource-constrained development that a different type of ‘frugal’ innovation can be forged, such as GE’s ultra-low cost ECG machines, hand-held echo-scans, biomass devices, prosthetics, and inexpensive drug discovery. Indeed, joint innovation can be tried for a range of low-cost and sustainable products and services, spanning the areas of agriculture, energy, environment and science and technology.

Defence cooperation is set to grow. India is acquiring U.S. weapons-locating radars, attack and heavy lift helicopters, transport and reconnaissance aircraft, and light-weight howitzers. An estimated half a percentage of India’s GDP is lost to the country in buying weapons abroad. India-U.S. defence ties must quickly be lifted beyond a vendor-buyer equation and move towards joint research, development and production of the most advanced weapons systems that India needs. The United States could work with India much in the same way as Russia does – on the Brahmos short-range cruise missile, the nuclear submarine, and the fifth generation fighter aircraft. Co- development and co- production, with India treated on a par with America’s ‘closest partners’, as suggested in the Joint Declaration on Defence Cooperation of September 2013, could build confidence about assurance of supply, lower acquisition costs, and energise the nascent indigenous India defence industry. Indians are watching how and when this comes about.

At the inaugural of the India-U.S. strategic dialogue in June 2010, the then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton referred to their joint responsibility “to determine the course of the world.” Given their different histories and distant geographies, Indian and U.S. geo-strategic interests can never completely converge. Yet, there is consonance in their concern about the consequences of the rise of China. China and the United States have adversarial relations with each other. So do China and India.

Both India and the United States independently are trying to find the best possible entente with China. The present gap between China and the United States in economic, technological and military power is roughly the same as the gap between India and China. This is the overall setting in which intra-Asian relations are being calibrated. This requires deeper conversations between India and the United States, minus pivoting, rebalancing, and containment against China.

India and the United States also share a common interest in dismantling the infrastructure of terrorism in Pakistan. Neither country wants safe havens for al-Qaeda and associated terrorist groups. Renewed U.S. messaging to Pakistan’s leaders to resolve all disputes with India bilaterally has been helpful. As for terrorism, India should not expect the United States to solve problems that India needs to itself address.

Nevertheless, the U.S. inclination to cut its losses and run from Afghanistan is incomprehensible. From an Indian perspective, the spectre of resumed Taliban rule in parts or the whole of Afghanistan — in full cooperation with Pakistan — looks catastrophic. To allow this could be understandable in pursuit of a higher foreign policy objective — as was the case when the United States supported Pakistan during the Bangladesh crisis in order to pursue its extraordinary opening to China, which in turn set the parameters of Sino-American relations for the next four decades and undermined the existence of former Soviet Union. The gains from this abdication are hard to comprehend. Equally damaging is a U.S. public posture that emboldens elements such as the Jamaat-e-Islami to subvert democracy and development in Bangladesh.

There is no real dialogue between India and the United States on Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Asian security architecture. The pursuit of a transformed or special relationship will be meaningless if there is low regard for India’s concerns in its South Asian contiguity.

The pendulum between the two democracies is still swinging between ‘estrangement’ and ‘engagement’. The unfettering of India’s economy gave the relationship its uplift. Its current deceleration is a dampener. Indeed, President Obama seems to have taken a step backward. He shows personal regard for Dr. Manmohan Singh, but not enough practical commitment. The fundamental lack of resolve to address specific issues is eroding public goodwill on both sides. Perhaps the most we can hope for at this juncture is that the relationship does not become worse.

(The writer has served as India’s Ambassador to Afghanistan, Algeria, Nepal and the UN Conference on Disarmament)

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