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The new entente with the U.S.

Robert Blackwill, former Ambassador of the United States and Harvard academic, used to often recount at his dinner roundtables in New Delhi’s Roosevelt House an intriguing story about how he was persuaded to take up the job. In 2001, President George W. Bush called him to his ranch in Texas and said: “Bob, imagine: India, a billion people, a democracy, 150 million Muslims and no Al Qaeda. Wow!” More than a decade after President Bush’s first exclamation, India-U.S. relations have truly reached their ‘wow’ moment.

> President Barack Obama’s visit is so obvious a watershed in India’s foreign policy, and so overwhelming a development, that voices of dissent are mute or feeble. Not since India signed the treaty of peace, friendship and cooperation with the Soviet Union in 1971 has New Delhi aligned itself so closely with a great power. More important, outside the Left, both within India and in the U.S. the consensus across the mainstream of political opinion favours stronger relations between the two countries. Anti-Americanism, once the conventional wisdom of the Indian elite, seems almost antediluvian today.

Behind the change

The reason for the drastic change in the geostrategic outlook can be summarised quickly. The 1971 treaty was a response to the continuing U.S. tilt towards Pakistan and the beginnings of a Washington-Beijing entente (President Richard Nixon’s then National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, went secretly to Beijing via Islamabad a month before India signed the treaty with the Soviet Union). In contrast, in 2015, it is the prospect of a powerful, belligerent and potentially hegemonic China in the Indo-Pacific region that is helping to cement the relationship. While this may seem like a parsimonious explanation, it is rooted in an understanding of the manner in which great powers, rising powers and emerging powers have responded to changes in the balance of power in the international system since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.

Clearly, the pièce de résistance of the Obama visit has been removing the final hurdles in the civilian nuclear agreement to pave the way for its commercialisation, almost a decade after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Bush first issued a joint statement, in July 2005, on civilian nuclear cooperation. As we know, two sticking points were holding up an agreement: differences over liability in case of a nuclear accident, and over administrative arrangements governing the transfer of nuclear materials to India.

Consider first the latter. For more than a year, the U.S. has refused to accept an Indian draft agreement that was based on the sound principle that New Delhi would be accountable only for the totality of nuclear material supplied to it, and under the safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Given India’s closed fuel cycle, allowing nuclear material from different countries to be tracked and audited separately could be unnecessarily intrusive and could undermine the confidentiality of its nuclear programme. While the Canadians saw reason and accepted India’s draft in 2012, the non-proliferation lobby in Washington seemed to have had the upper hand as the political leadership seemed reluctant to take a call even though it was against the letter and spirit of the 123 agreement: the fundamental basis of the civil nuclear agreement between India and the U.S.

Nuclear liability issue

The deal has been done only because President Obama has now put his personal weight behind it, to marginalise those who still see India’s nuclear programme through the prism of Washington’s non-proliferation policies of the 1990s towards New Delhi. With the U.S. accepting the Canadian model, it will be easier for India to negotiate with Japan and Australia, the other two countries still holding out for tracking and audit of nuclear material based on national flags. Hopefully, the deal will pave the way for GE, Westinghouse and other leading businesses in the nuclear industry to begin commercial operations in India.

Similarly, on the issue of > nuclear liability, where American companies were concerned by the unlimited liability they could face in case of a nuclear accident under Sections 17(b) and 46 of the Indian Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Act of 2010, a compromise seems to have been found.

New Delhi has agreed to create a publicly funded insurance pool and the Attorney General of India is likely to issue an explanatory memorandum on Section 46 which will potentially clarify the limits of tort claims by accident victims against the suppliers of nuclear reactors. The latter, however, as Indian officials have said, is still a work in progress. Given the collective national memory of the Bhopal gas tragedy, this could still stir a public controversy if the limits are in absolute terms. Rather, the claims could be linked to compensations offered contemporaneously to victims of industrial accidents in the U.S.

The vision statement

No less important is the commitment of President Obama and his team to support India’s membership of international export control regimes, including the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the Wassenaar Arrangement, the Australia Group, and the Missile Technology Control Regime that will help to further mainstream India’s nuclear programme. Given that similar promises have been made in the past, it is important that India uses the goodwill of the Obama visit to ensure that Washington presses for this to happen as soon as possible — despite the obvious reluctance of some members of these regimes.

The media focus has been on the nuclear issue — yet the U.S.-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region is no less significant. It is a major advance on the early initiatives made during last September’s Obama-Modi summit in Washington. Indeed, given India’s traditional strategic caution, the vision statement could be even seen as radical by its standards. Shorn of the homilies, the vision statement has three significant features.

The first is the clear link between economic prosperity and security, and the critical importance of freedom of the seas in the region. The statement could not be more explicit: “We affirm the importance of safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and over flight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea.”

Second is the commitment to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and to “pursue resolution of territorial and maritime disputes through all peaceful means, in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law.”

Third is the agreement to work with other countries to better respond to diplomatic, economic and security challenges in the region. The five-year vision includes strengthening regional dialogues, making trilateral consultations with third countries in the region more robust, deepening regional integration, strengthening regional forums, and exploring additional multilateral opportunities for engagement.

China factor

While India has traditionally favoured a policy of deep engagement with all major powers, the special relationship with the U.S. today, especially the “vision” statement, is rooted in great apprehensions in New Delhi about China’s aggressive “peripheral diplomacy,” particularly after the intrusions in Chumar during > President Xi Jinping’s visit to India last year. That the new Chinese leadership had abandoned Deng Xiaoping’s ‘24 Character Strategy’ of biding time, hiding its capacities and not attracting attention has been clear for some time now, but what is intriguing is that Beijing has managed to alienate nearly all its neighbours, except North Korea and Pakistan, by its malevolence. Not surprisingly, a rising China is a cause of trepidation in most capitals of the world today. Will Beijing now introspect and recalibrate? For it must realise that New Delhi’s closeness to Washington is also a function of its strategic distance from Beijing.

In late 2005, amidst the negotiations over the civil nuclear agreement with the U.S., Dr. Singh, appointed a task force on global strategic developments headed by the doyen of India’s strategic thinking, K. Subrahmanyam. As a member of the task force, I remember the meetings essentially became a series of inspiring lectures by Mr. Subrahmanyam on geopolitics. Mr. Subrahmanyam was an architect of many of India’s key strategic decisions, including the policy that led to the creation of Bangladesh, the Indo-Soviet treaty, as well as the nuclear tests of 1998. But throughout the meetings, Mr. Subrahmanyam, with a mind as agile as that of a restless teenage prodigy, would emphasise the importance of arriving at a modus vivendi with the U.S., the overriding importance of the nuclear deal, how it was in Washington’s own interest to support a rising India and how New Delhi should grab that opportunity. As the United States and India finally “recognise” each other and promise to realise each other’s potential, the new entente between the two countries is a fitting tribute to the legacy of India’s modern-day Chanakya, just days after his 86th birthday.

(Amitabh Mattoo is Professor of Disarmament and Diplomacy, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.)


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Printable version | Dec 2, 2021 7:42:15 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/the-new-entente-with-the-us/article6831127.ece

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