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India-US relations: The search for a transformative moment

June 24, 2013 16:32 IST

Minister for External Affairs Salman Khurshid speaks about the importance of the fourth edition of the India-US Strategic Dialogue, which he co-chaired with United States Secretary of State John Kerry in New Delhi       

India and the world have changed dramatically in the past two decades. The relationship between India and the United States has strengthened spectacularly and brought substantive gain to both countries.

It has also given birth to great expectations. The management and fulfilment of those expectations is crucial for the dialogue and partnership between the two countries.

The India-US Strategic Dialogue 2013 comes at a critical moment. India is increasingly focused on the forthcoming national elections. President Barack Obama, in his second term, is looking at the legacy he would bequeath to his country and the world.

The relationship between India and the United States has been driven by both the bilateral governmental interface and the natural affinity and attraction between their citizens. The liberal philosophical moorings of some of the first leaders of independent India, shared values of democracy and freedom, and admiration for the American Constitution, brought us together.

A growing number of Indian students and professionals sought educational and work opportunities in the US alongside India’s engagement with the Non-Aligned Movement and the Soviet Union.

The intrinsic bond between two liberal democracies was captured in the iconic photograph of President John F Kennedy and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru by the Potomac in Washington.

And the subsequent distances in our relationship were evoked well by a photo characterised by the stiff body language of President Richard M Nixon and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi years later.

From "estranged democracies” to "engaged democracies,” it has been a long and fascinating journey for India and the US. India is exploring and absorbing in myriad ways its transition from being a country subjected to select American sanctions to becoming a strategic partner of the United States.

In the Indian discovery of America and the American discovery of India, increased expectations, timely delivery on commitments, agreed-upon mutual course corrections and consolidation of gains would be crucial.

India-US Strategic Dialogue provides opportunities to measure the distance traveled and to map the future. The elements of contemporary international relations are complex. Strands of real or perceived ideology and self-interest intertwine to shape and shade the global fabric.

The US has fought valiantly in Afghanistan and India will willingly make its contribution to the peace and rehabilitation effort in its own characteristic and calibrated manner. Peace is indivisible and must come as a whole, not in pieces, both in our neighborhood and beyond.

There is much scope for joint reflection on these matters.

Attempts to create a better world are as challenging as resolving conflicts. Sustainable development and climate change, an equitable and efficient world trade system, food and energy security, cyber security and counter-terrorism strategies are all matters on which there are differing and divided opinions across the globe.

The G8 and G20 nations have yet to bridge the gaps in perception and strategies of the developing and the developed countries even as the emerging economies attempt to straddle the two sides.

It makes it imperative for the India-US Strategic Dialogue to succeed in the interest of our two countries and the world. In the lives of nations, as in the lives of people, the right moment can achieve what years of effort strove for.

India and the United States found that transformative moment in the signing of the Civil Nuclear Agreement. We need to build upon that success and work towards the next defining moment.

Every nation seeks partners and friends. India and the United States are no exception, but we are currently tasked to nurture the strategic partnership that we already have in place and to which we are mutually committed to preserve and protect.

The pressures and difficulties posed by our domestic politics and economics, the unresolved issues of the world, must not deter us. The challenge before us is to reconcile competing self-interests and combine them into enlightened mutual interest. That is not a simple matter of persuasive arguments and attractive power point presentations.

We both have constraints of democracy, which are exacerbated by the different levels of development and corresponding demands of our respective economies, societies and people.

For instance, India at the moment is relatively low on carbon emissions. But those will increase as we address the developmental needs of our people, unless adequately provided to adapt to low-emission technology that is obviously costly.

Developing countries like India expect that the United States and other developed countries will agree to binding targets to cut emissions, having had the advantage of several centuries of development.

This competing logic applies to many sectors. The solutions lie in our mutual convergence at a middle ground. The very purpose of dialogue is to find common ground and to creatively conceive a point of agreement where there is none. It is important that ours is a dialogue that flows from our partnership and not one to create a relationship.

India is not impervious to the pressures the United States faces as it walks the fiscal cliff, tries to revive its economy, addresses persisting unemployment, and the inevitable demands from its businessmen and people that the US government pursue policies for preferential domestic production and services to protect jobs.

Many of our own aspirations are linked with increased demand for goods and services in the United States. India expects her friends in the West to understand how tough a current account deficit can be on a developing economy, how important it is that information technology and pharmaceuticals -- the sectors of our economy that have provided the cutting edge to India’s growth and boosted our middle class -- be supported and encouraged.

In India today, social activists and the courts are vigorously scrutinizing public servants, which impacts response time. There is a steep learning curve as we take the reform road. Our fiercely autonomous Parliament and judiciary, reflecting the separation of powers, have to be taken on board to ensure a satisfactory response to our collective aspirations. This will be speeded up with important conceptual strides that we hope to take soon.

Secretary of State John Kerry will be received in India as a familiar name and face, having been a key figure in US foreign policy as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a period of great significance to India.

It will be an opportunity for him to reconnect with several old friends and discover new ones. It will indeed be an honor for me to sit across the table from him at Hyderabad House and draw plans for taking our relationship forward, both between the two of us as indeed for our countries.

As we look from Raisina Hill to Capitol Hill, we can see President Obama and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh wrapping up a decade of eventful cooperation later this year. That provides us with an impetus to further the spirit of working together that was underscored by the historic Indian-US Civil Nuclear Agreement and the contemporaneous paradigm shift in perceptions.

The road ahead is the very road that was signposted by milestones such as the meeting of my predecessor, Foreign Minister S M Krishna with Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The signposts of strategic partnership will hopefully have sectors such as clean energy, innovation in science and technology, peaceful use of nuclear energy, space, education and skills development, securing global supply chains, interdict illicit finance flows and counterfeit currency, intelligence sharing, enhanced cyber security, and the expansion of trade and investment.

Finally in the realm of defense, we hope our relationship is not merely a buyer-seller relationship, but a true strategic partnership involving joint research, manufacture of equipment, training of personnel and military exercises.

The building blocks of such a partnership are in place, but they need to be cemented by sustained and enhanced political will. We are able to talk and listen even where convergent and common positions take time to formulate.

Long journeys require pauses. We might pause and rest, but we aren’t reluctant travelers. Traffic rules in our respective countries might mandate us to drive on different sides of the road, the spirit of the July 2005 joint statement and November 2010 joint statement of Prime Minister Singh and President Obama has brought us on a shared path and agreed destination. We need to watch the speed, not lose time, and yet not be reckless.

Secretary Kerry and I won’t only judge how the engines are running, but also reaffirm how the spirit of adventure remains undiminished.

As we drive past the fields of opportunity, I paraphrase the lines of the great American poet Robert Frost that Prime Minister Nehru loved to quote: "The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but I have promises to keep; And miles to go before I sleep; And miles to go before I sleep.”

The dialogue between India and the United States will be an objective look at the miles ahead but also a reaffirmation of our strategic partnership.

Picture: US Secretary of State John Kerry (right) shakes hands with India's Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid before their meeting in New Delhi June 24, 2013. Kerry is on a three-day visit to India.

Photograph: Adnan Abidi/Reuters

Minister for External Affairs Salman Khurshid