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India-US ties: 'Fastest transforming and most important relationships for us today'

August 21, 2013 10:31 IST

President Barack Obama with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi, November 2010.National Security Adviser Shiv Shankar Menon asserts that all is well in the India-US relationship. Aziz Haniffa reports from Washington, DC.

Shrugging aside the contention that the United States-India Strategic Partnership has plateaued and lost its oomph and there is in fact some outright hostility among America Inc over India's lack of progress of its much professed economic reforms, National Security Adviser Shiv Shankar Menon predicted that all these perceptions would be laid to rest when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh meets President Obama at the White House on September 27.

Menon, who is in Washington, DC to lay the groundwork for the prime minister's visit, met with his counterpart, the newly minted National Security Adviser Susan Rice, Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, Energy Secretary Dr Ernest Moniz, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and several intelligence officials to discuss counter-terrorism and security issues.

In an interaction with a few journalists at the Indian embassy, Menon pooh-poohed the pessimism of the naysayers who believe any tangibles in the US-India strategic partnership would be on hold till next year's general election.

"I can't answer for people's expectations and whether they were met or not," the NSA said. "All I can say is, from where I sit, what I see is, that in every area, we are doing much more together -- India and the US."

"That even trade -- if you look at it -- has grown steadily despite an external context which is not necessarily very supportive and maybe that's where some of this is coming from," Menon said.

"Maybe it's the fact that there has been a world economic crisis, that people are going through economically tougher times than before 2007-2008."

"That's a perception," Menon argued, "that's an expectation issue, that I can't address. But from what I can see, every area -- if you look at defence, counter-terrorism, national security, energy, education, agriculture -- actually the relationship is growing."

The NSA felt that even in terms of US-India trade, "It is growing in ways that I don't think could have foreseen before, which says something for not just the resilience of the relationship, but the actual strength."

"Look, when two leaders of that level meet with a relationship like this," Menon asserted, "and they've both actually taken this relationship forward in difficult times and good, you must expect it to be a substantial meeting."

"I leave confident that preparations are well underway and heading in the right direction for a successful visit by the prime minister," he said, and reiterated, "It's a working visit, it will be a short visit, but in terms of substance, it's going to be a good visit."

"If you think back," Menon said, "you know where this relationship has been in previous years, it really is one of the fastest transforming and at the same time one of the most important relationships for us today."

"A measure of that is the number of high level Indians who have come and spoken to you as a group in the last few months and the prime minister's visit will be the culmination of that."

Earlier, Menon acknowledged that among the issues he discussed was the US-India civilian nuclear agreement, which five years after its signing with much fanfare, is yet to be implemented.

Critics have pointed to this transformative agreement continuing to be in limbo as a manifestation of the malaise in this relationship.

"I am sure there are people who would like it to be faster," Menon said, "but steady is also sure and we are moving ahead on that."

"We have also looked at other forms of collaboration, which have been increasing salience in the last few years on other aspects of energy -- new renewable energies for instance."

But when pressed if there would be any major outcomes that would be heralded during the prime minister's visit, Menon remained circumspect. "I don’t want to get into the outcomes of the prime minister's visit now because they wouldn't be outcomes if I told you about them now. We are still working -- it is still a work in progress."

"The fact is we have used this whole period to actually move forward on all aspects of it (the nuclear deal)," Menon explained. "It's a complex project -- all of these -- building a nuclear reactor, a nuclear power station."

"And what you will see now unfolding is a series of agreements, which gradually lead to the big one and to the actual construction of a reactor," the NSA added.

"Right now, most of what is being discussed is really the commercial aspects of NPCIL (the Nuclear Power Corporation of India) as the operator, buying a nuclear power plant from Westinghouse, which has a US-certified reactor to sell."

He noted the unprecedented defence cooperation between New Delhi and Washington, asserting that the recent US-China strategic partnership and the envisaged US-China joint military exercises would have no impact on it.

"This is not driven by one incident or the other or by some intrusion somewhere or some visit somewhere. That is not how we deal with it. This stands on its own."

Menon asserted that, "What China and the US do is their business. If they want to have military to military relations, which they have had in the past or they haven't had -- there have been periods when they have done it, they haven't done, that is their business."

"We will continue to follow our interests just as the US also finds it in their interests to work with us in the defence field and as our interests converge and overlap, we will work together," he said.

The transition in Afghanistan once US troops withdraw in 2014, Menon said, had been discussed in "considerable detail," adding, "We see this as a continuing collaborative effort, which has worked well so far and we expect it to continue to do so, even though the situations might change, contexts might shift."

"But it still remains important that we work for a peaceful, democratic, Afghanistan and which is moderate and stable, because that would be a contribution to regional security as well."

Menon said the recent terrorism across the Line of Control in Kashmir and the ceasefire violations by Pakistan had been discussed in detail and noted that the US is well aware of these incidents and transgressions by Pakistan.

On some of the recent outreach efforts by Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his call for a India-Pakistan rapprochement, the NSA said Washington, while obviously encouraged by some of these moves, was scrupulous to eschew any involvement.

"They are very correct about not getting involved in other people's business," Menon said. "They have been very correct and continue to be."

Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC