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India-US ties, the three-card trick

Last updated on: November 24, 2009 00:20 IST
Foreign policy expert Dr Ashley J Tellis believes there are three fundamental objectives that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's official state visit to the United States this week can accomplish.

"The first is to emphasise that both countries have a very strong commitment to sustaining the transformation in bilateral relations," says Dr Tellis, formerly a senior advisor to the Bush administration and currently a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"Remember, the relationship got off to a very shaky start when (President Barack) Obama took office, because there were real doubts in India about whether he would continue the agenda Bush and Singh had laid down over the last eight years. There were key issues on which the US and India seemed to have drifted apart, and what (Secretary of State Hillary) Clinton's visit in July did was to provide the initial reassurance to India that it would not be left out in the cold."

Obama now has the opportunity, Dr Tellis believes, to build on the goodwill garnered during the Clinton visit and to "clearly communicate to the international community that the US-India relationship transcends the preferences of any single leader on either side -- that it actually represents the national strategy of both countries."

The second major goal of the visit, the analyst says, could be for both sides to ensure that "their fundamental policy goals are in fact aligned."

"There are people in the United States who wonder whether investing in India is really all that it has been touted to be, and there are people in India who wonder whether Obama represents a return to the old unreliability that the Indians saw characterising the US," he argued. "So this is a very good opportunity for both leaders to take stock of where they are and work towards aligning their goals."

The third objective "would be to actually now work on the complementarities. There has to be a very sober assessment by both sides of where each stands, and both have to come up with a plan to keep the relationship going, because the differences could precipitate significant drift."

"We have to be honest enough to admit that there are important differences -- China, Pakistan, terrorism, climate change, multilateral trade and proliferation -- and then work on those points of convergence. I think this is really what the main practical task of this visit will be. The differences can be managed, provided there is a recognition of what the core national security interests of each side actually are."

Non-proliferation, a big agenda item for the Obama administration, is one such area of divergence. "This is an area where India and the United States have common interests. India's Department of Atomic Energy traditionally has been very shy about engaging in this kind of a conversation because they have been afraid that the moment they talk about nuclear security, the international community is going to demand that India becomes more transparent about its own programme."

"Now this is the kind of issue that can very easily be managed because there are things that India can bring to the table without having to compromise its weapons programme or compromise its power programme in any way. Nuclear security matters to the president, it matters even to India because it is living next door to a country where there have been significant failures in this area historically. So this is one area where you can work together."

Sticking points will arise -- most notably Obama's desire to see India sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which India finds discriminatory. Managing this difference is going to be very challenging and the trick, says the Mumbai-born Dr Tellis, is that when convergence cannot be achieved, to not try and force it through coercion, as that would be counter-productive and more importantly, would undermine trust and threaten the broader bilateral relationship.

Dr Tellis believes India has three concerns that the US should address frontally, and the first is the American vision for maintaining peace and stability in Asia.

"India's long-term concerns essentially pertain to the rise of China, and the thing that New Delhi is most afraid of is that US weakness -- or perceptions of current US weakness -- might put Washington in a position where it ends up either colluding with the Chinese, or being excessively solicitous of Chinese preferences."

"Both those outcomes are very dangerous for India. One of the things that Manmohan Singh will want is clarity on how the United States looks at Asia -- what Obama sees India's role to be, and how he sees the United States's own relationship with China."

The second issue, clearly, is terrorism, especially as it concerns Pakistan. "How the US thinks about terrorism is important to US-Indian relations -- that is, do we go only after those terrorists that matter to us and forget about the terrorist groups that threaten our allies? How do we deal with countries like Pakistan that are straddling the lines that divide friends from enemies? These are going to be issues that Obama and Singh will need to have a honest discussion about."

The third key issue is Kashmir, and more particularly the growing feeling in the US that it needs to have some kind of role in resolving the conflict. "The expectation here obviously is that if the US can somehow nudge an Indo-Pakistani agreement or secure some concession from India, we would make the Pakistanis more cooperative in combating terrorism. This is a very common view in parts of the US military, the executive branch, and the wider non-governmental policy community. So, one must expect that as the mission in Afghanistan keeps going south, the clamor to do something regarding Kashmir will only increase, because people in Washington will start looking for solutions anywhere that offer even the faintest chance of increasing our success in Afghanistan."

"Obviously, this is neuralgic from the point of view of New Delhi. So again, this is going to be an issue that has to be managed and in my view, it is best done privately and in a direct way."

For its part, said Dr Tellis, New Delhi needs to appreciate that the strongest advocates for a robust US-India relationship are nowhere but in the State Department. "This is quite a change from the first Bush term, when the Pentagon led the charge and State was in a sense, the laggard. Today, it's just the opposite -- State leads; the Pentagon and the White House are either in neutral or at best following. In the areas of low politics though, Agriculture, Energy and Commerce are very enthusiastic about deepening the bilateral relationship, but obviously they cannot define policy for the entire US government."

The two officials leading the charge, says Dr Tellis, are Secretary Clinton and Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns who are engaged in keeping India in the front ranks of Asian States that the US is engaged with.

Clinton and more importantly Burns, who deals with the issue on a day to day basis, have a clear recognition that the relationship is not something you want to "fritter away needlessly."

While this is essential, says Dr Tellis, the fallacy lies in imagining that just because you get the low politics right the high politics will take care of itself. "It won't. So we have to engage those big issues that are tricky, even as you are putting in place the constructive building blocks at the level of trade, economics, societal exchanges, etcetera. And for enduring success, the president must be invested, not the State Department alone."

Thus, he said, the best game plan for the US was to identify the big issues and begin working on them, while putting in place the little things that provide complementary benefits. It is understandable, he added, that Afghanistan and Pakistan are taking up so much time and energy.

"This is the point that needs to be understood -- that protecting your equities in India because you are overwhelmed by Pakistan and Afghanistan is not optional, because India is an integral part of this challenge. However, it's not an integral part of the problem in a way that most people think, which is that India becomes the solution by which we overcome Islamabad's recalcitrance in dealing with terrorism Afghanistan and Pakistan."

Pakistan's recalcitrance in eradicating all terrorism-related infrastructure on its soil, Dr Tellis argues, will have to be resolved on its own terms and not on the back of Indian interests. He believes that the State Department understands this point.

"The problem is in other parts of the US government which don't have a deep knowledge of India, where there exists the temptation to reach out for that I think are dangerous solutions."

He argues that if the US focuses its energies on finding ways to get India and Pakistan to talk, "what you have ended up with is only the tail-end of the problem. The front end of the problem is, do we believe that these groups that are operating out of Pakistan, sometimes with Pakistani State abetment, sometimes independently? Do we believe they constitute a national security threat, not simply to India and Pakistan, but fundamentally to American interests as well? And if we do believe that they are such a threat, what are we doing in regards to persuading Pakistan to confront these groups uniformly?"

"If you start from these questions," Dr Tellis said, "then you get a very different set of answers than if you start off with the question of how we can coax India and Pakistan to resume a dialogue."

Aziz Haniffa Washington, DC