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India and the US: Limits of engagement

By TP Sreenivasan
July 18, 2011 08:07 IST
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An alliance of minds, which is essential to elevate the strategic partnership to a higher level, appears hard to accomplish. A new sense of realism, rather than undue optimism, will prevail in India-US relations in the future, says TP Sreenivasan

Unsavoury incidents involving diplomats and their families are not rare in friendly countries at the best of times. The issues are dealt with in terms of diplomatic protocol and reciprocity, without even the press getting wind of it. When reciprocal expulsions become necessary occasionally, care is taken to order home those diplomats, who have completed their terms so that breaches of diplomatic civility do not cloud bilateral relations.

But the US and India have been showing increasing irritability in dealing with such issues. Some harsh US actions have elicited uncharacteristically sharp responses from South Block. The US is even holding up clearance for a new Indian consulate in Seattle, Washington, according to press reports.

India-US relations are far too important, diverse and complex to be affected by thoughtless actions of law enforcement agencies or even diplomats. But the oversensitivity, demonstrated of late, appears symptomatic of a deeper malady. The creeping disillusionment in major areas seems to spill over to the diplomatic level. As Hillary Clinton leaves for Delhi and Chennai this week, she needs to think of ways and means to convince her hosts that the strategic partnership is alive and well. Hers is indeed a rescue mission. Many areas in the strategic partnership require immediate and focussed attention.

Of course, both sides will vehemently deny this proposition, as they did to me in Washington and New Delhi a couple of weeks ago. Both will point to the umpteen working groups, quietly working away to fulfill the promises of the Obama visit and the last round of the strategic dialogue, not to speak of high level visits from both sides. They will quote trade figures and speak of the intensity of the economic dialogue to demonstrate the robustness of the relationship. They will even attribute any gloomy assessments to ignorance. 

But ask them about civil nuclear cooperation, balance of trade, India's candidature to be a permanent member of the UN Security Council, the record of cooperation in the Security Council on West Asia and non-proliferation and then you will hear from both sides the tales of unfulfilled promises and unchanging mindsets. The grievances on both sides are so well balanced that it is difficult to determine who should or can make the first move.

Since the nuclear deal had raised the highest hopes for a sea-change in the relationship and had accomplished most, the disillusionment is also most acute in that area. Our perception is that President Bush signed the deal for his own selfish reasons, but the official line and popular thinking in America is that it was a price paid to win India as an ally. A senior American official recently repeated the question we had heard from 2005 as to what India had done in return for the nuclear deal, which dramatically changed India's profile.

The give and take within the deal itself is not at issue here, but the transformation of the relationship from a friend to an ally. India is willing to comply with the letter of the deal and expects the same from the US, but the US wishes to see fundamental changes in Indian policy. The US feels that while India has derived immense benefits from the deal, it has made no readjustments in policy, worthy of a natural ally of the United States. The unchanged voting pattern of India and echoes of cold war rhetoric continue to make them uneasy.

To make matters worse, the promise of nuclear trade worth billions of dollars has remained unfulfilled on account of the Liability Law and we have done little to help President Obama reduce his unemployment burden, which has reached unbearable proportions. No American president has won a re-election if the unemployment rate is 7 per cent or above.  There is no sign that President Obama can bring the unemployment down to safe levels by 2012. 

The "fighter aircraft shock" has worsened the situation. In the American view, India opted for the purchase of an aircraft from Europe, while the US was offering a friendship package. India, on the other hand, believes that we adopted the Liability Law in our own interests and chose the fighter that suited our functional requirements. These are done deals, which have little scope for changes at this stage.

India maintains that the US should find ways to accept the suppliers' responsibility and also fulfill the promise of full civilian nuclear cooperation, including transfer of ENR technology, in accordance with the "clean" NSG waiver for India. India would also like the US to push harder for India to be admitted to the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the Missile Technology Control Regime, a promise held out by President Obama during his visit.

More than the practicality of these measures, the truth of the matter is that the Obama Administration would rather have no nuclear trade with India than dilute its non-proliferation commitments. I was told two years ago that the US would not be unduly concerned if there was no nuclear trade at all, provided it was compensated in other ways. Moreover, the increasing scepticism regarding nuclear power after Fukushima has also become a factor in nuclear cooperation. Steering around the nuclear irritant is still a major challenge.

On the Indian side, the lack of any forward movement on the reform of the Security Council after the promise held out by President Obama in Indian Parliament is another instance of disillusionment. India continues its heroic efforts at the UN to move the proposal forward, but without any tangible support from the US. The latest G-4 move, masterminded by India, to seek an endorsement of the principle of expansion in both categories has elicited no US response. The US stakes in the expansion puzzle go beyond bilateral considerations.

If anything, India's performance as a non-permanent member of the Security Council has only enhanced concerns in the US over the revival of Indian "nonalignment". On Iran, Libya and Syria, congruence of policies is hard to accomplish even with the best of intentions. The latest US moves in Afghanistan and Pakistan are hardly conducive to increase confidence either. The emerging contours of policy on both sides cause concern. 

When Strobe Talbott, recently chosen by India Abroad newspaper (owned by for its inaugural Friend of India award, said bluntly that "India and the US are not now and may never be allies", he was pointing to the fundamental contradiction in expecting a fiercely independent India to serve US interests in the region and the world. The public opinion in India is such that the assertion of a certain distance from the US policies is essential for any government in New Delhi.

The limits of engagement with the US, breached during the first term of the Manmohan Singh government, have come into play once again. The prime minister does not have either the leisure or the energy to go beyond those limits as he had done during his first term. The US too has learnt its lessons on the extent of the strategic relationship possible with India.

The Hillary visit will certainly make progress on a number of vital issues of cooperation, the logic of which is beyond question. But an alliance of minds, which is essential to elevate the strategic partnership to a higher level, appears hard to accomplish. A new sense of realism, rather than undue optimism, will prevail in India-US relations in the future.

As long as expectations are curtailed and mutuality is established, there will be neither recrimination nor disillusionment. In the end, it may not be a defining relationship of the new century, but a mutually beneficial partnership.

T P Sreenivasan is a former ambassador of India to the United Nations, Vienna, and a former Governor for India at the International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna.

He is currently the director general, Kerala International Centre, Thiruvananthapuram, and a member of the National Security Advisory Board.

For more articles by Ambassador TP Sreenivasan, click here

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