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Clinton's speech should ease India's concerns, says experts

By Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC
June 18, 2009 09:50 IST
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Senior Administration officials believe that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's keynote address to the US-India Business Council's 34th anniversary summit, where she clearly articulated the Obama Administration's unequivocal and unambiguous intent to "upgrade" its relations with India, should ease New Delhi's concerns about the new Administration's commitment to a strategic partnership with India that was pursued with such vigor by the erstwhile Bush Administration.

These officials told, that the Administration is fully committed to implement the US-India civilian nuclear deal, and Clinton's comments that protectionism was not on its agenda and while Washington was pleased that there seemed a possibility that India and Pakistan may resume their composite dialogue but had no intention to push either of them to reach a modus vivendi, were deliberate since these were apparently some of the concerns India had vis-à-vis President Obama's agenda for South Asia.

 Clinton, at the outset of her remarks said, "We are clearly committed to furthering and deepening our relationship with India in every way possible." Saying, "I will be visiting India next month, which I am looking forward to," and that "it is exciting for me to have an opportunity to return again, and it is also a great privilege and honor to be doing so representing the United States," she declared, "I tell you this, because I want you to place me and where I stand as Secretary of State.It is in a position of deep commitment to building stronger ties with India, a commitment based on mutual respect and mutual interests. And I know that President Obama feels the same way. We see India as one of a few key partners worldwide who will help us shape the 21st century."

Clinton said, "I hope that an expanded partnership between the US and India will be one of the signature accomplishments of both new governments in both countries, and I do plan to make that a personal priority.To achieve the goal of stronger ties between our countries, we will have to confront and transcend the mistrust that has hampered our cooperation in the past, and address the lingering uncertainties in our relationship still today," she added.

 Also describing the US-India nuclear deal as a "landmark accord," Clinton recalled that when "the US-India nuclear deal passed the United States Congress, it had strong bipartisan support, including backing from two former senators named Barack Obama and Joe Biden, as well as a senator from New York (herself)."

She said, "This landmark accord, which the Obama Administration is fully committed to implementing, provides a framework for economic and technical cooperation between our two countries and allows us to move beyond our concerns about the status of India's nuclear program, an issue that dominated our relationship for much of the last decade."

And with regard to protectionism and a return to outsourcing bashing that India feared the new Administration may resort to with the current economic malaise and massive job losses in the country, Clinton said, "President Obama has been clear that the United States has learned the lessons of the past. We will not use the global financial crisis as an excuse to fall back on protectionism. We hope India will work with us to create a more open, equitable set of opportunities for trade between our nations."

Longtime South Asia hand, Teresita Schaffer, who served in the subcontinent for nearly three decades as a diplomat, who was among the overflowing captains of industry, administration officials, heads of think tanks and others that packed the US Chamber of Commerce's Hall of Flags to listen to Clinton, described it as "an excellent speech."

Schaffer, currently director of the South Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told, that there was no denying that easing concerns in India and among Indophiles that the Obama Administration was ignoring India was a focus of her speech –that such fears were totally misplaced and that the new Administration clearly wanted to pursue the relationship vigorously and then some."

"I am sure that was her intention," Schaffer said. "And I would think it would," ease these concerns. "It was a very forthright statement—that the Administration stood solidly behind the nuclear deal." Also, in terms of apprehensions about any impending protectionism, "She was certainly saying all the right thing from India's point of view, but there's another side to it, which she alluded to more indirectly," Schaffer said, and noted, "which is that fighting protectionism is something that everybody's got to participate in."

She reiterated that Clinton's speech was "an important speech," to alleviate growing concerns in India that the new Administration was perhaps not as gung-ho about India as was the Bush Administration, to which some analysts and commentators both in India and the US has begun to nostalgically refer to in speculating over President Obama's agenda for India.

Schaffer said, "I had the feeling that the Administration was focusing on the most urgent and time-sensitive issues when it first came in, but there was always an intention to deal with the issues and countries that are going to be important in the longer term and that's obviously the category in which India is. And, so, I sense that there was a deliberate attempt to use the Business Council plus her upcoming trip to India as the kind of the Administration's discovery of India," she added. "I mean, they also wanted to wait till after the election (in India) so they wouldn't get all tangled up in that. So, that's the back story, so to speak, and I believe she did a good job."

One senior Administration official, in a preview of Clinton's speech had told earlier, that "There was absolutely no ignoring of India. President Obama himself and Secretary Clinton on several occasions have made clear how important this relationship is, but we scrupulously stayed clear during the run-up to and the elections process as we did not want to insert ourselves during this process."

Schaffer also said that although the US clearly wants India and Pakistan to resume the composite dialogue that's been comatose after the Mumbai terror attacks, Clinton's treading carefully on this issue as no surprise since "that's always been the US position. I think there have been a lot of people in India who have been imagining that the United States wanted to put its fingerprint on whatever they might do—and that was just plain wrong," she added.

Clinton in her speech said, "We have a common interest in creating a stable, peaceful Afghanistan, where India is already providing $1.2 billion in assistance to facilitate reconstruction efforts. The United States is committed to the task ahead in Afghanistan, and I hope India will continue its efforts there as well. And of course, we believe that India and Pakistan actually face a number of common challenges, and we welcome a dialogue between them."

But, then she added the caveat that "as we have said before, the pace, scope, and character of that dialogue is something that Indian and Pakistani leaders will decide on their own terms and in their own time. But as Pakistan now works to take on the challenge of terrorists in its own country, I am confident that India, as well as the United States, will support those efforts."

The Obama Administration believes that if there can be a rapprochement between New Delhi and Islamabad, it could persuade the latter to move more troops from the Indian border in the east to the Western border to take on the al Qaeda and the Taliban and help Washington in its AfPak strategy.

Schaffer acknowledged that the recent visit by Under Secretary of State William Burns "was obviously the immediate input," in Clinton's speech, which was quite specific and covered all the bases. But, I know that she has been reaching out to various different people and they've been over the past two months kind of systematically gathering views from people outside the government on India, and obviously reflecting on them," Schaffer said. "So, I believe that's what you saw reflected in the speech."

 Administration sources said that as much as calling for a resumption of the dialogue between India and Pakistan had only been marginally touched upon because the Administration's was well aware of India's sensitivities on this subject in the aftermath of the Mumbai terror attacks, Burns and the likes of the new Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs, Robert Blake—a former deputy chief of mission at the US embassy in New Delhi—who had provided input for the speech, had strongly vetoed attempt by the nonproliferation types in the State Department that the speech call for India to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty—yet another anathema for New Delhi.

The sources said that Clinton herself had inserted all of the "personal stuff," of her visits to India, "because of her genuine affinity for India and the Indian people and something she hopes to bring to our policy toward India—the people-to-people connections."

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Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC

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