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'China is sexy as far as America goes. India is, well, interesting'

By Aziz Haniffa
Last updated on: August 12, 2010 22:47 IST
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The first unofficial US-India Strategic Dialogue organised by The Brookings Institution and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce in Washington, DC threw up some interesting facets on the bilateral ties. In the second of a five-part series, Aziz Haniffa covers the entire gamut of the high-profile event.

Read the first part here: After the euphoria, skepticism

Former ambassador to India Frank Wisner is convinced that "the United States cannot pursue its interests in the world without cooperation with India, and India will not achieve her essential interests without cooperation with the US."

Wisner, who co-chaired the Brookings-FICCI unofficial US-India Strategic Partnership conference panel on 'American and Indian Strategic Interests in Asia,' however, argued: "In addition to the question of interests lies a matter of principle, and here in his recent article, Evan Feigenbaum (former Bush administration official and now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations) was right on the mark when he said, 'Our relationship is not --   cannot be -- transactional before it is at heart based on matters of principle, a coincidence of views about stability, about the balance of power in Asia and the rest of the world, of coincidence of views on the value of free marks, the rule of law, democracy, and the ordering of our political societies.'"

Ken Lieberthal, a China specialist and senior fellow at Brookings who directs the think tank's John L Thornton China Center, said he believes the Obama administration sees in China "a country whose cooperation, or at least lack of opposition, is crucial for managing major global issues effectively and for US interests especially in East Asia. And my own sense just bureaucratically is that when we make policy toward China, India does not actively figure into that."

Lieberthal said when the US makes policy toward China, "there is very little strategic discussion of India," as much as there is no discussion of China as the US makes policy on India. He added: "The US does not have an overall strategic view of Asia as a whole in which India plays a central role."

Gautam Adhikari, former executive editor, The Times of India, and now a FICCI fellow at the East-West Center, said the official US-India Strategic Dialogue hardly warranted coverage in the mainstream American media, except a small piece tucked away in the inside pages of The Washington Post — that Obama will visit India in November.

He added: "Contrast it with the US-China strategic dialogue — there was enormous coverage before the event, there was coverage after the event and during the event. Television was full of it… This is something that a lot of us who are from India need to recognize: China is sexy as far as America goes. India is well, interesting, getting more and more interesting. Indians need to understand that we are not equivalent of China on the world stage at this point."

Marshall Bouton, president, Chicago Council on Global Affairs, echoed Wisner, saying: "A deepened, comprehensive, strategic partnership between India and the United States is not only one of our interests, it is a sine qua non of continuing American global influence and pre-eminence over the next three or four decades."

To accomplish this, Bouton argued, "We must put the security issues at the forefront of India-US relations. Yes, they are the hardest issues, but that is precisely why they need to be the focus of the relationship now, not later… There is no way we can accomplish our interests in the short term, the medium term, or the long term in Afghanistan and Pakistan without the active involvement, support, cooperation, consultation, joint decision-making with India."

Daniel McKelly of the Council of Foreign Relations asked how, given India's concerns about Pakistan, can New Delhi be engaged. Also, he asked: "What kind of resolution might we look to in the long run that involves some sort of US policy change towards Afghanistan and Pakistan that will enable us to work better with India?"

Wisner said it was imperative that the two sets of issues  -- Afghanistan-Pakistan, and India-Pakistan  -- be kept as separate as possible.

He said he strongly believed that "if there is not a political willingness in the two capitals (of India and Pakistan) and among the political leaders and the intelligentsia to take the chances on peace, there is no outside power that's going to be able to bridge the difference. But… the US can play a very quiet and discreet role… but in no way set itself up to be a mediator, negotiator, or public actor in trying to pressure the parties to come together… On the other hand, we have a very important, necessary role, an active role to play on the Afghan-Pakistan front, and between India and Pakistan, the US can — and must — make it as clear as possible the limits of the political tolerance on the two sides to try to find ways to bridge gaps… particularly clarifying for Pakistan the extent and nature of India's presence so that that is not misinterpreted and misused."

Stephen Cohen, senior fellow, Brookings, said he believed "it's possible to see India-Pakistan cooperation in Afghanistan as perhaps an important American goal. And this could have an implication for general India-Pakistan relations."
Cohen warned that "the alternative is failure, another civil war, India on one side, Pakistan on the other side, and that's some place nobody wants to go."

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Aziz Haniffa in Washington