A long road to America

Officials briefing media, at a US think-tank in New Delhi, explained that India-US relations appear stalled as high-speed cruising makes movement imperceptible. There are no new big takeaways as trophies.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh arrives in Washing-ton on September 27 on a day’s working visit before heading to New York for the 68th session of the UN General Assembly. It would be his sixth bilateral summit with a US President, starting with George W. Bush in 2005, and his last address to the UNGA in his current incarnation.

This visit is under such changed circumstances, domestic and international, that infusing life into India-US relations is a challenge. In New York, he will gauge the extent of Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s intent and ability to follow a mutually agreed path, besides assessing why UN Security Council reform has stalled. He must also make India’s voice audible on issues of contemporary relevance, i.e. Syria, terrorism, which in Nairobi took two Indian and many foreign/Kenyan lives, and decipher the mood in multiple groupings like Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), Non-Aligned Movement, Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (Chogam) etc.
There are two subjects that Dr Singh has invested most in: the US and Pakistan. This article explores the former.
Officials briefing media and the national security adviser Shiv Shankar Menon, at a US think-tank in New Delhi, explained that India-US relations appear stalled as high-speed cruising makes movement imperceptible. There are no new big takeaways as trophies of diplomatic success. Recent visitors to Washington, however, have got different vibes. Officials of a distracted US administration and a beleaguered President have been lending their ears to the rising chorus against Indian protectionism that inhibits market access of US companies. The US Congress is also bandying a new immigration law that will affect Indian software companies in the US. The July visit of US vice-president Joe Biden, preceded by US secretary of state John Kerry, were attempts to sensitise each side to the other’s expectations.
The US seeks, as Mr Menon conceded, Indian macro-economic reform, i.e. full market access for US companies. Close to Lok Sabha election no sweeping second-generation reforms are possible. Thus, the government is focusing on a few deliverables. First is the civil nuclear field where the US finds Indian nuclear liability law unnecessarily onerous, making suppliers liable alongside the operator and at variance with international practice. Section 17 of the Indian Nuclear Liability Act provides the operators’ right to recourse. Attorney general has opined that Section 17(a), which talks of such a right being “expressly provided for in a contract in writing”, overrides sections (b) and (c), which make an operator or any other person causing the event liable. The Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, Arun Jaitley, in a newspaper argues that the three subsections are distinct and provide for separate contexts for recourse. He warns that making Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd sign an agreement with Westinghouse does not absolve the latter of its liability under the Section 17(b). This argument carries legal weight and any company entering India would structure it into a higher price quote for the product, passed then onto the Indian public as higher power tariff.
Post-Fukushima and the shale gas revolution in the US, it is debatable whether India needs to import expensive, and sometimes untested, reactors when it can import uranium and let Atomic Energy Commission build indigenous and cost-effective reactors on a smaller scale. As the world market shrinks for nuclear commerce, the multinationals should not make India a dumping ground.
Defence and high technology cooperation is another area of India-US strategic engagement. The US’ disappointment over losing out to France the MMRCA (Medium Multiple Role Combat Aircraft) deal has been off-set by Indian orders for C-17 and C-130 transport aircraft and the likely purchase of combat and heavy lift helicopters and light artillery, for making the newly announced Mountain Corps a deadly force to protect the northern borders. The US should transition to jointly developing some weapons systems, as the Russians have proposed, to generate trust and reliability. The US would also push, as Mr Kerry did in India, for banning of certain coolants in the garb of climate protection, but, in effect, pushing more expensive US replacement technologies.
The Indian agenda would include the new immigration law, yet only passed by the Senate, especially that affecting Indian software companies, barring H-1 B visas to those hitting a ceiling of 75 per cent of their workforce. The snooping by US National Security Agency, resulting in Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff cancelling her Washington visit, has been underplayed by India. Press reports indicate that targeting India is on the highest side, touching parity with that against China and Russia. Can India continue to ignore this as mere counter-terrorism? National dignity and indeed security has limits, as Ms Rousseff has demonstrated.
Certain other pet US peeves may no longer be major issues. On Iran, there is mounting speculation that deft diplomatic moves by Iran’s President Hassan Rowhani, like releasing political prisoners, controlling the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and adopting a compromising tone on the nuclear issue may lead to direct diplomatic contact between the long estranged nations.
Thus, pressure on India to downgrade contacts with Iran may be perfunctory. Syria too, so far, is being addressed diplomatically and thus no US demarches can be expected. Pakistan and Afghanistan will figure in exchange of views on the region. Dr Singh can be expected to share his expectations from the likely meeting with
Mr Sharif, which the US will encourage.
Dr Singh has a legacy to secure, bringing to fruition the post-Cold War engagement with the US that the Narasimha Rao commenced in 1991, shattered by Indian nuclear tests in 1998 and then revived vigorously by National Democratic Alliance leader Atal Behari Vajpayee. All recriminations and doubts need to be swept aside if India-US relations have to become, as US President Barack Obama proclaimed, “one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century”.

The writer is a former secretary in the external affairs ministry. He tweets at @ambkcsingh

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