Uncle Sam comes calling

Was the visit of US secretary of state Hillary Clinton to India on July 19-20 for the second India-US strategic dialogue spelling a downward spiral in relations or merely a return to normalcy? Exactly three years ago on July 22, 2008 Parliament voted on a no-confidence motion, engendered by the India-US civil nuclear deal. The

government survived by a 275 to 256 margin. The ghost of that victory, murmuring bribery, returned, as external affairs minister S.M. Krishna commenced confabulations.
Two lessons manifest themselves. Firstly, bipartisan support in the US and a consensus between the Congress Party and the principal Opposition parties are critical. US President George W. Bush tackling a lameduck Congress, in its dying moments, to get the civil nuclear deal approved and President Bill Clinton rolling back sanctions flowing from the Glenn Amendment after India’s 1998 nuclear tests exemplify this. In India, denying President Bush a parliamentary address and acrimony over the nuclear deal and liability law, which Opposition continues to criticise, undermines the effective conduct of foreign and national security policies.
Secondly, in both countries policy options are conditioned by their respective historical experiences and as democracies by vibrant public opinion. A global redistribution of economic and political power is under way. The 21st-century challenges are more diverse and diffused, ranging from proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) technologies, to climate change, food security, energy, pandemics etc. Inter-state war is less likely than intra-state violence or even collapse.
A strategic dialogue thus coalesces engagement across a panoply of areas, facilitates easy political review, counters bureaucratic procrastination, retools operational strategies and allays concerns. Empirically, for the US to retain its pre-eminence it must reinvent itself, reconfigure its economy and financial system and galvanise its research and development. Indian rise needs to tap into this by partnering in high technology areas like space, nanotechnology, biotechnology etc. The New Delhi meeting was seeking a strategic convergence, not testifying it. Both nations need altered mindsets.
Ms Clinton paged three issues i.e. the civil nuclear deal, enhanced market access and terror. The July 13 Mumbai bombings made the last unavoidable. New Indian ambassador to US Nirupama Rao briefed the US on Pakistan talks, receiving approbation for persisting with the dialogue. That safe havens for terrorists are unacceptable is a persistent US incantation. However, the expanding US-Pakistan spat, the latest victim being the Inter-Services Intelligence-funded Kashmiri Centre in Washington, and Lashkar-e-Tayyaba’s global agenda increase India-US convergence on terror.
On the nuclear issue, Ms Clinton spoke enigmatically. Insistence by India that “full” cooperation includes the enrichment and reprocessing (ENR) technologies is belied by US actions and words. Consistently, Obama administration has advocated restricting export of ENR technologies, first at the G8 Summit and now the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). In fairness, even the Bush administration had reservations and only settled for circumlocutory language on Indian insistence. Did India then assume it could use the US for the waiver and others for ENR technologies? If so, its naiveté is now exposed as Ms Clinton sought “rewards” for their lead effort, having stymied the others by the NSG rule change.
The US also sought India’s ratification of the Convention on Supplementary Compensation, and for International Atomic Energy Agency to certify its harmonisation with Indian law. Japan is also protesting that India has not fulfilled its NSG undertakings. Both the US and Japan may be misreading the mood in India. The concerns over safety, post-Fukushima and the massive uranium find in Andhra Pradesh are undercutting government’s past reasoning that civil nuclear deal was the only path to clean and sufficient energy. The government may have brought this upon itself, having persisted with the myth that Indian rights and obligations would be those of nuclear weapon states, the public’s wrath would nevertheless visit the US and its allies who played along, gifting in Washington what they planned to snatch back later through NSG rules change.
The year 2012 will test India-US relations. In 1996 also, with Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao facing elections and President Clinton wrestling with the Monica Lewinsky scandal, India-US relations went into limbo. Next year will see US President Barack Obama distracted by his re-election campaign. In addition, the unknown consequence of 33,000 US troops drawdown from Afghanistan, the next phase of the Arab Spring and the outcome in Libya and Syria with impact on the Gulf, West Asia and North Africa are all wild cards. The change of leadership in China is one more cause for uncertainty, which apparently the two delegations discussed. The allusion to an India-Japan-US conclave would not be missed in Beijing. China was perhaps the raison d’etre for the nuclear deal. But the financial crisis made US cautious and blatant references ceased. Is this another turnaround or a passing whim?
Raymond E. Vickery, former assistant secretary for commerce, in his book The Eagle and the Elephant, released on the eve of Ms Clinton’s visit, argues that economic engagement underpins all strategic relations and must be so for India and the US. Whether the exhausted eagle can recoup to soar again and the distracted elephant undertake vital reforms would determine not only their fates but that of Asia, if not be the tango of this century.

The author is a former secretary in the external affairs ministry

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