IndiaUS strategic dialogue Why India US should look at a next big idea


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Sep 22, 2012
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What did you make of John Kerry's whirlwind run-through of the India-US strategic dialogue? "Well, we didn't expect much, so we were not disappointed" runs the dominant response in this city.

On paper the bilateral relationship is almost universal in its reach. Innovation, space, health, clean energy, defence, counter-terrorism, you name it, we're supposedly talking to the Americans about it. Of course, a decade ago we were still feeling our way through the NSSP, father of the nuclear deal. In the past decade, we have gone through bruising negotiations on really fundamental issues that divided us, and won, which seemed to indicate both countries were getting on a different plane.

We're back to being a low performance relationship and that's a bad thing. Part of the responsibility is New Delhi's. Manmohan Singh appeared to lose energy after the heavy lifting of the nuclear deal. He piloted a disastrous nuclear liability law through Parliament at a time when the general mood was to punish every foreign company.

The US too has moved from the extensive vision of the Bush years to becoming a transactional power under Obama. The nuclear deal took three years, the next steps took five, largely because of US induced delays.

The Kabul Table

What we have now is ludicrous. Manmohan Singh bemoans protectionism in the US, US companies are complaining about India's barriers to market access. These companies used to be India's best friends with the US administration.

Possibly the only worthwhile conversation at this point is the 'polmil' dialogue on defence technology that NSA Shivshankar Menon is holding with Ash Carter. Menon has to steer the defence-strategic relationship from a buyer-seller one to one that is more equitable specially if the US is to become India's primary defence partner.

"We are not in a drift, we're in danger of a rift," said keen analysts of the India-US account. Therefore it's important both sides look for the next big idea to save this relationship.

Here are two areas where we will remain on opposing sides of the argument, so it's best to take these off the table. Despite India's sentiments on the matter, Obama has committed to arming the Syrian rebels, which will inflame the region in an orgy of violence that will inevitably spill over into India. In their haste to turn off the lights in Afghanistan, the US will find another way to talk to Taliban to bring them on board in Kabul, with a ruinous deal with Pakistan. The Doha talks have been stymied for the present because once again the US-Pakistan deal overreached, but they will resume in another form, in another place.

India won't like what's happening, but we can only object, having no better solutions. We are marginal because we are not a security player.

No Difficult Choice

Look closer home. India should push an investment treaty with the US, using it to straighten out its internal investment strategies and launch the next round of economic reforms. That's what China did when it joined WTO and Japan's Shinzo Abe is doing by joining TTP.

Strategically, let's look at the Indo-Pacific as the theatre for the next big deal. Notwithstanding China's categorisation of the Xi-Obama meeting at a "New Type of Great Power Relationship", India and the US have the greatest strategic alignments there. Let's not get spooked by G-2 either - the bald truth is "rebalancing" is a China-hedge strategy. This is good for us, we should be a part of it.

India's relations with China are best when the India-US account thrives - ask anyone who manages these relationships. If we aim to be a net provider of security between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, we need to make choices about partners, technologies and the future. That's India's best bet for managing our strategic autonomy.

India-US strategic dialogue: Why India, US should look at a next big idea - Economic Times

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