The story of us
While the inaugural high level strategic dialogue between India and the US is a welcome move towards advancing the bilateral relationship, it would be unwise to expect the two-day deliberations to change too much.
Firstly, neither country is yet clear in their own mind about the extent of its strategic partnership, even though the leaders committed them to this partnership as early as January 2001, and initiated the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership (NSSP) in January 2004, agreeing to expand cooperation in three specific areas: civilian nuclear activities, civilian space programmes, and high technology trade. While President Bush took a bold and successful initiative on the nuclear front, progress on the other two has been very slow, with some minor and inconsequential changes made to relax the export control licensing process for India. The NSSP was declared closed by 2005.
The US has a range of classifications for countries with whom they have, or do not have, relations. First of all, there is NATO — that is, very close allies. Then there are the MNNAs — major non-NATO allies — a list of 14 countries that enjoy some, if not all the exemptions from the Arms Export Control Act available to NATO members. Then there is a list of six countries designated by the US State Department as terrorist-supporting countries. There is, further, another classification — friendly foreign countries — designated by the defence secretary for purposes of authorising joint defence R&D programmes. Finally, there are 12 lists of "countries of concern" maintained by various US government agencies in addition to a classified list of "countries of concern" maintained by the State Department. India reportedly figures in at least five of the 12 lists, plus the State Department's classified list. So how does one balance a strategic partnership with a "country of concern"? The US does not seem to have resolved this dilemma satisfactorily, resulting in some issues continuing to bedevil bilateral relations.
India, for its part, is also quite ambivalent about the "strategic" partnership. During the intense national debate on the India-US nuclear deal, the government went out of its way to assure the Opposition that the India-US strategic partnership/agreement was an ordinary one, emphasising that India had such agreements with a large number of countries. In fact, while India had registered some dismay at Pakistan being designated a MNNA in 2004, there was no doubt that there would have been consternation had the US chosen to designate India as a MNNA as well!
One casualty of this mismatch between intention and practice in both countries has been the stalling of some issues of concern. India for its part had strong expectations that post-NSSP, the US would make changes to its export laws and relax licensing norms to India.
The US administration's uncertainty about the degree of strategic partnership has resulted in continued application of stringent export control laws in respect of India as well as maintaining the "entity list" at the same level for the past six years even though both matters have regularly featured in bilateral talks at all forums, including the high technology cooperation group meetings — of which seven have been held so far, without any success. At the joint meeting with Secretary Clinton on June 3, India's external affairs minister once again brought up the subject, saying "Another key area of our bilateral dialogue is cooperation in high technology. I am glad that we are working together to pave the way for liberalising export control restrictions that are applied to India. Given the strategic nature of our partnership, and particularly at the conclusion of the civil
nuclear initiative, these controls are not only anomalous but also a hindrance to furthering trade and investment in this particularly significant sector of our economies. We look forward to early steps in this direction."
For its part, India's inability to fully work out the contours of its strategic partnership with the US has inhibited it from undertaking some steps that may have made it easier for the US to respond to India's demands on the high technology export front. While India has been quite firm in demanding removal of entities, removal of licensing requirements etc, it has been slow in enacting/implementing some of the changes required in its own export control laws. India, for instance, is yet to announce a Munitions List, in harmony with the Wassanaar List, even though India wants the relaxation of licensing in respect of high technology dual-use items. Again, while it does have an export control law, the Weapons of Mass Destruction Act, the implementation of that act has been indifferent at best. Both Indian and US actions have to go hand in hand, but there has been little progress on coordinating these, stalling things on the high-technology front.
Strategic partnership, at the least, would require that both partners understand each other's security concerns, and not act contrary to those concerns, if not always in full support. India has, often and in strong terms, expressed its concerns vis-Ã -vis Pakistan. The US administration and Congress have equally expressed their security concerns vis-Ã -vis the Iranian nuclear programme. Unless both countries respond in a more meaningful manner, it is unlikely that much progress will be made, though individual programmes like the Nuclear Liability Bill, the entry of foreign universities into India etc. will make headway, over time. Hopefully, by the time of the next strategic dialogue in India next year, the two sides, especially the two bureaucracies, would approach the issues in a constructive manner rather than revisit past positions.
The writer is visiting fellow, Insitute of Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi