Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Indo-US Relations: Time to Impart Momentum

Brig (Retd) Vinod Anand, 
Senior Fellow, VIF 

The fourth India US strategic dialogue that was held in New Delhi in the last week of June was aimed at reviewing progress in bilateral relations and outlining the trajectory ahead. Given the nature of evolving Indo-US relationship, no major breakthrough was expected. However, the dialogue also brought on the same table all important government stakeholders involved in the Indo-US strategic engagement thereby providing a common platform for discussion besides ensuring a holistic understanding of the nuances and reducing the dissonance. 

In line with what US interlocutors have been saying about India figuring as an important country in its design of Asia Pacific strategy, US Secretary of State John Kerry described India as a key partner of the US rebalance in Asia. He reaffirmed US commitment to pivot to Asia and stated that Washington valued India’s role in ensuring a stable Asia. India, on its part, has also been engaging South East and East Asian countries since early nineties since it unveiled its ‘Look East Policy’ (LEP) that has political, economic and security components. Though India’s LEP pre dates the American rebalance to Asia, both share similarity of interests and objectives in many ways. Both India and the US support freedom of navigation and trade through seas particularly in South China Sea which has been the scene of assertive policies of China.

However, it is unlikely that India can become a partner of the US in the mould of Japan, South Korea or Australia to advance the objectives of America’s Asia Pacific strategy. India is also critically looking at the US sponsored economic initiative of Trans Pacific Partnership which is the economic component of its Asia Pacific strategy. The alternative is ASEAN sponsored Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership which has the potential of being dominated by China.

But what is of abiding concern to India has been the evolving situation in Afghanistan where Pakistan and Taliban have been given the central role in the unfolding end game. Despite Kerry’s assurance that talks with Taliban will only take place if they adhere to the three red lines of renouncing violence, accepting Afghan Constitution and severing links with Al Qaeda, there is a degree of skepticism in India about his assertions. During his visit, Kerry also talked of improving India Pakistan relations that would have positive impact on the situation in Afghanistan. Now, this is a formulation which has been advanced many times by American interlocutors like late Richard Holbrooke and others and vehemently rejected by India. Even James Dobbins, the current US Special Representative for Af-Pak, who arrived in New Delhi in the wake of Kerry’s visit, talked about this formulation but in different words.

Further, Kerry very well knows that in Pakistan, the locus of power lies with the Army and professions of peace with India by the newly elected Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif are of no consequence as Pakistan’s Afghan and Indian policies will be shaped by the military. Kerry himself has met Pakistani Army Chief Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani in Brussels and Jordan in connection with solving the Af-Pak puzzle. His proclivities towards Kayani and Pakistan military are well known as he was the author of Kerry-Lugar bill which enabled provision of military aid to Pakistan despite Islamabad providing sanctuaries to Taliban who have killed many American and ISAF soldiers. 

Iran’s nuclear ambitions is another area where India has divergence of approach with the US. The US has granted exemptions of sanctions to India for off take of oil, albeit reduced, for another six months effective from June 5, 2013. The Americans are hopeful of Indian influence on the new as well as old Iranian leadership to comply with nuclear non proliferation requirements and engage positively in the P 5 + 1 talks that are likely to resume in August. India, however, did not seem confident enough knowing the complexity of the issue and deeply nuanced differences between Iran and the United States. 

There is much concern in the United States that adequate benefit has not been derived from the Indo-US Civil Nuclear Deal. The main bone of contention is the nuclear liability law. India is firm on non dilution of the nuclear liability law as it is also politically unsustainable for the present government facing a difficult election year. It also needs to be remembered that Russia also had misgivings about India’s nuclear liability law; however, they were satisfied after they were allowed to raise the costs of setting up their nuclear plants in India. India has reportedly expressed willingness to engage in explaining the law. Thus, there is hope that ongoing commercial discussions between NPCIL and Westinghouse towards setting up a nuclear power plant at Mithivirdi in Gujarat and between General Electric-Hitachi and NPCIL on setting up a nuclear power plant in Andhra Pradesh may bear some results by September. This is the time when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh would be visiting the US. Prior to the summit level meeting, US Vice President Joe Biden would be visiting India in end July to impart some momentum to Indo-US relationship. 

While there are multiple tracks of defence engagement, the main focus for the US has been defence sales. Indo-US defense trade has reached nearly $9 billion. Induction of C-130J and C-17 aircraft into the Indian Air Force and of the P-8I maritime patrol aircraft into the Indian Navy have been the main achievements of the past year. India is planning to order six more C-130 J special operations aircraft and 145 M777 ultra-light howitzers. Commercial negotiations are on for 22 Boeing Apache Longbow strike helicopters ($1.2 billion) and 15 heavy-lift Boeing CH Chinook helicopters ($1.4 billion) for the Indian Air Force. Meanwhile, delivery of 10 - C 17 Globemaster III is likely to be completed by June 2015 and the buzz is that 10 more may be on order. The main focus from the Indian side is on developing a model of co-development, co-manufacture and co-purchase. However, there has not been any progress on these aspects. 

During the Kerry visit, Admiral Samuel J. Locklear, Commander, US Pacific Command called on Air Chief Marshal NAK Browne, Chairman, Chiefs of Staff Committee and Chief of the Air Staff. Regional security and South China Sea were reportedly the main issues discussed. Both India and US support freedom of navigation through the seas and have participated in counter piracy exercises as part of maritime cooperation. On the issue of counter terrorism, the working of annual Counterterrorism Joint Working Group meetings and the Homeland Security Dialogue, which met in May 2013, was reviewed. While cooperation in investigation and prosecution of perpetrators of the 2008 Mumbai attacks was discussed, India has not been able to gain from the interrogation of David Headley, a key conspirator in the attacks.

Given information of Chinese forays in offensive cyber actions and India’s particular vulnerability in this area, cyber security consultations chaired by respective national security councils to coordinate positions on cross-cutting cyber-security issues are expected to provide India substantial benefit as it is due to expand cyber security organizations and mechanisms in the country. Operational cooperation between India’s Computer Emergency Response Team and the U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team also assumes importance and is expected to increase in the coming days.

A contentious issue was revelations by American whistle blower, Edward Snowden, on worldwide electronic surveillance by the United States. India was said to be the fifth most snooped on country in the world at one point despite claims of extensive security cooperation between New Delhi and Washington which has irked South Block and the issue was flagged for discussion during Kerry's visit. However, the US Secretary of State explained that the US was not carrying out any specific search of individuals that violated privacy but was engaged in general monitoring of communications of terrorist suspects based on orders of relevant US courts.

The US has welcomed the new regulations regarding foreign investment ceilings in the Indian economy, and creation of new Cabinet-level mechanisms to expedite investment in India’s infrastructure. The two sides are expected to resume negotiations to conclude a Bilateral Investment Treaty/Bilateral Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement as soon as India’s revised model BIPPA text is ready in the coming year. 

The main achievement of the fourth round of India US Strategic dialogue seems to be to highlight intensity of engagement established between the two countries and personal rapport between the Secretary of State John Kerry and Indian External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid in their first meeting. Though this may not last beyond the year at best, this will enable both the ministers to drive the present engagement to a new level, particularly to achieve a breakthrough during the forthcoming high level visits of Vice-President Joe Biden in late July and that of Indian Prime Minister Dr Man Mohan Singh to Washington in September.

It is also obvious that though the Strategic Dialogue is only in its fourth round, it has assumed an all-of-government character and has multiple points of engagement ranging from security to space and education, each having a momentum and intensity of its own. While India does have such multi-track annual dialogue with countries such as Russia, the engagement with the United States now surpasses the one with Moscow. Thus, it is apparent that India-US strategic partnership is now the most significant bilateral engagement for New Delhi.

There are many positives in the evolving Indo-US relationship. Both are engaged in strengthening their relationship in a variety of sectors ranging from consultations on global and regional issues to finding ways to enhance cooperation in economic, defence, counter-terrorism, cyber-security, energy, space and high-end technology areas. Indo-US trade has crossed 100 billion dollars which is more than Sino-Indian trade. India has held largest number of joint military exercises with the US. Though, the general purpose of such military exercises is counter-terrorism, they have a strategic idiom of their own besides promoting interoperability. 

Thus, it can be said that the recent Indo-US Strategic Dialogue provided a useful framework for imparting meaningful substance to the strategic partnership.

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