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India-US relations: not flat like a chapati anymore

Washington DC (2012-06-11):  In 2002, the US ambassador to India, Robert Blackwill had famously commented “India-US trade-relations are as flat as a chapati.” Relations were then limping to normalcy post 9/11 till President George W Bush gave a carte blanche to his administration to chart out a new path with India. Today, the India-US relationship is nowhere as flat as a chapati, indeed it is as puffed up as a poori.

Cut to June 2010, when the US Deputy Secretary of State, William J. Burns captured the changed mood: “Never has there been a moment when India and America mattered more to one another. And never has there been a moment when partnership between India and America mattered more to the rest of the globe.”

US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta was in Delhi last week wowing the Indians, and External Affairs Minister S M Krishna will be in Washington DC this week for the Third US-India Strategic Dialogue co-chairing it with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. This exercise in some loose form, dates back to 2002 when government officials, business leaders, academics, social workers and scientists began meeting and discussing vital issues that connected both countries.

The in-depth dialogues have been conscientiously taking place in New Delhi and Washington on maritime security, trade and business, cooperation in science, clean and renewable sources of energy, monsoon prediction, agriculture — things that affect people’s lives directly, not just conceptually. Bilateral trade in goods and services has increased almost five-fold in the last ten years, from $18 billion in 2001 to nearly $90 billion in 2011. More than 10,000 Indian students study in the United States and nearly 60 per cent of them are studying engineering, mathematics and computer science.

Consider the way we are cooperating with the US department of Homeland Security. Can you even imagine India doing that a decade ago? Today we share crucial data on intelligence matters, forensics and investigation, on combating counterfeit currency, on countering illicit financing, and share data relating to terrorism. Terrorism has global dimensions and this cooperation is extremely helpful to us in combating terror on Indian soil. It’s not that there are no differences between India and the US. The two countries think differently on Libya, Iran, China, Pakistan, Burma, Syria — and even vote differently in the UNSC — but they discuss these subjects freely and respect the other’s opinion; they don’t bang doors on each other. There is a willingness to understand each other’s point of view. There is a grudging but healthy acceptance in Washington for India’s need to maintain its strategic autonomy. Even when it comes to China, it isn’t a zero sum game and there is an ASEAN and East Asia partnership programme in place, in which the US is a keen partner.

In the area of defence cooperation, India has awarded $8 billion worth of defence contracts to the US in the last few years, but that cherry on the pie, the Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) deal was gobbled up by France. Tough. Sometimes, even the pooris look like chapatis. The political energy that UPA-1 channeled into the India-US relationship is not so obvious in the UPA-2. This could be for two reasons. Either because it is not necessary, as the bureaucracy has now taken over the task of giving concrete shape and form to the relationship. Or the UPA-2 is so exhausted by its domestic politics that it does not have the gumption to take any ambitious foreign policy steps. Moreover, India’s traditional misgivings and historical leanings (read Non Aligned Movement) tend to make it suspicious toward being perceived as marching lockstep with the US. This makes the US administration and some think-tanks in the American capital irritable and impatient towards India. But that is the way India operates. At multiple levels and seemingly at cross purposes.

This week’s Strategic Dialogue is expected to cover 20 different topics ranging from counter terrorism, civilian nuclear cooperation to regional issues. Interestingly, there are calls for a time-bound plan for signing the ambitious Bilateral Investment Treaty between the two countries which, as Karl Inderfurth said, “would help assuage growing investor uncertainty in India”. The Obama administration is just four months away from an election; hence this dialogue is not expected to deliver a major breakthrough on any significant front. However the dialogue will certainly be carried forward through to the next administration. It has taken decades for the believers to get to this point. There is no going back now.

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I am the Editor News, at Asian News International (ANI), Indias leading Multimedia News Agency and the India Correspondent for Channel News Asia, a Singapore based broadcaster.
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