India-U.S: advancing a transformed relationship

January 19, 2009

In the space of a decade, the United States and India have travelled far in a relationship clouded by the  Cold War when they were on opposite sides.

From U.S sanctions on India for its nuclear tests in 1998 to a civilian nuclear energy deal that opens access to international nuclear technology and finance, while allowing New Delhi to retain its nuclear weapons programme is a stunning reversal of policy and one that decisively transforms ties.

America has also ‘soberly’ after decades of differing over counter-terrorism priorities become a vocal 
supporter of India’s concerns over the use of Pakistani territory for Islamist militant groups, says the Asia 
Society in a report laying out a blueprint for an expanded India-U.S. relationship
ahead of 
President-elect Barack Obama’s inauguration on Tuesday.

Indian and U.S. interests have converged and “never in history have they been so closely aligned,” the  report by an Asia Society Task Force says, arguing for a still deeper security and economic engagement between the two large democracies.

Click here for a PDF of the report

The Obama administration must keep India as one of its top foreign policy priorities, Richard Holbrooke, chairman of the Asia Society and who has been talked about as a possible envoy to South Asia, and Vishakha N.Desai, president of the Asia Society, say in a joint foreword

Besides the players involved, the report is also interesting because it adopts a rather different tone on India’s relations with Pakistan and especially Kashmir to some of the policy prescriptions offered by some other influential U.S. think tanks such as the Center for American Progress.

This is how the task force suggests the incoming administration  boost security engagement with India: 

• Establish the closest possible consultation on all security issues in the entire region
• Reiterate commitment to “dehyphenation” (meaning U.S. ties with India and Pakistan are not a zero-sum game and must be carried on over different tracks)
• Discuss Afghanistan and Pakistan strategies frankly and in deep detail
• Listen closely on Kashmir, encourage the India-Pakistan composite dialogue, but do not try to mediate.

Music to New Delhi’s ears? Yes, but the Asia Society also cautions that the old “Great Game” suspicions over Afghanistan remain, and Pakistan sees India’s engagement there as a threat to its vital interests.

“The United States may well have to play a role in making certain India clarifies its objectives in Afghanistan and transmits those to Pakistan, while ensuring that our own dialogue with India addresses India’s role in Afghanistan and how it can be most constructive. By the same token, the U.S. will need to be forthright with Pakistan about its consultations with India and India’s importance in stabilizing Afghanistan,” it says.

A book released by the United States Institute for Peace focused on Afghanistan also stresses the key role Kabul’s neighbours play on the security situation in the country. “Regional competition continues to undermine Afghanistan’s long-term prospects, whereas renewed regional cooperation could provide a significant security and economic boost in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the region as a whole,” the book titled The Future of Afghanistan argues, according to this note.

But there are no barriers to India and the United States sharing a close relationship on dealing with militancy, the Asia Society report says, arguing that the two countries vastly expand their ties in this area on the lines of cooperation with the UK, Germany, or Australia.

 In the mid to long term, America could think of expanding the “Five Eyes” (Canada, US , UK, Australia, and NZ) intelligence-sharing network to six,  bringing India on board, it says.

And on nuclear issues, it endorses the far-reaching deal signed by the Bush administration and calls for implementing the promise of nuclear trade between the two countries immediately. It also says New Delhi must be given membership in security and nonproliferation regimes such as the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the Missile Technology Control Regime, the Australia Group and the Zangger Committee.

A bit of irony there actually, given that the Nuclear Suppliers Group came into being following India’s first set of nuclear tests in 1974 with the idea to clamp down on nuclear exports.

The Asia Society report also calls for including India in the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty  (NPT) review conference in 2010, which is equally interesting given New Delhi’s long-standing position that the NPT is discriminatory. So is this the end of nuclear apartheid as far as New Delhi is concerned now that it is being given a seat on the nuclear high table ?

Ultimately, the United States has to approach India as an equal partner if the relationship has to be taken further, the Asia Society report says. “India is an ancient, proud land and a great civilization; it is an emerging global power and it seeks respect. India is also intensely political—as are we,” the report’s authors say. There will be disagreements just as the United States has with countries such as France, but there is a “strategic interest in seeing India evolve into a democratic, independent power center.”

[Reuters pictures of an Obama sand sculpture in eastern India, U.S and Indian naval sailors on an Indian navala ship near Goa and test site in Pokharan where India conducted nuclear tests in 1998.]

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