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India, US are talking ten to the dozen

by Seema Sirohi  Jun 11, 2012 20:18 IST

#India   #Leon Panetta   #ThisisNext   #United States  

Washington: It's talk therapy and it's much needed when you are building a partnership. India and the United States are talking ten to the dozen on a million things, about subjects once forbidden and about roads never travelled.

As the third round of the India-US Strategic Dialogue opens next week, the two countries are preparing to discuss everything from hardcore strategic ideas to key developmental issues. The list of subjects has multiplied since the first meeting in 2010 as have sub-dialogues. From how to deal with a post-2014 Afghanistan when NATO troops depart to predicting the monsoons efficiently – everything is on the table.

These are ties that bind, for sure, but those looking for big announcements may be disappointed. Defensive diplomats are fending off repeated questions about outcomes and "deliverables". What is likely are many "single runs" not spectacular "sixes" as the Indian "baraat" of four ministers and tens of bureaucrats descends on Washington.

Increasing bonhomie. Image courtesy PIB

But there is pressure from the US Congress, the business lobby and high-profile spokesmen on the edges on the need to move on the economic front. They want Indian laws changed or amended to suit demands from US businesses. They want to "reset" trade with India with a bilateral investment treaty leading up to a trade agreement.

Some have even hinted that "no announcements" from the talkathon next week would only embolden those who say the relationship is oversold. But they ignore the large mosaic of initiatives and projects underpinning the relationship. It is growing daily with high-level visits and "real-time" sharing and caring.

Intelligence cooperation is one such area where the two sides have rapidly built confidence and opened avenues to do more. Former US ambassador to India, Tim Roemer, said it was "indescribable" how the "amount and nature" of intelligence sharing had grown. India is likely to get technical help from the US on curbing fake currency flowing from Pakistan and via Nepal, which in turn finances terrorist cells. The Americans have a formidable database of counterfeit dollars and tracking systems as they worn into the real economy.

On security issues, the meeting of minds is even greater. In less than two years, the Americans have moved from adamantly opposing any Indian role in Afghanistan to pushing for a large Indian role. Pakistan’s concerns no longer act as a veto. Washington has finally got a realistic handle on Pakistan and is doing everything to find alternatives to create stability, be it convincing India, or the Central Asian countries and Russia.

But what could be the enemy of this growing relationship is lack of nuance. Washington’s style of functioning, its political culture, its many disparate lobbies driven by their own self-interest (not necessarily always for the better of the two countries) can clash loudly with the Indian tendency to play under the radar. The byword of Indian thinking apart from strategic autonomy is strategic ambiguity – at least in public while embracing many ideas in private.

But the Americans like to come with "band baja", hollering and exhorting and prescribing. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta’s recent visit to New Delhi was a perfect example. His enthusiasm about India being a "linchpin" of America’s new Asia-Pacific strategy met with a somewhat less boisterous response. India wants to be close to the US, buy American weapons, and even send signals to China but not in too overt a manner.

Some in Washington have begun to understand India’s need for ambiguity but some simply can’t deal with a country which won’t hug back. Broadly speaking America’s diplomats in the State Department understand the need for nuance and India’s complex domestic politics but those in the Defence Department like clear, concise, by-the-book (their book) agreements and understanding. If tens of countries have signed those "foundational agreements" which allow the two militaries to share facilities and increase interoperability, and suffered no loss of sovereignty, why can’t India?

But the US is moving to accommodate India even on this front, a thorn on both sides for over a decade. Panetta, a consummate doer, may have dropped the demand on India to sign the alphabet soup of agreements (CISMOA, BECA and LSA). He may also no longer insist on on-site inspections required under US law after sales of sensitive technology to prevent diversion.

With every senior-level visitor, problems are getting resolved. That is a plus. So the more talking that goes on, the more chances of getting differences resolved. The Americans are starting to learn that a partnership with India requires giving more space to New Delhi than a bear hug.

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