After the U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue: Not Visionary, but Solid

Hillary Clinton and her distinguished colleagues beat expectations in the just-concluded U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue. They also established some good benchmarks for the next year of U.S.-India relations.

As expected, they moved the implementation agenda ahead, notching up enough specific agreements to fill four closely typed pages in the joint statement. They were in important but un-sexy areas – cybersecurity, aviation safety, women’s empowerment, enhancing scientific cooperation and clean energy, expanding student exchanges and information sharing. These and many other specific decisions will continue to build up the private economic ties between India and the United States as well as enhancing the government-to-government conversation. Especially welcome was External Affairs Minister Krishna’s statement that India and the United States intended to start negotiating a Bilateral Investment Treaty.

In some areas, however, they were only able to tread water. The joint statement’s treatment of the obstacles to full implementation of the U.S.-India nuclear agreement was careful and lawyerly. The message is that the U.S. problems with India’s nuclear liability legislation, which the United States considers inconsistent with the relevant international convention, will be very tough to handle. And as expected the joint statement was silent on some of the decade-old trade issues the two countries still face, and recorded no new accomplishments on visa issues that trouble the Indian government. But overall, the dialogue moved the U.S.-India bilateral agenda ahead.

More importantly, the governments announced a significant enhancement of the ongoing U.S.-India conversation about global political and economic trends. The week before the Strategic Dialogue saw the launch of two new “regional dialogues,” one on the Middle East, and the other on Central Asia. These are consultations between senior officials responsible for regional policies. The dialogue on East Asia has set the standard for such discussions over the past year and a half, creating a real professional bond between these key policy-makers in both countries. The two new regional consultations are off to a good start. These exchanges are the raw materials from which one can construct a relationship that extends to global strategic issues both countries care deeply about.

The talks in Delhi also featured a candid discussion of Afghanistan. Secretary Clinton’s speech in Chennai was forthright in recognizing India’s strategic stake in Afghanistan and supporting its economic role there. But she was also careful to acknowledge to her Indian audience the importance of respecting Pakistan’s strategic interests. This last point may not go down well in India, but it is a vital reality check. India needs to understand that U.S. policy in Afghanistan is constrained by often conflicting pressures, both domestically and in the region.

So no big bang, and no advance hints of future free trade discussions, but continuing expansion of foreign policy consultations, removal of some of the economic roadblocks, and some candor on Afghanistan and Pakistan. This may not get hearts beating faster, but it’s a scorecard that keeps India and the United States moving forward step by step. And as the economic relationship grows, the two countries will have more ballast to steady them through occasional difficult waters.

And the benchmark for next year? My choice would include assessing the staying power and seriousness of the new regional dialogues, tackling at least a couple of the old trade issues, and getting nuclear trade started. Negotiating an investment treaty and getting both countries ready for a serious look at free trade would be even better.

Above all, between now and next year, the stellar group that met in Delhi needs to keep paying attention. The U.S.-India relationship is critical – but it’s a high maintenance enterprise.