This column first appeared in Mint, on August 4, 2014. Like all products of the Brookings Institution India Center, this is intended to contribute to discussion and stimulate debate on important issues. The views are solely those of the author.
Opinion on the recently concluded fifth India-US strategic dialogue ranged from it being a dramatic “transformative moment” to it making too little progress and being too late. The reality, as always, is somewhere in between—while the dialogue certainly put India-US relations back on track it did not achieve a dramatic breakthrough.
This is not an insignificant achievement considering that India’s parochial stand, which led to the collapse of the crucial World Trade Organization (WTO) talks, could easily have wrecked the bilateral dialogue. Instead, the two sides managed to insulate their talks from the WTO fallout and produced a joint statement reflecting their widening and deepening relationship.
Today India–US relations span from issues like the TTP (Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan) to the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) and a spate of acronyms in between. They involve cooperating on at the bilateral level but also reaching common understanding in various multilateral and plurilateral fora. Each of these has the potential of taking the bilateral relationship forward but also stymying it. The latest strategic dialogue reflects efforts to maintain the forward momentum but also reduce potential train wrecks.
There are three crucial takeaways from the strategic dialogue, which underline this endeavour. First, on terrorism, the joint statement stressed the continuation of the Counter-Terrorism Joint Working Group process and the need to “intensify efforts to combat terrorism, proliferation of WMDs, nuclear terrorism, cross-border crime, and address the misuse of the internet for terrorist purposes”, thus broadening the scope considerably. Simultaneously it specifically seeks to disrupt and dismantle Al-Qaida and Lashkar-e-Taiba networks, implying a tacit need on the one hand for closer counter-terrorism cooperation (as was evident in the May attack on the Indian consulate in Herat) and on the other to jointly compel Pakistan’s democratic government to step up its efforts to achieve this objective.
Second, while the US reaffirmed its desire to see India as a permanent member of a reformed United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and “to upgrade the existing dialogue on Peacekeeping into a broader dialogue on UN issues”, the implementation of this commitment has been dismal. Thus, the US and India were on opposite sides of an unsavoury dustup over financing UN peacekeeping earlier this year and there is little progress in reforming the UNSC. This is partly because India and the US do not have a common understanding or approach to issues that come before the UNSC and partly because the New Delhi-Washington dialogue is not replicated between their missions in New York.
Third, this dialogue also emphasised clean energy, particularly solar, biofuel and nuclear energy cooperation as well as enhancing energy efficiency and reviewed the new PEACE (Promoting Energy Access through Clean Energy) initiative, which have investment and job creation potential. This cooperation was undoubtledly prompted in part to achieve a “successful outcome in Paris in 2015 of the work of the Ad-hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change”. It underlines the expectation that cooperation in clean technology, smart grid, energy efficiency, adaptation strategies and sustainable forestry should empower India to shape the evolving climate change negotiations rather than block them.
While these three areas have the potential to transform India-US relations and India’s role in the global order, geopolitical differences, particularly over Pakistan and India’s inability to eke out a WTO compromise could easily stall progress. That coupled with the Middle East crisis, which distracted US Secretary of State John Kerry with scores of middle of the night calls during the dialogue are hurdles both sides need to deal with.
This strategic dialogue is a good beginning for India-US relations. Sustaining it through crises will be the real challenge.
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