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Reconciling Rhetoric and Substance in India-US Relations

Dr Cherian Samuel is a Research Fellow (SS) at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • December 09, 2010

    The conventional wisdom till now was that people-to-people contacts (read, the Indian Diaspora) had provided the momentum for India-US relations, with government-to-government relations struggling to catch up. The spate of summits starting 2005 with the cementing of the Strategic Partnership and the increasing symbolism woven into these summits seemingly indicate that the political leaderships of the two countries have also caught up, with only the respective bureaucracies left in the slow lane.

    Joint statements issued at the end of summits have always been a mix of wish lists and action taken reports, but increasingly there is more of the former than the latter. As the issues for strategic cooperation have expanded, so has the size of the joint statement: the 2005 Joint Statement stood at a crisp 1200-odd words, while the latest one issued on November 8 has expanded to 3304 words and covered the geographical spread from Africa to the farthest reaches of Asia. The issue areas for joint cooperation have similarly expanded. As noted during the course of the visit, 18 separate groups met under the aegis of the Strategic Dialogue that took place earlier in the year in Washington.

    Another reason for the burgeoning size of the Joint Statement is that some issues such as the implementation of the India-US civil nuclear agreement, to which two paragraphs have been devoted, simply refuse to go away and the incremental progress has to be noted in succeeding statements. Other issues such as that of a totalisation agreement, hanging fire since 2001, to enable Indian nationals to recover the monies extracted from their salaries for social security purposes on their leaving the United States, do not make it even to the starting block. According to the Joint Statement, ”Recognizing the people-to-people dynamic behind trade and investment growth, [President Obama and PM Singh] called for intensified consultations on social security issues at an appropriate time,“ surely the most contradictory sentence ever. Ironically, the so-called people-to-people dynamic that provided the initial ballast to India-US relations is now seen more as a millstone. The changed domestic economic climate has seen the United States seeking to brush aside not just the issue of the totalisation agreement but also the related issues of legislation targeting Indian companies over outsourcing and increased harassment of Indian workers through the stricter enforcement of existing rules. While the United States might view this as an immigration issue, India sees this as a services issue and a violation of the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), as noted by the Indian Commerce Secretary in a recent interview.

    As far as the more substantive parts of the Joint Statement are concerned, while no big ticket item was on the cards, the numbers of smaller initiatives have apparently both deepened and widened, especially when it comes to the United States sharing technical know-how in sectors ranging from meteorology to agriculture. Memorandums of Understanding on the assessment and exploration of shale gas and an agreement to establish a Joint Clean Energy Research Centre in India are hailed as important milestones in rapidly growing clean energy cooperation. However, joint cooperation goes against the grain of national self interest, especially when it comes to leadership in emerging areas such as green technologies. A recent report has it that a number of agreements on which the Indian Commerce Ministry and the US Trade Representative’s Office had been working on “for months, and in some cases, years” could not be finalized in time for the President’s visit because of disputes over localization. Similar hiccups have come in the way of cooperation in the nuclear and space arenas. The Joint Statement’s call for reconvening the Civil Space Joint Working Group in early 2011 serves as a reminder of how fickle these partnerships can be, the tag ‘strategic’ notwithstanding. The Civil Space Joint Working Group was established in 2004 even prior to the Strategic Partnership Agreement. Regular meetings were held from 2005 to 2008, but there is no record of meetings having taken place in 2009 and 2010, presumably because the new Administration had other priorities.

    Even as the backlog of pending issues steadily increases, the strategic and economic congruence between the two countries has meant that new areas of cooperation find their way onto the agenda with regularity. One of those is cybersecurity, where the two countries have the common goal of “free, fair and secure access to cyberspace” and where both countries have been subject to cyber attacks. Indian representatives were invited as observers for the first time to Cyber Storm III, the annual national cyber incident response exercise conducted by the US Department of Homeland Security. There have also been increased contacts between cybersecurity experts of the two countries after a long gap. Counter-terror cooperation is another area in which the United States seems to have made up its mind to engage closely with India, a move that makes sense both strategically and economically, given the huge market for counter-terror related technologies and equipment that India represents. Thus, even as Indian authorities fixate on equating counter-terrorism cooperation with exchanging information on terrorist threats emanating from Pakistan, the Counterterrorism Cooperation Initiative (CCI) signed between the two countries in July 2010 envisages intensified cooperation on issues ranging from money laundering to anti-terror training. According to a US State Department fact sheet, its Anti-Terrorism Assistance training division has so far trained 1,630 Indian law enforcement officials in 82 CT-related courses, and plans 24 more such courses by 2012. As with the military exercises, these courses provide an opportunity, amongst others, to demonstrate the capabilities of US-made equipment.

    A widening gap between rhetoric and reality will only lead to cynicism, and the gap can be narrowed only by establishing habits of cooperation that can withstand the vicissitudes of change, whether it be of governments or priorities. Otherwise, the indispensable partnership would continue to be what it is, a transactional relationship propelled forward by political declarations that largely remain unfulfilled.