The inaugural session of the annual U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue in Washington last summer imparted new energy to bilateral affairs following a period of treading water. President Obama used the occasion to announce his visit to India and emphasized that partnership with New Delhi was one of his “highest priorities.” In the meeting’s warm afterglow, Under Secretary of State William J. Burns (now nominated as Deputy Secretary of State) remarked that “even the sky is not the limit for our ambitions and our possibilities.”
The Strategic Dialogue had its second convocation last week in New Delhi, co-chaired by Secretary of State Hillary Rodman Clinton and Indian Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna. Judging by its modest output, bilateral relations are now on a low-flying trajectory, however. Not too long ago, soaring rhetoric and visionary initiatives were the staples of such high-level confabs. But ties between the two capitals have now settled into a stubborn pattern of routine interactions and small-bore ideas. In its wrap up of the Dialogue’s events, the Hindustan Times observed that “There is a clear and obvious sense of drift in relations” and that the bilateral exchanges the countries have established in a myriad of fields “don’t seem to generate much in tangibles.” Call it the new normal in U.S.-India relations.
(For a different perspective on last week’s Strategic Dialogue, see the view by my blogging colleague Madhavi Bhasin.)
Secretary Clinton noted that her meetings with Krishna “felt like we were in a monsoon with all of the many issues and reports that were being made by our officials outlining the extraordinary progress that has occurred.” But it was hard to avoid the monsoon-sized cloud of mutual frustration hanging over the proceedings. Even the Bush-Singh nuclear deal, intended to be the capstone of a new partnership, has now become a source of acrimony, with both sides accusing the other of breaches of faith.
From the U.S. perspective, India’s nuclear liability law is inconsistent with global norms and has the effect of all but blocking the involvement of U.S. companies in the country’s lucrative nuclear energy sector. Washington wants New Delhi to ratify the Convention on Supplementary Compensation (CSC), a multilateral accord regulating liability for nuclear accidents, apparently in the belief the Indian government will submit to the notion that international law should somehow override the strictures of newly-enacted domestic legislation. Mrs. Clinton even went so far as to suggest that the International Atomic Energy Agency vet the liability law for its compliance with international practice. Both ideas are quixotic, as they represent a severe misreading of what the political market will bear in India’s sovereignty-conscious democracy. Moreover, since the CSC is far from gathering the requisite number of ratifying countries to trigger its entry into force, it is unclear why Washington thinks New Delhi’s ratification will have any practical result.
For its part, New Delhi is peeved about U.S. sponsorship of restrictions just promulgated by the 46-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group, an informal cartel regulating global nuclear commerce, regarding the export of uranium enrichment and spent-fuel reprocessing (ENR) technologies. Much of the future expansion of India’s nuclear energy sector is premised upon access to such equipment, something which many in the country thought was secured via the nuclear accord. The United States has assured New Delhi that the new restrictions will not undercut the special status India now has in the international nuclear order. But the Bush-Singh deal never extended to the delivery of ENR technology, a point that Prime Minister Singh’s government found expedient to obscure during the tumultuous vote of confidence three summers ago. Mrs. Clinton departed India hinting that unresolved problems still plague the issue.
The discussions also did little to assuage Indian concerns about the impact of the U.S. troop drawdown in Afghanistan, or persuade New Delhi that it should assume a greater leadership role in Asian security affairs as a bulwark against China’s growing power. Of course, the two issues are linked: New Delhi is very unlikely to be more active further afield when its security position in the subcontinent is under mounting threat. The assassination of two of Hamid Karzai’s closest confidants – one of whom his half-brother – just days prior to the Dialogue’s convening rattled New Delhi, and the Obama administration’s progressive disengagement from Afghanistan will only complicate Indian security calculations.
Although the Clinton visit produced an announcement of a new trilateral dialogue involving New Delhi, Washington and Tokyo – as well as the establishment of formal bilateral exchanges on the Middle East and Central Asia – the innate caution of India’s foreign policy elites will most likely disappoint American expectations about what the Indian government brings to the table.
Two items involving the itinerary of Mrs. Clinton’s traveling party illustrates the U.S.-India policy disconnects. First, a few months ago New Delhi rejected Washington’s efforts to broaden the Dialogue by involving the two countries’ defense ministers. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was reported all set to accompany Clinton to New Delhi in April when the Dialogue was originally slated to take place. And as it turned out, Gates’ successor, Leon E. Panetta, was in Kabul just a week before the Dialogue and could presumably have rearranged his schedule to attend the gathering in New Delhi had the Indians wanted to expand the forum’s remit.
Second, Mrs. Clinton gave public emphasis to her point about India stepping up its security role in Asia in an address in Chennai (formerly Madras). According to U.S. officials, Chennai was chosen as the ideal platform for this message given its strong commercial ties to Southeast Asia. But The Telegraph reports that, due to Washington’s desires to expand U.S. commercial interests in West Bengal, Clinton had at first wanted to visit Kolkata (Calcutta). This proposal was nixed by the Indian government, however, fearful that it would be seen as a provocation to the Indian Left. Clinton’s second choice of Amritsar was quickly dropped due to a lack of local enthusiasm. The decision to go to Chennai was hastily done and came as a surprise to U.S. diplomats in India.
In the run-up to last week’s meetings, some experts in Washington (see here and here) exhorted the Obama administration to use the gathering as a means of expanding strategic engagement with India. But the opportunities for doing so are quite constrained by the domestic distractions both governments confront. In India, the Singh government is engulfed by various corruption scandals that have all but paralyzed decision making. The titanic political struggle to push the nuclear accord through parliament has resulted in “Washington fatigue,” sapping any readiness to undertake similar high-profile initiatives. And despite Singh’s personal commitment to furthering bilateral ties, he is neither the master of his own government nor of his party. Many of his Congress Party colleagues are not fully invested in the future of the relationship. Even in the foreign policy area where he once had some latitude, Singh cuts an increasingly isolated figure. The recent WikiLeaks revelations have added to his political problems, as some interpret the cables as depicting him being excessively accommodating of U.S. interests.
In Washington, predicaments at home and abroad have combined to push India fall down the Obama administration’s priority list. A reciprocal sense of “India fatigue” is also spreading. New Delhi’s rejection of Boeing and Lockheed Martin’s bids in its $11 billion fighter aircraft competition and the prolonged inability of U.S. companies to cash in on the nuclear deal have made Washington policy elites increasingly weary of India’s capacity for strategic engagement. It is no coincidence that Secretary Clinton arrived in New Delhi just as a debate erupted in Washington about whether India was or could ever be a genuine “ally.”
Given the state of things in both capitals, the “new normal” looks to be with us for the next few years, at least.
(An earlier version of this post appeared at http://www.usinpac.com)