December 01, 2009


Source: MailToday

Prime Minister’s visit to Washington from November 22 to 26 went as expected. It produced neither excitement nor disappointment on substantive issues. There were no surprises either by way of achieving less than what was hoped for, or more. If the visit looked for assurance that the India-US relationship would not lose steam under the Obama Administration, that assurance was forthcoming.

Disquieting signals from Obama of either poor understanding of India’s concerns on vital issues, or his conscious disregard of them, were reinforced by the joint statement issued during his November visit to China in which he endorsed China’s role in improving relations between India and Pakistan. A country unwilling to improve ties durably with India by settling the border issue on realistic terms is being touted by the US as a positive external force in helping improve our ties with Pakistan. Why should China want to do that when it has strategically used Pakistan effectively against us all these years and a rising India could cast a shadow on China’s radiance? The subsequent clarification that China does not wish to intervene in India-Pakistan differences etc is either usual Chinese double speak or the US seeks a Chinese role in India-Pakistan relations as it wants progress there for creating more favourable conditions for pursuing its wobbling Af-Pak strategy.

In any case, touching India’s raw nerve just before Prime Minister’s visit to Washington was not only ill-timed, it was also clumsy diplomacy as the joint statement implicitly rejected India’s core position that India-Pakistan problems had to be settled bilaterally, put India in a subordinate position vis a vis a China increasingly assertive in its claims over Arunachal Pradesh, and equated India and Pakistan in terms of responsibility for existing tensions. It also contradicts US’s official position that India and Pakistan have to settle their differences on their own, and that while the US favoured resumption of dialogue and reconciliation, it did not seek to intervene in the process.

There was an understandable desire at the political level in India to downplay this diplomatic slight administered to India in Beijing in order to avoid souring the atmosphere of Prime Minister’s own visit to Washington. That hardly justified, however, the pre-emptive action by the Congress spokesperson to dismiss what transpired in China as a “casual remark” by the US president. That he reacted even before the External Affairs Ministry did shows creeping functional disarray in the making and enunciation of our foreign policy, with the centrality of the Foreign Ministry, and, in the Ministry, the stature of the External Affairs Minister himself, suffering erosion. The Ministry rightly rebuffed the US-China joint statement on India, in a low key manner no doubt, but that was understandable in the circumstances, though its force had already been diluted by the precipitate reaction of the Congress spokesperson.

Prime Minister’s Washington visit has not clarified the situation for us. An appropriately revised US position could have been weaved into the India-US joint statement, which, as it happens, excludes any mention, even proforma, of the desirability of improved India-Pakistan ties, an objective we could have subscribed to in the right context- that of “the absolute imperative to bring to justice the perpetrators of the (Mumbai) terrorist attack”. So, while Obama, overlooking our sensitivities, talks of improved India-Pakistan ties jointly with the Chinese President, this desideratum finds no place in his joint statement with our Prime Minister, this time in deference to our sensitivities!

The joint statement contains the rhetoric of a “global strategic partnership” between India and the US and goes on to declare somewhat bombastically that the “India-US partnership is indispensable for global peace and security”. Should not this logically mean US support for India’s permanent membership of the UN Security Council, the organ charged with such global responsibility? UN reform, including that of the Security Council, to reflect the realities of the 21st century is mentioned in a general way in the statement, but specifically in relation to India’s aspirations all that the US side can visualize in the indeterminate future is a stable and prosperous India ”playing an increasingly important role in international affairs”. This contrasts, incidentally, with the Bush Administration’s verbiage of making India “a global power”.

Any “nuclear deal” kind of a deliverable from this visit was rightly not expected, but the claimed “strategic partnership” could have been substantiated by, for instance, removing remaining Indian entities still under US sanctions. In the context of space cooperation this gesture would have been important. A more liberal policy with regard to transfer of high/dual use technolgies, to which India attaches great importance, could have been announced. At the joint press conference, the Prime Minister appropriately chose to underline his message publicly that the lifting of US export controls on high technology exports to India will open up vast opportunities for joint R&D, from which the US industry could benefit.

On the nuclear side, the anticipated reprocessing agreement was not announced, which if it had would have removed concerns about Obama Administration’s degree of commitment to the nuclear deal despite its reassuring statements. The joint statement makes only a perfunctory reference to the nuclear deal despite its iconic role in transforming India-US relations, but the more surprising part is the agreement of the two leaders to “expedite US firms’ participation in the implementation of this agreement”. Why US enterprises have a role in “implementing “ this agreement, not merely profiting from it commercially, is unclear. On non-proliferation issues in general, the text visibly accommodates India’s basic positions, which is a feat given the non-proliferation diehards now in key positions in the State Department. It is hard to believe though that the US seriously intends to work with India on “universal, non-discriminatory and complete nuclear disarmament”.

On the central issue of terrorism, the tough message about punishing the perpetrators of the Mumbai attack, the recognition of the threat from terrorism and violent extremism emanating from India’s neighbourhood, the articulation of the need to take resolute and credible steps “to eliminate safe havens and sanctuaries that provide shelter to terrorists and their activities” to safeguard regional peace and security, constitute progress in terms of US officially subscribing to all this jointly with us. But, US squeamishness in not mentioning Pakistan remains, whereas In the Afghanistan context, the US side refers to terrorist safe havens in Pakistan by name. This shows the distance the US has yet to travel to adopt a position on India-directed terrorism from Pakistan with conviction and clarity. Obama’s appreciation of India’s role in reconstruction and rebuilding efforts in Afghanistan rebuffs Pakistan’s propaganda about our profile in Afghanistan, to which General McChyrstal had shown receptivity.

Prime Minister’s visit to Washington has received global attention, not the least because the state dinner in his honour being the first of Obama’s Presidency excited great curiosity. US’s wooing of India, with Obama being respectful and gracious towards its Prime Minister, has been to our diplomatic advantage internationally. The visit was, therefore, quite successful in show, though in substance the results appear nuanced.

The writer is a former Foreign Secretary(

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