June 18, 2012

US-India: Alignment & autonomy



Seema Sirohi | Jun 18, 2012, 12.00AM IST



WASHINGTON: India and the United States, partners in prime, concluded the third round of their strategic dialogue last week. It was a talk session so vast and varied, it took 13 pages to summarise the discussions. The comfort level is obvious as is the keenness to help each other without pushing the wrong buttons.

The discussion has expanded from geostrategic issues to cover a dizzying array of fields - from agriculture to education, from science and technology to women's empowerment, from cyber security to counter-terrorism, from police training to creating virtual institutes on mathematics - a very large palette is coming alive.
To be sure it is an experiment in building a new kind of relationship, one never attempted by either country. Because it is an experiment, finding the right ingredients and a catalyst is a search. But the fundamental logic of strategic convergence holds. Of that, there is little doubt. And there is new logic unfolding daily.

Top officials in both governments have reached a good understanding on how to structure this "special relationship". The Americans know India will not become an "ally" and no one is pushing for it. They have enough treaty allies. Expectations have been adjusted and Washington well understands that India wants a partnership of equals. For historical, psychological and philosophical reasons, India won't be anyone's junior partner.

Neither is the US egging India onto adventures it doesn't want to undertake but at the same time it has determined it would help India to build capacity. As more US defence technology becomes available, India can gather greater "comprehensive national power"- a phrase the Chinese casually throw around to disparage India.
India is smartly hunting for strategic autonomy while getting closer to the US. It packages the alignment differently at different times. This may disappoint the with-us-or-against-us Americans but they are a minority. The big picture is good and getting better.

If former president George Bush cut through decades of diplomatic weed to put India in clear sight as a partner, President Barack Obama is shedding years of dependency on Pakistan to contain it. Bush changed the game by crafting the civil-nuclear deal with India and Obama is changing it further by relentlessly targeting terrorists ensconced in Pakistan. The slow realisation about Pakistan's dangerous designs has solidified into a cold determination to break the habit. Obama's eyes today are wide open after a year or two of trying to look into the hearts of Pakistani generals.

The Bush-Obama teamwork in South Asia is welcome and a source of greater stability in the long run. Pakistan has lost its primacy as a geographic and strategic blackmailer. Its bad choices in the past - no strategic reasoning can justify nurturing and unleashing terrorists - are closing its options in the present. If Pakistan's leadership does not see the writing on the wall and act positively, the future may be one of solitary splendour.

Meanwhile, India and the US will start a trilateral dialogue with Afghanistan. Surely a stark new reality for Pakistan as Washington begins to think of India as a net security provi-der in a country Islamabad considers its backyard. But India is understandably cautious because for all the "recognition" that India can take on more security-related responsibilities in Afghanistan, it was only yesterday that Washington was against New Delhi marking its presence - at the prompting of Pakistan - and issuing demarches. A copy of one such was brought to Washington as a reminder of unhappier times.
Within the span of the Obama Administration, Washington has courted China, then India, lectured India for engagement with Burma and then made a turnaround. One could call it nimble, fickle or evolutionary. The important point is that Obama's team is continuing with India where Bush left off despite some stone-throwing from the margins by those who continue to try to undermine the US-India civil nuclear deal.

But the "habits of cooperation" are building. More groundbreaking work can be done bilaterally, especially in defence production and research, as India wants. This will help foster trust. Strategic space for India has opened wider with US help. The question is how to use it wisely, timely and gamely. There is a lesson for both countries in the exercise.
Finally, the Pakistan hang in US policy towards India may have gone but China remains the biggest complicating factor for both India and the US. The Chinese vice-premier's attempt to play India was baldly obvious when he whispered during the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meeting that the "real relationship" of the century was one between India and China. By implication, India was wasting its energy on a partner far away.

But China plays for itself while America can and does try to play in a team, especially in these times of economic trouble. India can help shape the team while gaining in strategic autonomy.

The writer is a senior journalist.

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