June 08, 2012
Chidanand Rajghatta, TNN | Jun 8, 2012, 09.31PM IST
WASHINGTON: The audience at the Carnegie Endowment event on US-India relations ahead of the strategic dialogue spilled out into an overflow room on Thursday evening. A key state department official working on the nuts and bolts of the relationship outlined the energy and intensity of the engagement between the two sides. ''We are not even into June and already five US cabinet officials have visit India this year,'' gushed deputy assistant secretary of state Alyssa Ayres, reeling off the names of secretary of state Hillary Clinton, defense secretary Leon Panetta, commerce secretary John Bryson, health secretary Kathleen Sebelius, and treasury secretary Tim Geithner (upcoming) who have been New Delhi-bound in recent weeks.
India is set to reciprocate those visits over the next week during and around the third US-India Strategic Dialogue (SD) centered on external affairs minister SM Krishna's engagement with his counterpart Hillary Clinton, for whom it will be a finale of sorts before she demits office later this year. Human resources minister Kapil Sibal, science and technology minister Vilasrao Deshmukh, and man-for-all-seasons Sam Pitroda will back him in an endeavour that has resulted in incremental increase in the strength and potency of US-India ties after a giant leap during the Bush presidency.
But policy wonks, regional analysts, and assorted enthusiasts for a greater US-India engagement are searching for the next big idea to express President Obama's vision of a ''defining partnership'' with India in the 21st century, something on the scale of the civilian nuclear deal. It's missing. Mandarins on both sides struggle to come up with an overarching theme, other than to echo the President's words. Asked to identify the focus of the 3rd SD, Indian officials said it's aimed a reaffirming faith and confidence in the relationship. ''Human development,'' one official proffered feebly.
Minutes before Ayres launched into a rapid-fire checklist of the numerous items on the agenda for the dialogue her boss Robert Blake had left the room after yet another expansive speech on US-India ties in which he refuted recent narratives suggesting the relationship had been oversold, and maintained that the partnership is much more than a quest for the next big thing. But the growing sense in Washington is that New Delhi is leery of the biggest thing that the United States is seeking -- an alliance of the kind it has with other Asian powers such as Japan and South Korea.
Hillary Clinton and Leon Panetta, Obama's senior cabinet principles, were both voluble about a more assertive Indian role in the region, both in East Asia and in Afghanistan. But whether it is an outcome of strategic timidity or diplomatic prudence, New Delhi is seen as being very circumspect in its response. American analysts and the media have recorded it. The headline in the Los Angeles Times following the Panetta visit said it all: ''India not sold on closer military ties with U.S,'' it noted, reporting that New Delhi ''appeared more interested in buying U.S. weapons than in aligning strategically with Washington.''
If US officials are miffed about Indian reticence, they are not showing it. They also insist that their courtship of India, expressions of greater presence in Pacific, and efforts to involve India in East Asia are not aimed at containing China. In fact, Washington is pressing for a trilateral dialogue process with India and China. ''India is going to maintain strategic autonomy, as we will as well,'' Assistant secretary of state Robert Blake said at Carnegie. ''But we do see opportunity to work ever more closely with India across a wide range of ideas.''
One such area is Afghanistan where Washington is now literally outsourcing -- to use that shopworn term -- the pacification of the country to India as it draws down from the region. It is a role New Delhi is starting to embrace with the usual circumspection. The loss is Pakistan's, a country that has now become marginal in the US-India scheme of things that factors in a broader global architecture.
Whether or not New Delhi plays ball with Washington in the immediate present, interest in the region and the bilateral relationship is at an all-time high in the US Capital. The Carnegie event overflowed with attendees from think-tanks, academia, business, and Industry. On Friday, an event at another think-tank featuring Nancy Powell and Nirupama Rao, the U.S and Indian ambassadors in New Delhi and Washington respectively, was sold out.
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