Originally Published 2011-07-23 00:00:00 Published on Jul 23, 2011
Clinton's India visit was only moderately successful with not much progress on nuclear liability issues and Afghanistan. But the good thing is that both countries are talking out their differences, showing their commitment to taking this mutually-beneficial partnership to a new high.
Hillary Clinton's India  visit: Just another bilateral?
Hillary Clinton's recent visit to India was devoid of the hype that always surrounds an American Secretary of State's visit. This could be seen as a sign of the growing maturity in Indo-US relations; such visits are no longer seen as rare events and are beginning to be seen as part of the normal course in upgrading bilateral relations. The breadth and depth of the relations and the sheer spectrum of issues in Indo-US relations is evident not only from the large entourage that accompanied Hillary Clinton but also from its composition-it included the Director of National Intelligence, the President's Advisor for Science and Technology, Department of Energy Deputy Secretary and the deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.

The focus of the visit was obviously the second annual Strategic Dialogue, which was institutionalised in July 2009 to hold consultations on regional and global issues of mutual interest and to identify new areas of cooperation. The Dialogue this year was significant not only in terms of the wide range of issues covered, but also in terms of the new issues that were on the table: for instance, new Dialogues on West Asia and Central Asia have been initiated. Similarly, an agreement has been reached on starting a new Dialogue on Latin America and the Caribbean and holding the fourth round of the East Asia dialogue later in September. These are regions where the two countries have shared interests and clearly point to the growing convergence between the US and India in terms of worldviews and America's acknowledgement of India's increasing interests in different parts of the world as it grows as a major economic and political power.

However, India needs to think twice about being openly associated with the US in a region where anti-American sentiments, particularly after 9/11, are high. At stake for India are millions of Indian expatriates and the money they send back to India.

The Dialogue took place against the backdrop of the bomb blasts in Mumbai of July 13. It was therefore no surprise that counter-terrorism cooperation and national security received pride of place in the talks. Cooperation on counter-terrorism has reached new heights through new commitments to intelligence sharing, information exchange, operational cooperation and access to advanced counter-terrorism technology and equipment. National security has become the new catchword in Indo-US relations as India upgrades its national security apparatus, opening up a potentially lucrative market for American companies.

On nuclear liability issues, each side feels let down by the other. India feels that the new NSG restrictions on ENR technology which ban the transfer of ENR technologies to countries which are not signatories to the NPT and do not have full-scope safeguards are aimed at India. Clinton has reassured India that the new NSG restrictions do not detract from the civil nuclear agreement and agreed to support India's membership in the multilateral nuclear export control regimes like the MTCR, Wassenaar Arrangement and the Australia Group in a phased manner. The US feels that despite it having expended so much diplomatic capital on the Indo-US nuclear deal, India's nuclear liability bill has excluded American companies from India's lucrative nuclear power market. India assured the US that it is committed to a level-playing field for American companies in India's nuclear market, subject to its domestic and international legal obligations. But the mutual assurances on nuclear liability issues do not seem very convincing at the moment.

Clinton also struck a sour note with her call to India to engage with the IAEA on nuclear liability issues and her insistence that India ratify the Convention on Supplementary Compensation. In fact, there was really no need for Clinton to talk about the CSC ratification as India had already committed to ratify it this year during President Obama's 2010 visit. Clearly, several issues on both sides are yet to be resolved.

On Afghanistan, though the two countries have converging long-term interests, divergences on tactical issues remain. The recent spurt in violence in Afghanistan has raised disquiet in India about the future of Afghanistan and the wider South Asian region as the US begins withdrawal of troops from Afghan soil. India fears another Taliban takeover of the country. Despite Clinton's assurances that US withdrawal from Afghanistan does not mean the end of America's commitment to peace and stability of that country, India remains unconvinced. Concerns are also being raised in India that there is no well-defined role for it in Afghanistan. But it is up to India to define its role in Afghanistan, not wait for the US to define it for India.

Clinton concluded her visit with a speech on a vision for Indo-US relations at Chennai, a hub of American investments. She called on India to be more assertive in Asia and to take on more responsibilities. A declining US, which will have to cut down on defence expenses and overseas engagements in the not too far future, needs partners in Asia where "the history of the 21st century will be written in Asia". India fits the bill both as a democratic country and a country which shares most of the US' strategic concerns in Asia.

On economic relations there has been some progress. The Bilateral Aviation Safety Agreement which would open up exports and help investment in aviation, has been signed. New Delhi and Washington have also agreed to recommence negotiations on the long-delayed Bilateral Investment Treaty, which would boost transparency and predictability for investors and support economic growth and create jobs in both countries. A Totalisation Agreement which would exempt workers in both countries from social security taxes is also under consideration. Another issue raised in the meeting was visa restrictions which have affected the movement of Indian professionals, particularly IT professionals, to the US. Visa rejection rates for Indian software professionals have gone up sharply in the last few months. But India should bear in mind that steps towards easing restrictive US visa practices are not helped by reports about the misuse of visas by leading Indian IT companies like Infosys. But US concerns on trade barriers and investment restrictions in the retail and insurance sectors do not seem to have been resolved.

The Clinton visit was thus only moderately successful: while on the one hand cooperation and consultations on less contentious issues like terrorism and homeland security has grown, there has not been much progress on nuclear liability issues and Afghanistan. It is not unusual for even the best of friends to have differences, but the good thing is that both countries are talking out their differences, showing their commitment to taking this mutually-beneficial partnership to a new high.

(The writer is a Junior Fellow with Observer Research Foundation)

Courtesy: The Pioneer

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