Originally Published 2012-06-20 00:00:00 Published on Jun 20, 2012
For two reasons, no big ticket items or headline-grabbing news came out of this year's third Indo-US Annual Strategic Dialogue. For one, the US is in election mode; the second reason is the policy paralysis in New Delhi.
Nothing substantial in the India-US Annual Strategic Dialogue
The third Indo-US Annual Strategic Dialogue (ASD) ended in Washington last week with a joint statement by India’s External Affairs Minister S M Krishna and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The ASD took place at a time when several American commentators are wondering if the Indo-US relationship has been "oversold" or "overhyped". In India too, scholars have been worried that there is a "strategic drift" in the relations. The joint statement seems to address these concerns: "today there is less need for dramatic breakthroughs that marked earlier phases in our relationship, but more need for steady, focused cooperation aimed at working through our differences and advancing the interests and values we share. This kind of daily, weekly, monthly collaboration may not always be glamorous, but it is strategically significant."

Though the focus of the dialogue was the meeting between Secretary Hillary Clinton and External Affairs Minister SM Krishna, many other meetings also took place around the dialogue. For instance, there were meetings on trade, health, space, clean energy, higher education, science and technology, counter-terrorism, homeland security, etc, cooperation in all of which have been under discussion for the last few years. Thus, the ASD has a very comprehensive format, enabling officials from various arenas to discuss and take stock of progress made on issues of mutual concern and interests, instead of just traditional foreign policy and defence issues. Therefore it is an important forum.

The catch words of the dialogue this time seem to be "strategic fundamentals", meaning the two countries’ shared democratic values, economic imperatives and diplomatic and security priorities are the factors driving India and the US into closer convergence. The US set a positive tone to the dialogue when the State Department announced on 11 June that it was exempting India, along with six other countries, from the Iran sanctions list for "significantly" reducing their purchase of Iranian crude oil. That is one hurdle crossed over, at least temporarily, on the Iran conundrum for India-US relations.

Afghanistan seems to have received pride of place in the discussions on foreign policy. India and the US have agreed to a "formal trilateral consultation" among the New Delhi, Washington and Kabul in areas such as agriculture, mining, energy, capacity building, women’s empowerment and infrastructure. The renewed focus on Asia was at display in the joint statement as well, which conveyed that India and the US would work bilaterally as well as multilaterally "for the evolution of an open, balanced and inclusive architecture" in the region. New Delhi and Washington also agreed on the importance of "maritime security, unimpeded commerce, and freedom of navigation, in accordance with international law, and the peaceful settlement of maritime disputes", perhaps a veiled reference to the maritime disputes in the Asia-Pacific region. Countering piracy is another area where the two countries agreed to increase coordination. On the defence front, India and the US agreed to buttress defence cooperation through increased technology transfer, collaborative joint research and development and co-production of defence articles, something that has been recommended by many defence experts to boost defence ties. Cooperation in higher education seems to have received much attention in this year’s ASD, with HRD minister Kapil Sibal talking of "meta-universities" and universities based in cyber space while seeking more investment in India’s higher education sectors.

The signing of the deal between Westinghouse and the Nuclear Power Corporation of India to build power plants in Gujarat is a significant step forward in the nuclear cooperation between India and the US. More such deals seem to be in the offing. This should silence critics of the nuclear deal in the US, who had suggested that the US gained nothing in terms of business through the deal because of India’s Nuclear Liability Law being discriminatory against US companies. There, however, does not seem to be any movement forward on India’s full membership of the four multilateral export control regimes i.e. the Missile Technology Control Regime, Nuclear Suppliers Group, Wassenaar Arrangement and the Australia Group.

What is disappointing is the lack of any movement forward on the Bilateral Investment Treaty that has been under discussion for some time now. So, given all the recent bad news on the economic front in both the US and India, some movement on the BIT would have cheered investors in both countries and boosted investor confidence in India. There was also no mention of totalisation agreement (which would support growth in the services sectors by preventing double taxation of income with regard to social security taxes) for which India has been pressing hard.

No big ticket items or headline-grabbing news has come out of this year’s dialogue for two reasons: For one, the US is in election; the second reason is the policy paralysis in New Delhi. Overall, the ASD seems to mirror the lethargy that has crept into Indo-US relations, with no big initiatives and no big announcements. But one must not forget that it is an important symbol of the commitment of the two countries to enhance understanding and cooperation and shows the depth, breadth and maturity of the relationship.

(The writer is an Associate Fellow at Observer Research Foundation)

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