February 18, 2020
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A Few Inches Closer

The "process of persuasion and accommodation" carries on

A Few Inches Closer

A veil of secrecy marked the fourth round of talks between emissaries of India and the US. Questions about the August 24 meeting between prime minister A.B. Vajpayee's special envoy Jaswant Singh and US deputy secretary of state Strobe Talbott received a guarded response from US Administration officials in Washington. While a bland statement from the Indian Embassy in Washington described the talks as "serious, constructive and useful", few details were offered. The statement said there was a "better perception" of their respective positions. And that the two sides discussed "issues of disarmament and non-proliferation, as well as current regional developments and the international situation".

Despite the secrecy, the personal rapport between the two men was clearly discernible. Talbot, informal in a straw hat, personally picked up Singh from the Watergate Hotel in his Mercedes convertible and drove him home, where Mrs Talbott served up a private dinner.

Both sides have agreed to meet again in the "coming weeks". The talks are an "ongoing process", a Clinton Administration source confirmed, and various issues are "still to be resolved". Washington is seeking to ensure that India and Pakistan both sign the CTBT without preconditions, avoid transferring nuclear technology to third countries, refrain from weaponising or deploying missiles, and begin negotiations on the FMCT.

 "If the Indian side can move in areas we feel are largely central, we then face the problem of getting out of our own legislative straitjacket—the sanctions," added another American official. He admitted that the State Department would need to do some "fierce lobbying in Congress to lift sanctions".

Michael Krepon, who heads the Henry Stimson Center in Washington, told Out -look: "India can only damage and isolate itself further by not signing the CTBT, which it has, in fact, already pledged to uphold. Moreover, continued US-Indian estrangement makes no sense whatever. Politically, however, I foresee difficulties in implementing a deal. Indian domestic politics is not now consensus-oriented, and in the US, many on Capitol Hill will resist initiatives that appear to 'reward' India for its nuclear tests."

While seeking a compromise with India, explained another source, the US Administration has to worry about the powerful American non-proliferation lobby, which pursues its agenda with evangelical zeal. Any agreement with India will have to be shown as a "victory for US non-proliferation goals or a situation in which both countries stand to benefit".

More upbeat, an Indian official said the positions of the two countries were "not irreconcilable". For instance, the US no longer demands a roll-back of the Indian arsenal or cessation of missile-testing or production. India has proclaimed no-first-use without reservation and indicated its willingness to consider signing the CTBT under appropriate conditions and to join negotiations on the FMCT. He admitted that India would have to "create a domestic consensus" for signing the CTBT, which would be facilitated if the US were to lift sanctions and remove the technology-restraint regime that has been in place since 1974.

Other issues discussed included the proposed presidential visit to South Asia, the fallout from the US missile attack on Afghanistan, the lifting of US sanctions against India, and the expulsion of Indian scientists and researchers from US institutions.

A crucial aspect of the talks was its link to the presidential visit. An official confirmed that the US president would like to show some "concrete results", such as "some form of agreement" by New Delhi and Islamabad on the CTBT. A decision on the visit cannot be postponed forever, he added, because of the tremendous degree of planning and security involved.

Though the US and India may have managed "some progress in the reconciliation of their national security and non-proliferation agendas", said an Administration source, they are still "not close enough" for the presidential visit to receive a final nod. The decision has been complicated by the US missile attacks on Afghanistan, which evoked a strident reaction in Pakistan. It also raises the issue of extra security Bill Clinton may need in Pakistan. In the current vitiated atmosphere, Clinton's Pakistani hosts and Washington itself may decide to postpone the visit, which raises the question—can Clinton visit India and Bangladesh without visiting Pakistan? Probably not. A decision on a November visit would have to be made within the next two weeks.

The talks were marked by secrecy and a reluctance by both sides to talk to the press. A secrecy justified by an Administration official on the grounds that "such restraint has so far been beneficial". He added: "Premature publicity could thwart the carefully structured process of persuasion and accommodation."

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