June 02, 2020
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I Do, I Don't

Cancun, Iraq dispel America's complacence about India

I Do, I Don't
I Do, I Don't
Is India a "won't do" country? An important slice of Washington seems to think so. Key US agencies are filled with disappointment and even anger at India's stand on two important issues that have wide implications—its refusal to send troops to Iraq despite indications from senior politicians, and its strong alignment with developing countries against the US at the Cancun trade talks. Old complaints about how India never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity are being revived even as Indo-US relations are headed for better times on other fronts. The two issues have created an eddy of discontent, which could trap progress on other paths in an otherwise expanding relationship.

A third complication in the political cauldron is the impending purchase of 35 aircraft by Air India for which Boeing has made an aggressive pitch. A letter signed by 45 US Congressmen, including the co-chairs of the India Caucus, was sent to Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee last month, strongly urging him to choose Boeing as a "great demonstration of strengthened commercial relations". The letter was a loud appeal and a pressure tactic. It went on to link US unemployment to the Boeing issue, adding an uncomfortable "friend-in-need" element. If Airbus wins over Boeing when the decision is finally made, American feathers will be further ruffled. Sources say the Boeing bid is "much higher", making the long-pending decision even more difficult.

The anger over Cancun and Iraq came spilling out at a recent round of Indo-US Track II talks. The Indian delegation got more than "an earful" from the US side, prompting questions about the two completely different versions of events.

It is no secret that senior Pentagon officials felt let down by India's refusal to send troops after what they thought were assurances to do so during high-level meetings. Hope built steadily in Washington as teams went to New Delhi to work out the details of the command and control to accommodate Indian concerns. "Then it was dashed," says a knowledgeable source. Deputy Secretary of Defence Paul Wolfowitz reportedly is so incensed that he recently referred to India's reasoning as "devious" and "ingenious".

"There is dissatisfaction over the miscommunication. The US side was led to believe that a UN resolution would help and that India was prepared to send troops under a UN mandate but now they know that under no circumstance would India send troops," says James Steinberg, vice president at the Brookings Institute think-tank. Between the summer visits and the UN resolution, brutal reality intervened as suicide bombings rose in frequency and lethality. The painfully crafted UN resolution fell short of expectations and many countries, including India, balked at the idea of sending troops to an increasingly volatile theatre of war.

A US diplomat offered a more reasonable explanation when he said that some people in the Indian government wanted to send troops and were honestly exploring ways to make it happen. "Vajpayee was never comfortable with the idea and probably had an instinctive sense that this wasn't the right move. The Pentagon is upset because they were looking desperately to share the burden."

Those who do not consider New Delhi ally material find their position strengthened. A significant body of opinion in Washington, fed by both history and Pakistani opportunism, can't get past bitterness about India stemming from years of Cold War politics and strident rhetoric at the UN. This club is propagating a "go slow" approach with India. A senior member of the American Enterprise Institute, a think-tank close to this administration, became passionately vocal when asked about India's decision not to send troops to Iraq. "India can't seem to think big.If it had sent troops, there is little it could not have asked for in return." The US diplomat, too, believes India's decision not to send troops would "reinforce those who feel India is not a reliable partner".

While the Pentagon is across the river from the White House, the office of the US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick is barely a block away and the feedback on Cancun has been flowing since September. Zoellick, who famously wrote that the Cancun talks fell apart because of the "won't do" countries, counts India among the spoilers. Did India kill Cancun?

Says a senior Indian official, "It's a mystery. There was a corpse at Cancun but no one knows who committed the murder." A US trade official too compares it to an Agatha Christie whodunit where 15 or 16 members could be guilty of the crime. Some said it was miscommunication, some said it was denial while others claimed it was the American tendency to first ignore the hard reality, then get miffed.

US senators and senior members of the US Chamber of Commerce have given their assessments and India does not have a halo. Reasons cited for the disappointment are many. A senior US trade official says the US shared its "cards" with India while New Delhi "didn't reveal" anything. "This, despite the immediate background of us devising a close relationship and building a certain rapport with commerce minister Arun Jaitley." The US side is also deeply upset at what it says is the total disregard for the concessions on aids drugs it made ahead of the round. "We were bewildered and disappointed," the official added. "We got acrimony and speeches which treated the WTO as a venue for a North-South trade war."

Former ambassador Teresita Schaffer says of the US reaction: "The word is bitterness. India and the US have great difficulty working together in multilateral settings and India still has people who see the US as an enemy. Every commerce minister wants to come home with a scalp." Indian officials strongly dispute the characterisation which they say stems from "old" thinking. Besides, the complexities of Cancun can't be reduced so. As for allegations of "Third World trade unionism", they say it was the US which first embraced the protectionist EU.

"We'd gone to negotiate seriously but the meetings took another turn. Yes, we believe in multilateral negotiations but the interests of developing countries can't be ignored in a development round," says an Indian official. Even the western press talked of US-EU concessions as being too small to keep everyone on board. Meanwhile, US businessmen tried to break India away from the G-21 group by urging India to negotiate alone as it was now a heavyweight. The ego-boosting bore no fruit. The EU also tried to drive a wedge between the private sector and the Indian government.

Cancun and Iraq are two road blocks but if India and the US drive through, they'd have moved closer to a mature relationship.
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