August 02, 2020
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The Next Crucial Steps

It will be important to re-establish contact as early as possible in the next US government’s tenure.

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The Next Crucial Steps

Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee hit all the high spots during his recent visit to the US - the UN Millennium Summit, an address to a joint session of Congress, the pomp of a state visit, a speech to the Asia Society and the glamour of enthusiastic receptions by business and the Indian-American community. As expected, the visit generated great warmth but no major new government policies. The real news was less dramatic but possibly more important. President Bill Clinton’s visit to India, an intense government and private dialogue and the Vajpayee return visit now show that the much-heralded new page in Indo-US relations is serious. The cliche is turning into reality.

Vajpayee showcased a familiar set of building blocks for the new relationship. Some of them will bring the two countries together regardless of what the governments do. The most important of these is the Indian-American community. Unlike previous high-level visits, this one demonstrated that they are a key element on the American scene, not just a transplanted Indian community. They dominate the industry that has led both the Indian and the American economic boom. At 1.5 million strong, they are the most successful and best educated ethnic group in the US and have mobilised a new "India lobby" in the previously sceptical halls of the US Congress. Their active interest may make the two countries’ common democratic heritage into a more effective bond than it has been in the past.

Other factors will only nourish the relationship if the two governments tend them properly. Increased trade and investment have tremendous potential to raise India’s profile in the US and create a strong and diverse private underpinning for the improving governmental relations. Some have suggested that 8 per cent annual gdp growth will make India a major economic partner of the US within a decade; others are watching the level of software exports. But India’s broader economic policies will largely determine whether this promise is realised. Vajpayee’s announcement of a "dialogue on development" adds a fresh element to the economic agenda.

Both sides acknowledged some familiar problems. Vajpayee spoke with grace and candour on the "shadow" cast by nuclear policy differences. These can, I believe, be managed, provided the disabilities they impose on the relationship are kept within boundaries both sides understand. India’s renewed commitment to a moratorium on new nuclear testing was welcome. But the US remains committed to seeking India’s signature on the ctbt despite the near-certainty it won’t be ratified by the Senate in its present form.

More problematic is the ever-troubled Indo-Pak relationship. Administration officials summarising the Vajpayee-Clinton discussions said both sides had agreed India and Pakistan should talk "at the appropriate time when the atmosphere is correct". This phrase will be comforting to India (and distressing to Pakistan). But despite this seeming US willingness to accept India’s hard line on the conditions for resuming a bilateral dialogue, India-Pakistan relations remain the biggest liability for the new US-India relationship. Until India and Pakistan reach an understanding both of them and the Kashmiris can live with peacefully, the tensions in Kashmir and across the Line of Control will keep the world - and Washington - nervous about the potential nuclear danger in the region.

A welcome new theme in Indo-US discussions was Vajpayee’s stress on India as an Asian power and the decision to incorporate into the Indo-US agenda a dialogue on Asian security. It’s interesting that Vajpayee visited Washington the week after the Japanese PM was in Delhi and the same week Indian naval vessels were making port visits to Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and, for the first time since 1995, China.

India, China and the US consider one another "friendly" but their rivalries will be an important factor in Asian politics and security in coming decades. India remains, at best, ambivalent about the US military presence in East Asia. India and the US are both keenly interested in maintaining open sea lanes in and near the Indian Ocean. Each needs to understand how the other proposes to pursue that interest and ideally they should develop coordinated or compatible policies.

The next Indo-US summit will take place under a new American administration. There is little difference between Democratic and Republican attitudes toward India. Both will be influenced by India’s economic progress; both parties have Indian-American members and contributors; both are concerned about strengthening peace in the region; both will be carefully watching China. George W. Bush’s opposition to the ctbt contrasts with Al Gore’s views on non-proliferation. However, this is the kind of issue on which the two parties have differed more in word than in deed in the past. The important thing will be to re-establish high-level contact as soon as possible after the new administration takes office, to make sure Washington’s increased attention span for India carries over beyond next January.

India and the US have embarked on a long journey. They need realistic expectations and steady nerves. After devoting most of my professional lifetime to US relations with South Asia, it is a heady experience to hear American political leaders talk of "strategic partnership" and an Indian PM call the US his country’s "natural ally". Even if the two countries fall short of that ambitious standard, we can be well pleased if they now listen to each other, identify and pursue their common goals and deal forthrightly with their inevitable disagreements.

(The author is a former US ambassador with long service in India and South Asia, and is currently Director for South Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington.)

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