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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 35, August 15, 2009 (Independence Day Special)

Committing to Continuity

Wednesday 19 August 2009, by Namrata Goswami


When Democratic Presidential candidate Barack Hussein Obama emerged as a front-runner in the 2008 US Presidential elections, many in India especially in the policy circles were worried. The argument was that “the George W. Bush Jr years” had been one of the most productive for enhancing US-India strategic relationship after decades of distrust and suspicion. So, the related major question dominating Indian policy discourses was: will a Democratic President continue the upsurge in US-India ties of the Republican years, the jewel of which was the July 18, 2005 Indo-US civilian nuclear deal?

One did not have to wait too long for an answer. It came during US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s four-day visit to India from July 17 to 20, 2009.

On July 20, 2009, the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, and India’s External Affairs Minister, S. M. Krishna, issued a Joint Statement which reaffirmed the commitment of both India and the US to continue the “new heights achieved in the India-US relationship over the last two Indian and US Administrations” and to now start a third transformative phase under the Obama Administration. Both nations also committed to annually hold an “India-US Strategic Dialogue” focusing on bilateral, regional and global issues of common concern. Among the list of stated commitments, the commitment to a “nuclear free world” and “defence cooperation” under the 2005 Defence Co-operation Framework Agreement is exciting to say the least. Nuclear weapons in the South Asian context, while bringing about stability to an extent between India and Pakistan, have not been overtly successful in thwarting acts of terror and “limited wars” especially between the two states (read Kargil and cross-border terrorism). Also, a nuclear free world is perhaps strategically critical to India as its neighbour Pakistan possesses a range of nuclear weapons the security of which is suspect. That nuclear terrorism is a potential threat for India from Pakistan is a critical area of concern for India; and the July 20, 2009 Joint Statement recognises the vital importance of nuclear weapons safety.

The most important aspect of the Joint Statement was the section on “Civil Nuclear Cooperation”. Setting at ease the Indian sceptics of a Democratic Presidential Administration’s commitment to carry on with India what the former Republican Administration agreed to with regard to the reprocessing of procedures under Article 6 (iii) of the 123 Agreement, the Joint Statement made a commitment to do just that. In fact, on July 21, 2009, President Obama submitted his first report to Congress on the July 18, 2005 Indo-US Civilian Nuclear Deal stating that it had opened up new pathways for serious talks on non-proliferation between the US and India.

It is rather clear by now that the July 20, 2009 Joint Statement reflects the fact that the US recognises India as an important actor in the international system and will like to see it as an ally on issues of global importance especially in the economic sphere. The US is India’s largest trading partner investing around US $ 10 billion while India has also increased its stakes by investing heavily in the US economy (US $ 3.7 billion in 2008). The nuclear reactor market is very enticing to the US as India is aiming to import 24 nuclear reactors in the next 10-15 years, creating “as many as 20,000 new jobs in the US from nuclear trade”, according to a Confederation of Indian Industry report. India also intends to replace 125 of its aging Soviet fighter planes and the US is competing with Russia, France and Britain to win for itself the multi-million dollar deal.

WHILE all these seem rather encouraging in terms of upgrading the strategic partnership between India and the US, bottlenecks on issues like climate change and nuclear proliferation can create obstacles for a smooth sail in the near future. The July 20, 2009 Joint Statement was rather ambiguous regarding the nature of non-proliferation sought from India by the US in relation to its nuclear weapons capability. It was also vague regarding the commitment that the US was willing to give to ensure that India’s neighbours, especially Pakistan, over which it has a disproportionate level of influence, will not be used as a ground for terror training aimed at India.

When it comes to hardcore state relations, it will be perhaps prudent on India’s part to clearly state its intentions from an enhanced defence cooperation with the US given the fact that China, and not the US, shares a physical border with India. China has the potential to do mischief in volatile areas like North-East India and Kashmir. So is the case with Pakistan. Also, following as it does so close on the heels of the G-20 summit where India appeared to be leaning more towards China and Russia, this kind of overt posturing with the US by India sends out mixed and ambiguous signals to countries like Brazil, China and Russia with whom India has a lot at stake given the nature of their economies and development commonalities with India.

At the realm of technology, while the Joint Statement clearly reiterated both the US and India’s commitment to high technology cooperation in the field of space launch vehicles, FutureGen project, Integrated Ocean Development, nano-technology, civil nuclear technology etc., one fails to decipher what these mean in terms of India’s mass population and poverty ratios. How are nano-technology transfers or civil nuclear technology going to provide energy to India’s energy starved millions? High-sounding policy statements need to be more specific on commitments to their own population.

The section on “Energy Security, Environment and Climate Change” did refer to renewable energies like solar (perhaps the most viable in terms of energy to the rural masses in India) but it appeared as an afterthought. The Renewable Energy Partnership between India and the US, as currently being defined by the Obama Administration and UPA Government, should not just deal with tactical issues of today, but include long-term advanced energy concepts such as Space-Based Solar Power which will broadly push for strategic, rather than just tactical, cooperation across a host of major dialogues. Given the analyses of government projections of both countries, India is projected to have 4.4x the absolute renewable energy market from now till 2030. Hence, the section on renewables should have formed a vital component of the Joint Statement in view of its significance to both countries, especially India.

India also needs to pressurise the US for greater participation in the future civil space regime. Aerospace contains some of India’s greatest talent, and it needs to be brought to bear on the energy sector.

And consider:

Even if the particular technology does not pan out, it will

—create a flurry of activity and discussion around advanced energy, space, and long-term thinking;

—create a bilateral network that will be very useful in the future;

—will put further pressure on the US to reconsider its International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) and Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) policies;

—elevate both nations’ thinking to grander ideas;

—inspire a lot of youth;

—further mature ground solar energy by bringing in additional talent from the Aerospace Sector;

—create informed opinion on how to meet India’s energy needs for its own population.

Hence, while it is a welcome sign that the Obama Administration and UPA Government (in its second term) have committed to continue enhanced strategic partnership, it is vital that India raises the stakes in some of the issues of vital interest to its own stability and prosperity.

Dr Namrata Goswami is a Visiting Research Fellow, Centre for Dialogue, La Trobe University, Melbourne, and Associate Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. The views expressed here are that of the author and not those of the Institute.

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