July 18, 2009

Oldest Meets Largest

The following op-ed appeared in The Indian Express on July 18, 2009.

What to expect from Hillary's visit.

High-level interactions between Indian and American officials traditionally followed a predictable script. Behind the scenes, discussions could be testy verging on acrimonious, the Americans’ brusque lawyerly style colliding with trademark Indian touchiness and obstinacy. The parties could come away from talks merely agreeing to disagree. Yet in public, statesmen (and -women) of both countries could take their pick from a relatively short list of marvellous-sounding clich├ęs to paper things over. “The world’s oldest and the world’s largest democracies,” was a runaway favourite, while references to overthrowing British colonialism, hosannas to the success of the Indian-American community, and lip service to pluralism made useful additions to the recurring diplomatic pantomime.

Given the developments in bilateral relations over the last decade, and especially the last eight years, such platitudes are no longer sufficient. The civilian nuclear agreement may have been the most high-profile accomplishment of recent years, but scratch the surface and the list of other significant initiatives is breathtaking. A four hundred per cent increase in bilateral trade, joint counter-terrorist investigations, and over forty military exercises constitute but a partial sampling. The high bar set by both governments in that time means that words are now expected to be backed up by action, or at the very least meaningful engagement. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who arrives in Delhi on Monday after spending the weekend in Mumbai, will no doubt be expected to demonstrate concrete advances, or promote the impression of having done so.

The run-up to Clinton’s visit suggests a varied agenda, from well-trodden areas of long-standing divergence to little-explored pathways towards closer collaboration. Clinton, naturally, inherits some initiatives from the previous US administration. The expected announcement of two sites for American nuclear power plants (possibly in Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh), specific cooperation on civilian space activities and the highly-anticipated End-User Verification Agreement meant to facilitate defence commerce would all fall under this category.

Other breakthroughs unveiled on this trip are likely to involve major symbolic or organisational changes, which need not automatically generate material benefits despite the considerable fanfare accompanying them. This could characterise what could be the most headline-grabbing announcement of her trip: a six-pillared bilateral strategic dialogue. Clinton gave a preview of this in a speech on Wednesday, in which she promised to “lay out a broad-based agenda that calls for a whole-of-government approach to our bilateral relationship.” She added later that “our two countries will be engaging in a very broad, comprehensive dialogue. It’s the most wide-ranging that I think has ever been put on the table between India and the United States.”

Non-proliferation will likely cast something of a shadow on this visit, coming so soon after the G-8 announcement on enrichment and reprocessing technology. Apart from admitting that it was “a very difficult issue” between the two countries, Clinton has revealed little on how she hopes to bridge differences in attitude and approach towards non-proliferation.

Lastly, three areas provide room for substantive advancements in the months and years ahead: agricultural productivity and rural infrastructure, education and human development, and climate change and environmental issues. Clinton explicitly mentioned all three in the lead-up to her departure. The last will be one to watch out for. The Obama administration is eager to develop a workable mechanism to tackle climate change, and Clinton has repeatedly mentioned the need for a “win-win solution” to the problem for the United States and the major developing economies, such as India. The secretary of state is even being accompanied to India by her special envoy for climate change, Todd Stern. Her Indian interlocutors could use the opportunity to articulate both their concerns and their willingness to play a constructive role in fashioning a workable climate change protocol.

The same sense of opportunity holds true to varying degrees for the rest of the bilateral agenda. There is some irony to the fact that an Indian election that has paved the way for more active engagement with the United States should come so soon after one in America that has led to a perceived cooling for India in Washington. Rather than a cause for lament, this should be viewed as an opening for New Delhi to shape the relationship more proactively.

There will undoubtedly remain a raft of issues which will go unaddressed this week, especially given Clinton’s single day in Delhi, including several common security challenges. Despite her stated ambitions for this visit, there will be more opportunities to fashion the evolving strategic partnership between the two states. The steady two-way stream of senior American and Indian officials between Washington and New Delhi over the past few months is evidence of the multi-pronged bilateral strategic dialogue already underway. The once predictable script for official Indo-US engagement has been re-written. It is time for the players on both sides to improvise.