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February - March 2006


Political News

US & India: The New Strategic Partnership - A Paradigm Shift in the Making

by Sashanka Sekhar Banerjee


It is now almost certain that unless the world turns upside down, US President George W Bush will pay a state visit to India in February 2006. It will be no ordinary visit. Both the US and India are working closely together and despite all odds are committed to ensure that the visit is transformed into a seminal event that will change history. After sixty years of uncertainty, the strategic relationship between the two democracies - the strongest and the largest - is poised for a paradigm shift.

Signalling the importance of this partnership, President Bush has appointed R. Nicholas Burns, a brilliant Foreign Service Officer in the intellectual mould of Henry Kissinger, as Under Secretary for Political Affairs in the US State Department to co-ordinate the fast changing relationship.

As the multi-layered framework for the Presidential visit is put in place, it is fascinating to watch the step-by-step developments taking place on each side of the equation. In June 2005, Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee and Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld signed the New Defence Framework agreement. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President George W Bush in July 2005 agreed to broaden this strategic engagement. It was a historic turning point. They agreed to revitalise the economic and energy dialogue, form a CEO Forum to give a strong push to trade and commerce, promote a Global Democracy Initiative and a Disaster Response Initiative, signal the completion of the Next Steps to Strategic Partnership process and launch a partnership to fight HIV/AIDS. They initiated new efforts in education, agriculture, science and space exploration, and agreed to send Indian astronauts on the US Space Shuttle.

In the midst of all these developments, a speech delivered by Ambassador Nicholas Burns at the Asia Society in New York on October 18 2005 gave a detailed policy exposition of the developing bilateral relationship. Such an attempt had never been made by a senior US State Department official in such an elaborate manner ever before. To have an understanding of what is going on between India and the US in the current phase of their bilateral diplomacy it is important to have a look at what Burns had to say. It will not be possible to quote the entire speech because of its length. Therefore important points made are recalled below for the benefits of the general readership:

According to Burns: “During the Cold War, America had only a limited geographic view of Asia, which to them meant China, Japan, South Korea and Australia. India did not figure in that list. As the US looks over the century ahead, there will be no region in the world more vital to America’s long-term military, economic and political interests than Asia. And the part of Asia that is now receiving the most substantial new attention of American diplomats, generals, strategists and business people is South Asia and in particular India.”

Continuing, he said: “It started with the end of the Cold War. With dramatic changes in global trade and investment patterns, with India’s emergence as a powerful actor on the world stage, the US began to shift its view of India’s place in the world and of its relationship with New Delhi. It was President Bill Clinton who made the first efforts to change fundamentally the nature of America’s diplomatic engagement with India. President Bush intensified that commitment to a US-India partnership and has accelerated the process dramatically. The transformation of US-India relations into a nascent strategic partnership is one of the most significant foreign policy shifts in US global policy in recent years. Their efforts have been aided by two successive Indian Governments representing the opposite ends of the political spectrum, both of which have made relations with the US a strategic priority.”

Burns said: India is a rising global power. Within the first quarter of this century, it is likely to be numbered among the world’s five largest economies. It will soon be the world’s most populous nation, and it has a demographic structure that bequeaths it a huge skilled and youthful workforce. It will continue to possess large and ever more sophisticated military forces that, just as our own, remain strongly committed to the principle of civilian control. We are confident that even when we look out fifty years into the future, India will still thrive as a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, and multi-lingual democracy characterised by individual freedom, rule of law, and a constitutional government that owes its power to free and fair elections.”

Waxing eloquent Nicholas Burns continued: “India will be a natural partner to the US, as we confront what will be the central security challenge of the coming generation – the global threats that are flowing over through the national borders: terrorism, the proliferation of chemical, biological and nuclear technologies, international crime and narcotics, climate change - our interests converge on all these issues. The world would benefit from the military and other assets India could bring to bear by participating in the Proliferation Security Initiative, an innovative and crucial international arrangement by which we are making the world safer from WMD threats.”

“The benefits,” Burns said, “of this growing diplomatic partnership at the UN and elsewhere is further evidenced in our close consultations on regional issues, such as Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal. In each of these states we share with India the basic recognition that the best path to development and peace is a democratic one. To India’s rich history of close political, cultural and economic engagement in the region, we offer our own perspectives and energy. And India’s own experience of dynamic technological innovation and economic growth in the context of lingering development challenges makes a compelling model for the wider region… India today remains one of the largest international donors to Afghanistan’s reconstruction and works closely with the US in the areas of road construction, public health, education, telecommunications, human resource development. India and the US both share the goal of a return to democracy in Nepal and a defeat of the Maoist insurgency. In Sri Lanka we support the government’s efforts to recover from the tsunami and return to the peace process. India has a huge role to play in South Asia as the largest and the most powerful country in the region. India therefore owes it to its neighbours to take the first step towards better relations.”

“We seek to engage with India on a global basis. As President Bush phrased it succinctly: ‘The century will see democratic India’s arrival as a force in the world.’ India is well on the way to becoming a major centre of world power. As such, it is in our national interest to develop a strong, forward-looking relationship with India. India’s growing global presence led Secretary Condoleezza Rice to say in March 2005 that the UN and other international institutions must start to accommodate India’s role in them in future years.”

Rolling out some statistics, Burns disclosed that 65,000 Americans are living in India lured by its growing economy and the richness of its culture. Today there are more than 2 million people of Indian origin in the US. The India Caucus (or the India Lobby as we say in England) is the largest in the US Congress dedicated to improving relations with any single country. Nearly 80,000 India students are studying in the US. India is the largest source of temporary workers into the US and the second largest source of legal migration to the US after Mexico. An India that takes full advantage of its extraordinary human capital to further boost its economy and strengthen its civil society will be a more effective strategic partner of the US in the coming decades.”

“India requires world-class airports, irrigation and communication networks. The recent Open Skies Agreement with India is already increasing air traffic and creating new jobs. India needs modern power grids and highways and many other improvements to its infrastructure that could be vastly accelerated by greater investment, both public and private. Foreign capital including US capital will flow far more freely into an India that demonstrates greater institutional transparency, speedier decision-making and a robust framework of legal protections. India and the US both stand to gain by knitting together our two nations in a dense web of economic interconnections.”

In the landmark civil nuclear agreement, India agreed for the first time in thirty years to take on key global non-proliferation commitments. Without these, India’s large and sophisticated nuclear estates would have remained unregulated by international rules governing commerce in sensitive nuclear technologies. This brings India, as claimed by Burns, into the international non-proliferation mainstream and open new doorways for a cleaner and more secure global energy future.

The US will ask its friends and allies in the Nuclear Suppliers Group to enable full peaceful civil nuclear energy co-operation and trade with India. The US has already extended strong support for India’s participation in the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor consortium.

In his concluding remarks Burns said: “ The future of the US-India relationship holds great promise indeed. But realising the vision that I have outlined today is far from complete. We must alter our respective mind-sets so that our people can recognise the great potential that exists… Preserving a stable balance of power in all of the Asia-Pacific region, one that favours peace through the presence of strong democratic nations enjoying friendly relations with the US, constitutes a critical American security interest. Developing a new Strategic Partnership with New Delhi is thus important not just for our two countries but for the 21st century’s peace that is our central aim in this vital region.”

I have presented excerpts from Nicolas Burns’ very important foreign policy speech delivered on October 18, 2005 at the Asia Society in New York without any comments. It does not need any commentary because of its clarity. The readers should draw their own conclusions.

However, I would like to put in a concluding one-liner. The US-India Strategic Partnership brings to an end India’s experiment with its traditional policy of Non-Alignment of the last sixty years, with a proviso that India’s time-tested strategic partnership with Russia must continue to remain undiluted as a safety net, and run parallel with its strategic partnership with the US.

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