And just like that, the much awaited, once postponed India-US Strategic Dialogue came and went, with not even the the tiniest frisson of excitement of that had accompanied previous Dialogues. Minders on both sides must have been secretly pleased that the Murdoch slugfest in London came in as a suitable excuse to explain away the limited interest and analysis of the Strategic Dialogue in the media. With new lists of grievances building up on both sides to replace the long-drawn out lists of the Cold War era, the Strategic Dialogue process has had the unintended consequence of focusing attention on these issues for which all available political capital has been expended or there is no solution even at the highest political levels. Given this reality, the reports of half-hearted wagging of fingers and admonishments behind closed doors were more for the benefit of respective constituencies than to move the process forward. The overriding urge to prevent any SNAFUs meant that Mrs. Clinton proposal to visit Kolkata as part of itinerary was shot down by the hosts. And whilst Mrs. Clinton broke bread with all her leading interlocutors, from the Prime Minister downwards, the glaring exception was Defence Minister A K Antony, for whom the Dialogue that was to take place in April had been postponed since he was ostensibly busy with the Kerala elections.
The U.S. side, in particular, has become a master at the art of coming out with comprehensive factsheets laying out the massive advances in joint projects, emphasizing the width and breadth of the partnership. With many of the bilateral agreements signed over the years stuck at various stages of implementation, it is almost as if both sides were virtually scrapping the bottom of the barrel this time around to come out with agreements on cyber security cooperation and cooperation in aviation safety. This is not to belittle the importance of these agreements, and particularly the one on cybersecurity. However, the impression one gets is that there is still a sufficient amount of mistrust on both sides to ensure that even this initiative will live uptoits potential for some time to come. By way of comparison, the agreement between cyber adversaries Russia and the United States on cyber security cooperation signed just the previous week is much more specific on actions and timelines.
But it is not as if Mrs Clinton would be particularly disappointed by either the dampened expectations or outcome of her visit. From an American perspective, given the flux in the wider Asian region, accelerating the strategic partnership with India in the security and defence realms, especially if it is only on the back of unilateral concessions, will only fetch diminishing returns. One only needs replace India with the U.S. in the previous sentence to come up with the Indian view. On the American side, there is reasonable confidence that an increasingly powerful and belligerent China will eventually drive India into U.S. arms. In the meantime, there is plenty of other fish to fry, particularly when it comes to pushing the economic and people-to-people aspects, part of larger initiativesthat Mrs. Clinton has focused on since taking up stewardship of the State Department. And therefore it is not surprising that out of the many factsheets brought out by the Department at the end of the visit, it is those on economic ties and education and people-to people ties that have the most substance. While the former leads with talks on a Bilateral Investment Treaty, there is a consolation prize in the establishment of the first ever Consular Dialogue to take place on July 25 “for a full discussion of visa and other consular matters”. From Tri-Valley to the harassment of H1B visa holders and diplomatic pat-downs, there will be much to discuss at this Dialogue. Considering that a similar Consular Dialogue has been part of the EU-IndiaStrategic Dialogue since 2000 and the India-Australia Dialogue more recently,one wonders why this did not come into being earlier even earlier.
On the education and people-to-people front, the noteworthy developments are the publication of the first request for proposals under the aegis of the Obama-Singh Knowledge Initiative with the fields of focus being Energy Studies, Sustainable Development, Climate Change, Environmental Studies, Education and Educational Reform, and Community Development and Innovation. How different this Initiative is from existing programs being carried out under the India U.S. Science and Technology Forum remains to be seen. The other interesting program to watch out for would be the newly launched Passport to India which will facilitate increasing number of American students to come to India for periods ranging from three weeks to six months, to match the 100,000 odd Indian students in the United States. This, too, has an economic focus since the students will be here on internships with companies rather than for study programmes.
The silver lining in this particular cloud might be this; with both sides forced by exigencies to dial down the relationship a notch, this provides some breathing space to consolidate the initiatives that have been taken up in previous years. The U.S. State Department Inspector General’s office has recommended that a separate office be established for India since “nations of comparable importance and with important bilateral relationships, such as China, Russia, Cuba, Canada, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, have their own offices”. A similar initiative on the Indian side would go a long way in implementing the many worthy initiatives of the Strategic Dialogue and make it less of the annual junket that it is being perceived to be.