A Conversation With Ambassador Arun K. Singh On U.S.-India Relations

It may not be the Treaty of Versailles, or even the Camp David Accord, but on the 10th anniversary of its signing this month, the U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Cooperation Initiative has been heralded as a transformative development that will determine the contours of the emerging international order. Diplomats, policy makers and pundits on both sides gathered at several events in the nation's capital to describe in near phantasmagorical terms the unfolding implications of the agreement, not only for U.S.-India relations, but also for the efforts of the two largest democracies in promoting global security and prosperity, combating climate change, unleashing technological advances on earth and outer space. Even Vice President Joe Biden pitched in at the commemorative conference jointly hosted by The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Confederation of Indian Industry in Washington, D.C., where he asserted the nuclear deal helped transform "the bilateral relationship into a global partnership based on shared values, interests, responsibilities.

"All of these will go to shape the next century if we stay the course," he declared.

The operative word, of course, is "if."

There is, however, no disputing the fact that over the last decade the U.S.-India relations have improved exponentially, bearing fruit the efforts of the past three American administrations and three Indian governments dating back to the late 1990s. Credit is due in large part to the George W. Bush administration, which conceptualized the rationale for turning around U.S. relations with India.

At the Carnegie's Statesmen Forum, Stephen Hadley, National Security Advisor to President Bush, clinically summarized the administration's thinking. He said there was a recognition that India was emerging as a player on the world stage and because the challenges facing the world, including nuclear proliferation, international terrorism, cybersecurity, are global in nature, the U.S. needed India to be a partner in resolving them.

Call it a stroke of genius or a gamble, the Bush administration had decided that the way to accomplish this is not through the conventional route of deepening cooperation in the areas where there is a convergence of views, but tackle head-on the most intractable impediment: the question of nuclear proliferation. As Hadley described, the intent was to do something that would "capture the imagination" of the people both in the United States and India. India - hamstrung by post-Pokharan II sanctions that were formidable impediments to its economic growth and strategic ambitions - seized on the American overture, thus ending the long estrangement and ushering "Achhe Din."

Beyond the Jute Curtain Then, why are the two countries still grappling with many of the same unresolved issues even as they have made dramatic strides in increasing bilateral trade and strengthening defense cooperation, among other things? Why, for instance, did Tom Donilon, former national security adviser to President Barack Obama, in an unscripted candid moment at the Statesmen Forum, admit that even today the two countries "don't see eye-to-eye" on a number of issues; and why did M.K. Narayanan, who served as India's National Security Advisor to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and was one of the principle negotiators of the nuclear agreement, equally frankly tell the panel that notwithstanding the collapse of the "jute curtain" of the Cold War days, there are still remnants of "deep suspicion" of the Americans in New Delhi's political establishment?

The newly-minted ambassador of India to the United States, Arun K. Singh, disputes the "basic premise" of these questions. Singh, who was also a part of the wonky celebratory carnival at Carnegie, sat down with News India Times for a postprandial interview in his oak-paneled office on Embassy Row last week. Visibly buoyed, either by the topic of discussion or the demitasse that he intermittently dipped into, Singh argued without a hint of vanity that the real import of the agreement was how the United States was able to "harmonize and reconcile" its policies "with what India was doing," presumably on the nuclear front.

He felt that Washington had finally recognized "India's dire need for energy, for security, its position on nuclear disarmament, and its impeccable record on non-proliferation." On its part, India understood that the "stakes of partnership with the world's largest economy went up significantly as (it) embraced globalization." With this convergence, the two countries rapidly moved from the "technology-denial" phase (by the U.S.) to the present when both countries are "creatively unlocking" the potential of the relationship. Apart from a fourfold increase in trade, the ebullient envoy cited a litany of improvements that were unthinkable 10 years ago, particularly the U.S. export of $10 billion worth military hardware and high-technology transfers that are so crucial for India.

The question of U.S. arming of Pakistan, which continues apace, was not broached because it has become quite apparent for sometime that India has reconciled to the fact that Washington's policy toward Islamabad and New Delhi is not a zero-sum game.

What about the lingering issues related to liability in the civil nuclear cooperation? Singh gallantly masked his impatience with an expansive smile and said the issue has been settled "between the two governments" soon after President Obama's visit in January. "Now two U.S. companies are engaged in commercial and technical discussions with the Indian operator," was his recondite repartee. Singh's American counterpart in India, Richard Verma, did not sound so categorical on the subject. In an interview to the Hindu newspaper recently, he said while the two countries "sat down and worked out an understanding," he was (merely) hopeful "that the commitments between our governments are reflected in commercial contracts." Of course, Verma rounded off with some diplomatese saying, "I am actually very optimistic about where this is heading."

So is Singh. "Our national interests are converging on the vital issues of the day," the two ambassadors attested in an op-ed article they co-authored in the Huffington Post last week. Talk of being on the same page.

Speaking at Carnegie, Ambassador Singh, who is a veteran of 36 years in the diplomatic corps, was effusive about defense cooperation that includes joint development and joint production, and unprecedented maritime security cooperation that harmonizes America's Rebalance in the Asia-Pacific region and India's "Act East" policy. Beyond the commercial components, he said, "there is now also robust engagement between our nuclear energy establishments. They are collaborating in high-energy physics and accelerator research. Our collaboration under the aegis of the Global Center for Nuclear Energy Partnership has also been progressing well."

And expectedly, Singh did not see India's close relationship with countries like Russia and Iran, not to mention its forays onto multilateral platforms like the BRICS, the grouping of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, as having a bearing on its relations with the United States. Washington, he says, understands India's diverse interests in the international arena and embraces India's rise as a global player. That said, even if no one on either side would admit that moving U.S.-India bilateral strategic partnership into a new "Strategic Plus" phase is an attempt to tilt the balance of power against China, it can be safely assumed that Washington is pleased with the remarkable dexterity with which India has been navigating its relations with all the great powers of in the Indian Ocean and Asia-Pacific region -- China, Japan and the United States.

Without necessarily characterizing it as carping in the media, Singh brushed aside the assumption of sluggish progress on other issues like patents, intellectual property rights and climate change. Despite some criticism, he asserted, somewhat hyperbolically, that India's policies with regard to intellectual property are "at international level," even if there are "some differences (with the U.S,) on the implementation aspects." But the important thing, he felt, is that where there are differences, both sides are in discussions, on all the subjects, including environment, where India sees the U.S. as a major partner in reaching its clean energy goals. "India," he reasoned as a way of qualifier, "needs to grow at 8 to 10 percent annually" to extricate people out of poverty. But the Modi government is committed to achieving that goal through focusing on renewable energy, he assured.

Chilling Effects It was time for the rubber to hit the road. So, what about the recent spat between the two countries on the issue of Modi government's crackdown on foreign NGOs, including the venerable Ford Foundation, which brought into unsavory relief the Hindu nationalist orientation of the ruling party and the whole gamut of communal policies and practices being adopted by some elements within its fold? What did he think of Ambassador Verma's surprisingly harsh tone when he said he worries about "the potentially chilling effects of these regulatory steps focused on NGOs"? Singh did not bristle at the question and the forelocks of his rich mane, which incidentally belies his seniority, remained unruffled. While maintaining that he cannot comment on India's domestic matters, he sternly insisted that India has every right to expect all entities, foreign or domestic, to abide by the laws of the land.

As if to sum up the nature of relationship between the two countries, Singh said no two countries, however close they may be, will agree on all issues. It is unrealistic. Even the U.S. has differences with its European allies and NATO partners. The bottom line, however, is how India and the U.S. view each other. While India sees the U.S. as a major player in the pursuit of its national interests, be it security, economic, strategic or scientific, the U.S., on its part sees the rise of India is in its own interest. Even as the two countries disagree on certain issues, the important thing is that there is nothing adversarial about it, either in the bilateral or multilateral context. Instead, what Singh says he sees is "a palpable sense of potential for the future."

And thereby hangs a tale.

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