US and India Dialogue: Time to Refocus?

By S. Amer Latif | July 19, 2011 10:33 AM IST

WASHINGTON: Since President Barack Obama’s visit to India last November, India and the United States have been preoccupied with various domestic and foreign policy concerns that have distracted from focusing on their bilateral partnership. This week’s US-India Strategic Dialogue is a chance to renew that focus and rejuvenate their collective efforts on implementing a wide range of agreed upon bilateral initiatives.

New Delhi and Washington also need candid discussions about key strategic challenges in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and China that will intensify over the next year. Simply put, India and the US have too much at stake strategically in the near term to allow their relationship to drift.

Last Wednesday’s terror attack in Mumbai provided yet another example of the city’s vulnerability and marvelous resilience. It also provided a stark reminder of the common threat of terrorism that continues to bind India and the US, and the need to deepen their cooperation in the areas of counter-terrorism and homeland security. The Indian response to the July 13 attacks appeared to be more orderly than the 2008 attacks, but it still has a ways to go in preventing attacks on its major metropolitan areas. Closer bilateral cooperation could help bridge deficiencies in intelligence gathering, forensics, urban policing, and investigations.

On regional challenges, India and the US need to begin a more intense dialogue about the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This week’s meeting will be an opportunity to exchange views on achieving lasting stability in Afghanistan. One of the approaches that should be seriously considered is the idea of a regional solution that includes India and Iran. Increasingly, it is becoming apparent that the only way to achieve lasting stability is to have regional stakeholders simultaneously sit together and develop agreed upon conditions in which all bordering and interested states will respect Afghanistan’s sovereignty.

The sine qua non of making any regional solution work will be resolving the intense rivalry between India and Pakistan within Afghanistan. New Delhi and Islamabad need to devise ways of enhancing transparency regarding the other’s activities. Unless the two sides can find a way to reconcile their colliding interests and suspicions, the prospects for lasting stability are slim.

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Joint infrastructure development projects or exploring regional trade corridors could enhance confidence between the two foes and foster greater economic development in Afghanistan. This week’s Strategic Dialogue and the upcoming foreign minister’s meeting at the end of July will be good opportunities to broach the subject of possible cooperation.

As 2014 approaches, it will also be important that India and the US stay closely linked on the evolving situation. To that end, both sides should consider the idea of a formal bilateral dialogue on Afghanistan. The purpose for such a mechanism would be to routinely coordinate development efforts, exchange views on the political situation, and trade information regarding current realities on the ground.

While there are currently frequent exchanges between high level Indian and American officials through bilateral meetings, an established mechanism would ensure both sides are talking about the full range of their respective engagement. While Islamabad might cringe at such an idea, it should not have a veto over any proposal that inhibits closer cooperation between two countries that have a critical interest in ensuring Afghanistan’s stability.

In East Asia, China has become increasingly aggressive in recent months through its assertion that the South China Sea is now a “core interest” on par with Taiwan and Tibet. Beijing’s clumsy behavior through a series of maritime confrontations has caused great concern in East and Southeast Asian capitals, as well as in Washington. The U.S. made its position clear in July of last year when Secretary Clinton stated that Washington supports the freedom of navigation through the South China Sea and, in her words “a collaborative diplomatic process by all claimants for resolving the various territorial disputes without coercion.”

India has had its share of challenges with China in recent years with a border dispute that drags on with no resolution in sight, and a growing Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean that continues to vex New Delhi. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was able to restore defense exchanges with China during this year’s BRICS summit, but there is still a wariness in New Delhi about the strategic direction of Beijing’s foreign engagement. This week’s Dialogue should explore ways the US and India might partner on holding China accountable for its behavior while encouraging it to become a more cooperative partner in international security.

India and the US should also look beyond bilateral cooperation discuss how they might work multilaterally throughout Asia to enhance security. The recent announcement that India, the US, and Japan are establishing a trilateral dialogue will provide an effective forum for these three democracies to discuss issues of common interest to include maritime security, Afghanistan, and dealing with China’s rise. More multilateral naval exercises that involve the US, India, and other key Southeast Asian countries such as Vietnam could be effective in demonstrating US and Indian resolve to maintain freedom of navigation in the South China Sea while building Vietnam’s maritime capacity.

India and the US have an opportunity this week to revitalize their partnership and outline an agenda that could help shape the strategic landscape in Asia. While both sides will continue to have other foreign and domestic challenges to deal with in the coming year, neither side should neglect the possibilities of closely partnering to provide stability in the face of an uncertain and turbulent world. (Global India Newswire)

(S. Amer Latif is a visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and served as the director for South Asian Affairs in the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2007-2011. The views in this article are his own.)

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