The Next Big Thing?

A prelude to Barack Obama's visit to India
Manohar Thyagaraj Washington DC

In the run-up to President Obama's visit to New Delhi in November, there is much head-scratching in both capitals about the 'next big thing' in bilateral relations, post the glow of the US-India nuclear deal.

In the lexicon of American sports, a 'next big thing' is a superstar-in-waiting, a game-changer to replace the previous game-changer. In the post-Michael Jordan era, Lebron James was anointed as the next basketball superstar while he was still in high school and years away from playing professionally in the National Basketball Association (NBA).

In US-India strategic parlance, the 2008 nuclear deal could be seen as the first 'big thing' - the superstar who changed the game. Fast forward to 2010 and, as this summer's bilateral strategic dialogue emphasised, the atmospherics about the US-India strategic relationship are very, very good. That the US and India are committed to growing a robust partnership of like-minded democracies is clear.

While Washington and Delhi are searching for the next superstar, ironically, it should not be overlooked that the first one - the nuclear deal - has not yet realised its full potential. India's Civil Nuclear Liability Bill, passed last month, runs contrary to international standards on nuclear liability and poses severe problems for not just American equipment vendors who would serve India's nuclear power expansion, but India's own vendors as well. Since the US expended so much capital on India's behalf at international forums to make the deal happen, this issue is likely to feature prominently in discussions between both governments before and after the Obama visit.

Further, India has not yet signed security-related technology transfer agreements like CISMOA (Communications and Information Security Memorandum of Agreement) and BECA (Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement) which would make transfer of the latest technology from the US to India possible. Every recipient of US defence technology, including the UK, Japan and Australia, has signed these agreements. When defence cooperation is broached in November, these street-level realities will be front-and-centre to any discussion of procurements or defence trade.

On the flip side, India is likely to raise concerns about the recent developments in the US against H-1/L-1 visas and what is perceived to be US actions that are anti-services trade. India's dissatisfaction with these developments could be manifested at several levels.

So, what's the next big thing to burnish the credentials of the US-India strategic partnership? To place that question in context, two additional questions must be asked.

First, are such grand gestures, of the precedent-setting scale of the nuclear deal, even necessary? Both countries have large inter-agency processes, with multiple agencies and constituencies informing policy developments.

Bowing to its political culture, India is a 'consumer' of such grand gestures rather  than their generator. And, institutionally, there is a throughput problem in processing them. All initiatives on foreign policy run through the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) in 
India, which has five people working on the Americas, whereas the political section at the US Embassy in Delhi alone has more than 20 people.

Due to the common burden of a complex inter-agency process, and institutional memories in both bureaucracies of past slights, lack of progress on any street-level issues actually makes grand gestures more relevant than less so, a variable that is magnified by India's throughput problem. As a consequence, grand gestures can function to keep the bar set high and would not permit the strategic relationship to be overtaken by inertia.

Second, what qualifies as a 'strategic' grand gesture? What are the big ideas that have been kicked around? Some attention has been focused by cognoscenti in Washington and Delhi on big ideas in non-security areas, including the Agricultural Knowledge Initiative (AKI). It is very likely that new MoUs or agreements will be signed in the area of alternative energy development and deployment, which would involve commitment of monies by each government.

However, there is a caveat: unlike in the era of Norman Borlaug and dwarf wheat, much of the intellectual property in sectors like agriculture and energy remains in the private sector, which means there is precious little that the US government, or the Indian government, can do to encourage their centrality to a robust US-India relationship. At a broad level, however, the economic relationship continues to grow unfettered.

For the purposes of this argument then, 'strategic' initiatives that highlight a US-India partnership are the preserve of the realm of security and security-related sectors.

What next, one may ask? How do both countries, acknowledging their top-level intent to create a partnership, 'reach for the sky'?

Simply put, the initiatives that are considered as the 'next big thing' should be precedent-setters. They should be large enough in scope and intent to compel either political establishment to write a new set of rules for how to engage with each other. And, they should generate sizeable public debate.

By this litmus, two ideas come to mind.

One, co-development of military technology to fit a future joint need. With India's lower costs for skilled labour, this arbitrage could lower total system development costs in an industry where cost overruns are common.

However, India likely does not have the skill sets currently to fit the complexity of a military systems development with the US at present. Together, both countries could identify the domains that require India to invest in skill and infrastructure development, in order to participate in a future co-development with the US. If such a project were to serve the interests of India's long-term strategic goals and create an export potential that both countries could benefit from, that message would be very important for decision-makers to get their arms around.

Two, both countries could tangibly contribute to each other's security by expanding their partnership in training the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Afghan National Police (ANP). It is in both countries' interest for Afghanistan to be able to secure itself from external and internal threats.

India currently accepts a small number of ANA officers at its army training schools, and has offered to help train the ANP. But, this cooperation could go much further. The ANSF (Afghan National Security Forces) have a total strength of only around 2 lakh versus their estimated need of 4 lakh.

India's regimental training centres have a throughput capacity of thousands that could be utilised in redressing this shortfall. In the recent past, dialogue on this subject has been stalled because of US concerns over Pakistan's reaction to India's security engagement with Afghanistan, and India's perception of those US concerns.

Whatever the 'next big thing' is, its selection should not stop the intelligentsia in either country from continuing to come up with creative ideas to put on the anvil for discussion.

For, like the nuclear deal, the complexities of either political system cannot guarantee that a particular initiative on security will realise its full potential.

It's the trying that should define the engagement, not the end in itself.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: OCTOBER 2010

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