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Analyst: India needs reassurance it's a priority

R. Nicholas Burns,  former under secretary of state for political affairs in the State Department, tells that Obama must reassure the Indian government that India is a priority for the United States.
Image: President Obama arrives at the White House with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's arrival marks the first official state visit during Obama's presidency.Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images
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This week, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is in Washington — the first state visitor of President Barack Obama's administration. Washington and New Delhi hope this visit will advance cooperation on issues from climate change to nonproliferation.

R. Nicholas Burns, former under secretary of state for political affairs in the State Department and Washington's lead negotiator on the U.S.-India nuclear deal, says Obama must reassure the Indian government that India is a priority for the United States."[W]e have not yet heard a clear statement from the Obama administration that India's rise to power is in the strategic interest of the United States."

Burns says the visit might highlight disagreements on climate change and global trade talks. "For a relationship that had been filled with good news and a series of positive developments really from President [Bill] Clinton's last years in office throughout the [George W.] Bush administration, one of the challenges now will be to deal with these differences," he says.

Do you believe that the Obama administration has a clear policy on India yet? Some analysts complain that India is neglected because of the Afghanistan-Pakistan lens that South Asia is increasingly being viewed through.

Many Indians in and out of government are complaining that they feel that the Obama administration has not paid sufficient attention to India. I would say in response to that that it's not totally fair; the president did make Prime Minister Singh his first state visitor, which is a great act of symbolism that sends the message that India is important to the United States. Secretary [of State] Hillary Clinton had a very successful trip to India during the summer, so I would not say that the Obama administration has neglected India.

But, we have not yet heard a clear statement from the Obama administration that India's rise to power is in the strategic interest of the United States. That was clearly the policy of the last two presidents. I happen to believe that as we look around the world and look for partners and allies to help us cope with these enormous global challenges, India can be one of our great partners. So the Obama administration now needs to reassure the Indian government and the Indian people that India is a priority.

Second, there is a danger of course in focusing so much on Pakistan, and so much on China, that an unintended signal might be that India is no longer as important in American eyes, particularly given President Obama's trip to Beijing just this past week where there is a suspicion among some in the world of a G-2 grouping, a condominium of Chinese and American interests. [There is] a great sensitivity in India as to some of the things that were said, even in the joint statement by the two countries.

The Obama administration needs to be very careful to recalibrate and make it crystal clear that India is a valued strategic partner. So I do not think the Obama administration has mishandled relations, and they have a number of very good people focused on it, but they have not perhaps articulated in the fullest extent why India is important.

I look out at a world which is very complex, where we face a great number of transnational challenges-terrorism, proliferation, climate change, pandemics, food shortages, just to name a few. India is going to be critical to the resolution of all those problems.

We cannot resolve them any of them without India's participation with us, and as fellow democracies, and with the very strong bonds that the Indian American community has created for us, this is a real opportunity for President Obama, and I'm not sure they've grasped it yet.

What should we watch out for in the PM's state visit beyond the symbolism of the visit itself?

There will be two important aspects to the state visit beyond the symbolism. First, there are a number of areas where we can and should be working together. Will the two governments agree, for instance, that we should have further cooperation on education, on space, on science and technology, on agriculture?

There's our defense relationship where India is foregoing its long-term dependence on Russian military technology. There's now an opportunity for India to select and decide to purchase the most sophisticated American military technology that would cement our military ties. So there are a number of opportunities here on the positive side of the relationship.

The second thing to watch for is some looming differences in the relationship, and how will two friendly partner countries deal with those differences? I'd cite climate change, where, despite some better dialogue in the last few months, the two countries are very far apart on a global solution at Copenhagen and beyond.

[Also] trade. It's no secret that it was really differences between the United States and India that helped to sink the Doha round. If the world trade talks are going to be revived, can India and the United States cooperate more effectively? And [there's] the possibility that we may not see eye-to-eye on Iran. Now, India has been very careful. It's not a supporter of the Iranian government, but if President Obama decides to go in the direction of economic sanctions against Iran, will India agree to join those sanctions?

So, as is so often the case in diplomacy, success or failure will not be a question of just how well we do together on the issues where we agree, but it's how well we can manage the issues where we disagree. For a relationship that had been filled with good news and a series of positive developments really from President [Bill] Clinton's last years in office throughout the [George W.] Bush administration, one of the challenges now will be to deal with these differences.

Following the Obama administration's unveiling of the Af-Pak strategy, there have been calls from some quarters in Washington that for the strategy to succeed, Kashmir will have to be resolved. Do you think that's wise, and how would you recommend the Obama administration handle the India-Pakistan issue, especially in the context of its goals in Afghanistan?

It would be a great strategic mistake for the United States to view India through the prism of Pakistan or Afghanistan. One of the great conceptual breakthroughs that we made in the relationship was when [Former Secretary of State] Condoleezza Rice in March 2005 met with Prime Minister Singh and assured him and then said publicly, "we're going to de-hyphenate America's relations with India-Pakistan." Because the two countries, while they are contiguous, while they came out of the same empire, they're fundamentally different.

Our relationship with them is fundamentally different, and while Pakistan is an enormously important country to the United States, we shouldn't subordinate the U.S.-India relationship to it, and I do see over the last six or seven months, many Americans inside our government and outside our government being very critical of India. For instance, for [India] not being more conciliatory with Pakistan on issues where there are genuine differences between the two countries. It is in the American interest to separate these two countries.

Obviously we need to have a strong partnership with Pakistan on military and economic engagement. But our relationship with India will be very different. It will be focused on the broader problems of the region. So India is a very valued partner in trying to deal with the possibilities of instability in Bangladesh, the aftermath of the bloody civil war in Sri Lanka, trying to assure political stability in a very unstable Nepal.

And in a larger sense, as we watch China's extraordinary rise to global power, we should want to have a close relationship with India along with Japan and Australia so that – not that we wish to contain China – but that China's rise will take place in an environment with the democratic powers of Asia, and that includes the United States and India, working together.

As undersecretary of state during the Bush administration, you were the point man on the civilian nuclear deal with India. The Indian parliament is yet to approve legislation granting civil liability protection to U.S. energy companies, and India wants the U.S. to relax its rules for transfer of technology. India is also reportedly insisting Washington conclude an agreement on a reprocessing facility in India. What is your view of these Indian demands?

The U.S.-India civil nuclear agreement is a major step forward for both countries, clearly in the interests of both countries. It had the added advantage of symbolizing the growth in the relations between the United States and India in a very positive way. I hope the Indian government will be patient and understand that I'm sure the Obama administration will meet all the commitments that have been made by the U.S. government in years past.

Having said that, it's going to be important to work on these technical details. We have already surmounted the highest hurdles over the three-year negotiation, and the major disagreements were worked out, and the accord was reached in 2008. What we're really talking about now are implementation details. And they're important, but they shouldn't amount to insuperable difficulties between the two countries, so the Indians just need to be patient and understand that this will go forward.

We would hopefully then be in a position to have American firms be able to compete fairly for civil nuclear power plant construction and nuclear fuel delivery contracts, which will be very important for American industry, important for the battle against climate change, because, of course, nuclear power is clean power by and large. This will continue to be a very strong unifying issue in the U.S.-India relationship.

This week is the anniversary of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai. What role can the United States play in helping India and Pakistan to improve their relations?

I do admire Prime Minister Singh and his commitment to peace, his restraint in the wake of the Mumbai attacks, and the most important work has to be done by India and Pakistan themselves.

There was an effective, what they call "composite dialogue" between India and Pakistan for a number of years until 2007 when [former Pakistani] President Pervez Musharraf weakened. Could the two governments recommit themselves to that? To adjudicate their many and great differences on a peaceful basis? I don't think that's impossible.

Kashmir is obviously and has been since 1947 one of the major critical and dangerous differences between them, and again only India and Pakistan will be able to make the kind of progress on that issue. I don't see an open mediation by the United States or any other countries in the cards.

Having said all that, the United States is uniquely positioned in South Asia; we have a very strong friendship and partnership with India; we have a very strong friendship with Pakistan. So we can be a quiet advocate for the two countries to find a way forward to avoid the worst-case situation, which would be a nuclear war between the two, to avoid confrontation, to avoid conflict, and to work out a process where Indians and Pakistanis can come together.

My sense is that despite the enormous and sometimes very emotional differences between the two countries, the Indian and Pakistani people want a degree of normalcy on the border.

Is there anything the United States can do to push Pakistan toward prosecuting those responsible for the Mumbai attacks?

The United States needs to be very clear here, because we have been a victim of terrorism, and we need to be openly and publicly in support of much greater Pakistani cooperation with the Indian government on the Mumbai issue.

There's no question the attackers came from Pakistan. They were inspired by Pakistani terror groups, and therefore the Pakistani government has an obligation to crack down on those groups, not to allow the people who perhaps were the masterminds of this attack to be walking around free and able to produce further future terrorist attacks.

To inspire some confidence, and to regain momentum in India-Pakistan relations, we will have to see some gestures by the Pakistani government that would be reassuring to the Indians that such attacks are not going to occur in the future because the government of Pakistan will do what it must do to contain and defeat the terrorist threat within its own country.

R. Nicholas Burns is a professor at the Belfer Center at Harvard University and is the former under secretary of state for political affairs at the U.S. State Department.