Strategic Dialogue: The 4-5-6 of India-US relations

kerry-swarajThe “defining partnership of the 21st century” is poised for a new beginning as India and the US hold their first strategic dialogue this week after the installation of a new government in New Delhi. Re-energising the relationship, which is often seen by some to have plateaued after the high of the transformational civil nuclear deal of 2008, and mapping new frontiers of engagement will be the overarching focus of India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and US Secretary of State John Kerry when they hold full-spectrum talks in New Delhi July 31.

The strategic dialogue at the level of foreign ministers is part of the complex architecture of the India-US engagement which encompasses over 30 discrete dialogue mechanisms, covering diverse areas. The strategic dialogue was launched in July 2009, and focuses on five pillars: I) Strategic Cooperation II) Energy and Climate Change, Education and Development III) Economy, Trade and Agriculture IV) Science and Technology V) Health and Innovation. The first Strategic Dialogue was held in Washington DC in June 2010, followed by successive rounds in New Delhi (July 2011), Washington DC (June 2012) and New Delhi (June 2013). The venue of the strategic dialogue has been rotating between the capitals of India and the US, but 2014 is an exception, with New Delhi hosting it for the second year in a row.

New pragmatism

The messaging from Washington has been pragmatic and affirmative since a change of guard in New Delhi, with a business-friendly prime minister taking charge of the world’s most populous democracy and Asia’s third largest economy. Barely hours after the results of India’s parliamentary elections were declared on May 16, US President Barack Obama was quick to congratulate Mr Modi on his party’s “historic victory” and invited him to visit Washington. Mr Obama eloquently voiced hope that he looked forward to working closely with Mr. Modi “to fulfill the extraordinary promise of the US-India strategic partnership.” Days later, Mr Kerry became the first foreign minister to call and congratulate Sushma Swaraj May 28, the day she took charge of India’s external affairs ministry. Secretary Kerry spoke warmly about “re-energising” the India-US ties and expressed hope that the two countries could scale up bilateral trade five-fold to US$ 500 billion from US$ 100 billion. It was business from the word go – and this is a refreshing change that will frame the India-US relations in days to come.

It’s economy, stupid!

jaitley-fdiExpanding economic ties will be a  dominant theme on the table at the fifth round of strategic dialogue in New Delhi, which will set the stage for Prime Minister Modi’s summit meeting with President Obama in Washington in September.  On the economic side, the sky is virtually the limit. There are a set of complex trade-related issues like the IPR that continue to be mired in differing perceptions, but with the new Indian government showing political will to move ahead with ambitious economic reforms there is a perceptible upswing of enthusiasm among American business and industry bodies about the India Story. The decision to raise the FDI cap to 49 per cent in the insurance sector and opening up the defence sector to foreign investment are path-breaking steps that should hopefully spur American investments in the days to come. On its part, the US establishment also has to show flexibility and long-term vision to accommodate India’s interests and concerns in relation to the IPR regime’s application to life-saving generic drugs and visa fee for Indian IT professionals.

With the Modi government unveiling its plan to build 100 smart cities and making India the manufacturing and trade hub of Asia, the potential for upscaling investments is huge. Fast-tracking negotiations for a bilateral investment treaty could prove to be a game-changer. The US is already the fifth largest source of foreign direct investment into India, with cumulative FDI inflows from the US from April 2000 to March 2014 amounting to about $ 11.92 billion. And it’s no longer a one-way street: Indian companies have invested over US $ 17 billion in the US over the last few years.

Let nuclear energy flow…

us-rice-nuclearThe first India-US strategic dialogue under the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government will also be the right time to figure out the ‘4-5-6’ of the nuclear deal. Put simply, the two sides will be focusing their energies on the fruition of the landmark civil nuclear deal that transformed the relationship between the hitherto estranged democracies into engaged democracies. The nuclear rapprochement began in the summer of 2005 and the deal was signed in 2008. Six years later, it’s time to get nuclear electricity flowing from a US-built reactor in India. In this context, the signing of a preliminary contract between the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) and Westinghouse in September 2013 for a nuclear power project in Gujarat bodes well for the future of the deal, which could prove pivotal for India’s energy security.

Bolstering Defence Ties

Besides the nuclear deal, the upswing in defence cooperation has exemplified the ongoing transformation in the India-US ties. The signing of the  ‘New Framework for India-U.S. Defense Relations’ in 2005 has led to burgeoning of defence trade and intensification of joint exercises, us-india-defencepersonnel exchanges, collaboration and cooperation in maritime security and counter- piracy, and exchanges between each of the three services. Imports of high-end military hardware have surpassed $10 billion. In September 2013, the two sides took yet another defining step by sealing a Joint Declaration on Defence Cooperation, which envisages qualitatively upgrading the defence relationship by simplifying technology transfer policies and exploring possibilities of co-development and co-production of defense systems.

Strategic Connect

Finally, with the world in a flux and an arc of instability widening from Africa to Afghanistan, the fifth round of strategic dialogue should see an intense brainstorming on a wide array of regional and global hotspots, including Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and the volatile situation in the Middle East. Ensuring peaceful transformation in the post-2014 Afghanistan and the extant sanctuaries of terror in the AfPak region should drive the two countries to work closely to promote peace and stability in a violence-prone country. The threat posed by trans-national Islamist terror networks, as exemplified by the ISIS in Iraq, should also prod both sides to step up counter-terror cooperation. The two democracies should also be looking to proactively cooperate in shaping an inclusive East Asian architecture and promote maritime security in the region.

Ideas, Initiative and Innovation

The canvas of the India-US engagement is indeed all-encompassing, but what imparts the relationship its unique character is people-driven engagement and the forging of an enduring innovation-focused partnership in areas of education, science and technology, clean energy and public health that directly impact the lives of ordinary people.

The restless romantics looking for blockbuster headlines to frame the India-US relations may be a tad disappointed, but the action in the future will be in the realm of ideas and co-creating a new ecosystem of life-changing technologies and innovations. In a memorable speech entitled ‘India and the US: The Long-View’ at the Harvard Kennedy School this summer, S. Jaishankar, India’s ambassador to the US, has conjured up the idea-driven enterprise that underpins the strategic partnership between the world’s largest multi-religious secular democracies. “Many of these initiatives can change India, our relationship, perhaps even the larger world. Consider this for a moment, our biotechnologists are together producing the most economical vaccine in the world. Joint Projects that will take solar refrigeration to Indian villages and revolutionize photovoltaic plate efficiency are underway. So too are public health programs ranging from cancer treatment to cataract detection,” he says.

obama-diwaliThe Great American Dream, which essentially means scripting your own destiny, has effortlessly intersected with the Indian dream of carving one’s place in the world, with over a billion Indians striving to craft a better life for themselves in the here and the now. Over 100,000 Indian students studying in various American universities exemplify the twinning of Indian and American dreams.

The 3-million strong Indian diaspora in the US, who are among the most well-educated and well-heeled expatriates, have remained powerful connectors and bridge builders between the world’s two largest democracies, spawning new success stories in their adopted homeland.

The governments come and go, but the people of the two countries will make sure that India and the US will remain robustly engaged democracies, rejuvenating each other’s society and system with ideas, initiative and innovations, fulfilling the “extraordinary promise” of what President Obama has famously called “the defining partnership of the 21st century.”

(manish-chandManish Chand is Editor-in-Chief of India Writes Network,, a portal and e-journal focused on international affairs and the India Story. Follow him on twitter@scepticcryptic).

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Manish Chand
Manish Chand
Manish Chand is Founder-CEO and Editor-in-Chief of India Writes Network ( and India and World, a pioneering magazine focused on international affairs. He is CEO/Director of TGII Media Private Limited, an India-based media, publishing, research and consultancy company.