Catchphrases like "enhanced engagement," "strategic partnership" and "sustained interaction" are bandied about to describe the new U.S.-Indian relationship. A novel, hyperbolic tag, NSSP, or Next Steps in Strategic Partnership, was added to the diplomatic lexicon when on January 13, 2004, then-Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and U.S. President George W. Bush released matching statements to "enhance cooperation in peaceful uses of space technology . . . and create the appropriate environment for successful high-technology commerce."
Now, a joint statement has proclaimed the conclusion on Sept. 17 of Phase One of the NSSP plan, after India agreed to implement "measures to address proliferation concerns and ensure compliance with U.S. export controls." The latest development was portrayed in the Indian media as an important breakthrough that supposedly lifts some decades-old export restrictions on equipment for India's commercial space and nuclear programs. What is the reality?
There is little doubt that U.S.-Indian relations have been positively transformed in recent years, especially as an increasingly confident India has pursued its self-interest by opening up trade in goods and services and by strengthening its defense. A subtle but discernible shift in India's strategic posture has fostered close military-to-military cooperation between the two countries and encouraged the United States to consent to Israel's sale of the Phalcon airborne early warning system to India. The new direction and closeness in U.S.-Indian ties have in turn helped raise India's international profile.
Paradoxically, the very subject that bedeviled bilateral ties in the past and continues to be the main obstacle to high-technology commerce -- the nuclear issue -- acted as a catalyst to transforming the relationship. India's 1998 tests marked the defining event in elevating U.S.-Indian relations and promoting closer engagement. A nuclear India got greater attention and respect in the world, including Washington.
Today, what has changed in U.S.-Indian relations is so obvious as to sound almost cliched. Not so obvious is what ought to have changed between the U.S. and India but has not happened. The hype over the transformed relationship has shrouded what has not changed. The U.S., for example, remains loath to choose India over Pakistan, or cooperate with India at the level it engages China.
Stringent restrictions on India's access to advanced technology -- many dating back to the 1970s -- are testament to how the bilateral relationship, in some aspects, remains trapped in the past. Not many in Washington seem embarrassed that despite American concern over the growing power imbalance in Asia, the U.S. still provides far greater high-technology access to the world's largest autocracy, China, than to the world's most populous democracy. The U.S. is now set to clinch a deal with China to sell what it will not even discuss with India -- nuclear reactors to produce electricity.
Any interstate relationship to be robust demands equilibrium and equivalence. And it is axiomatic that no partnership can be built with one partner seeking to maintain and enforce penal measures against the other. The U.S. interest in gaining greater access to the huge Indian market, while reasonable, mismatches the determination of its nonproliferationists to preserve India-specific barriers to high-technology commerce.
U.S.-Indian efforts in the past to liberalize high-technology commerce did not go very far because they became bureaucratic exercises. Lamentably, the latest initiative too, the NSSP, has turned into an exercise of bureaucratic haggle, ensuring that progress would come at a snail's pace. This is all the more unfortunate because the Bush team has had a more straight-thinking approach toward India than the Clinton administration, saddled as it was with the nonproliferation ayatollahs bearing scars from the battles they lost against India when it conducted nuclear testing in 1974 and 1998.
Once India declared itself a nuclear-weapons state in 1998, the Clinton administration simply moved the goalpost. As a consequence, even political dialogue -- the 14 rounds of closed-door negotiations between then Deputy U.S. Secretary of State Strobe Talbott and then Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh -- became centered on persuading India to accept a set of benchmarks, including limits on the development and operational deployment of nuclear weapons and missiles, a halt to fissile-material production, international inspections on nuclear facilities, U.S.-certified export controls, and signature on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Holding India to the benchmarks became the name of the game.
The Bush administration has not sought to "benchmark" India, but nor has it freed policy amply from the Clinton framework to facilitate a real strategic partnership. The U.S. sanctions imposed on India in response to its 1998 tests are all gone, but not the technology controls that predate those detonations. While the Bush team has not tried to rein in the Indian strategic programs, it has allowed the political process to promote high-technology trade to be taken over by its bureaucracy and turned into a wearisome export-control exercise likely to stretch out over years.
Despite the latest announcement on "modifications to U.S. export-licensing policies," major procedural and legal barriers remain in place in the three areas identified for U.S.-Indian cooperation: high-technology trade, civilian nuclear safety, and commercial space activity.
If the U.S. political leadership were to order a liberal interpretation of existing U.S. laws and guidelines, it would throw open for export to India many high-tech items currently barred. In the past, including during the Cold War, the U.S. has given elasticity to tough national laws when it has suited its strategic interests,
India is seeking access not to militarily significant technology, including space-launch vehicles and high-resolution, remote-sensing devices, but to technology that can aid its economic modernization. It is willing to reassure Washington through legislation and enforcement that its high-technology imports are adequately protected against misuse or re-export, but it cannot incorporate into its national laws the guidelines of cartels that have traditionally targeted India and continue to exclude India -- the London Club of nuclear suppliers, the Australia Group and the Missile Technology Control Regime.
With Washington calibrating India's high-technology access to Indian progress in meeting "nonproliferation standards," New Delhi has to do more than present itself as a suppliant, pleading and beseeching the U.S. on a range of issues, from high-tech commerce to Security Council permanent membership. New Delhi has to think of ways of integrating its economic and political policies to create synergy and countervailing leverage, even as it seeks to encourage a forward-looking U.S. policy on high-technology cooperation.