Early in the Clinton administration's second term, U.S. State Department officials appear to be working hard to jump-start a "strategic dialogue" with India.
THE first visit to New Delhi by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs Karl F. Inderfurth early in September was a relatively low profile affair. His predecessor Robin Raphel, with her penchant for off-the-cuff remarks on issues such as Kashmir and nuclear non-proliferation, invariably managed to stir up controversy during her periodic visits to India. But things seem to be different in the Clinton administration's second term in office. The old crew at the U.S. State Department in leadership positions has given way to a new team led by Madeleine Albright. According to sources in the External Affairs Ministry in New Delhi, the new team is much more sympathetic than the old one to New Delhi's stance on many of the issues that have bedevilled Indo-U.S. relations. Inderfurth was Albright's deputy during her tenure as U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations.
External Affairs Ministry sources say that Inderfurth's visit could signal the opening of a new chapter in Indo-U.S. relations. The positions of the two countries on various issues were identified during talks that Inderfurth had with Foreign Secretary K. Raghunath and other External Affairs Ministry officials. Inderfurth spoke about the "sustained interaction" he had with Indian officials. Spadework for a meeting between Prime Minister I.K. Gujral and President Bill Clinton in New York in the third week of September was clearly done during the State Department official's visit. Highly placed Indian sources say that the initial impetus to improve the content of bilateral relations came from Washington. After he was sworn in for a second time, President Clinton said on several occasions that his administration would focus on South Asia and the Asia-Pacific region. In its first tenure, the administration's attention was mainly trained on the Balkans and Russia, West Asia and Central Asia.
Early in the administration's second term, State Department officials went out of their way to jump-start a "strategic dialogue" with India. According to External Affairs Ministry officials. Thomas Pickering, who was Ambassador to India and who now holds the important position of Under-Secretary of State, and Strobe Talbott, Deputy Secretary of State, are perceived as being quite receptive to New Delhi's viewpoint on many international issues. According to Indian officials, Pickering and Inderfurth initiated the beginning of a strategic dialogue with the Indian Ambassador to Washington. Finance Minister P. Chidambaram met Albright in Kuala Lumpur during the recent summit of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN). At a press conference Chidambaram seemed to echo Washington's opinions on the regime in Myanmar.
Washington is trying to ostracise Myanmar's military regime, despite the fact that Myanmar has now become a full member of ASEAN. When Minister of State for External Affairs Salim Sherwani was in the U.S. a few months ago, he met the head of the U.S. National Security Council (NSC).
Pickering and Albright are due to visit India in quick succession, probably in October and November. According to Indian Government sources, President Clinton is expected in Delhi as early as January 1998. At the last meeting that Pickering had with the Indian Ambassador in Washington, he conveyed Clinton's desire to meet the Prime Minister when both the leaders are in New York to address the General Assembly. Inderfurth, while speaking at a meeting hosted by the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), said that the essential message from Washington was that "American interests are very much served by developing further our relationship with India." The second Clinton administration, he emphasised, was keen to adopt "a new and constructive" approach to South Asia.
Indian officials say that both sides have identified areas to be covered during high-level discussions scheduled from September. These include the West Asia peace process, the situation in Central Asia with particular emphasis on Afghanistan, the security situation in South Asia, Indo-Pakistan relations, ASEAN, the growing role of Japan in the region and China.
The Prime Minister's decision to meet the President in New York was taken after due deliberation, according to External Affairs Ministry sources. Sources in South Block say that it is the reality of the times that the U.S. remains the sole world power. But they are also of the opinion that the time is right to improve relations with Washington. They say that in the one-hour meeting that Gujral will have with Clinton, he will bring to the President's notice India's apprehensions about the renewed U.S.-Pakistani strategic relationship and also India's deep concern regarding the Taliban in Afghanistan. Gujral will also convey to Clinton India's considered view that the U.S. policy of isolating Iran is counterproductive. Bilateral issues regarding intellectual property rights, the World Trade Organisation, non-proliferation, dual-use technologies and so on will figure in talks that will take place in the next three months. The Prime Minister stated in Parliament that India is against any third-party mediation in Kashmir and that he would not meet the President if any preconditions were attached to the talks.
According to External Affairs Ministry sources, it will interest India to know Washington's long-term threat perceptions regarding China. The Clinton administration's agenda for the next four years is emerging. The game plan is to isolate China militarily and politically in the Asia-Pacific. Indian officials say that they are aware of the objectives of the Clinton administration in the region. They say that India is not in favour of the U.S. policy of "containment" against China though they admit they are uneasy about China's role in north-eastern India. They also say that they respect the integrity and unity of China. The feeling in South Block is that the Tibet issue and the human rights issue, among others, can be used against India. At the same time, they claim that it is important to get Washington's assessment about the role China, Japan and South-East Asia will play in the coming years.
There seems to be a concerted attempt to drag New Delhi into an anti-China alliance. Washington has gathered several countries in the region in such an alliance. A new defence treaty that the U.S. has signed with Japan should make all Asian countries wary. Under the treaty, Japanese forces are obliged to fight alongside U.S. troops if war breaks out in the Korean peninsula or the Taiwan straits. Indonesia and Australia already have strong defence links with the U.S. On the other hand, there are indications of a closer strategic relationship emerging between Russia and China.
Washington may be willing to assign New Delhi an important role in South Asia. But observers say that while Washington may agree to put Kashmir on the back-burner and allow the import of dual-use technology, the long-term dangers of entering Washington's embrace have to be carefully weighed. A high-level U.S. Congressional delegation that was in Delhi in August made it clear that isolating China and playing up the Tibet issue were high on the agenda for both the Clinton administration and the Republican-controlled Congress. One of the first things that the Congressional delegation did on arrival was to go to Dharamsala and meet the Dalai Lama. Clinton is planning to send his special representative on Tibet to meet the Dalai Lama in India in the next few months. It will be interesting to see whether New Delhi will allow the visit. External Affairs Ministry officials, meanwhile, emphasise that their commitment is only to a dialogue and not to an alliance with the U.S.