Condi Rice’s visit is not just a sales call

If that business of arms sales is quickly done with, there is enough on the plate to keep Condi Rice and her Indian interlocutors busy for the whole day that she will be in India.

A lot of next steps

It used to be that American emissaries used to arrive in New Delhi advising restraint and prophesying nuclear disaster. Much has changed in the last one year — the main issues surrounding Condoleezza Rice’s trip to India this week, at least as made out by the mainstream media (linkthanks Joe Katzman), are of arms sales. One could be forgiven, it would seem, for thinking that Condi Rice’s visit is all about F-16s and Patriot missiles, with such topics like Nepal, Bangladesh and al-Qaeda thrown in as fillers. That, however, would be mistaking the trees for the woods.

The security and regional cooperation matters laid out in the Next Steps in the Strategic Partnership (NSSP) framework are important — unfortunately, in popular imagination, this has only come to mean procuring advanced military hardware and technology from the United States. Newspaperwallahs, establishment-type columnists and television talking-heads have done nothing to change this perception. On the contrary, these days F-16s have replaced AK-47s are the most frequently used alphanumerical combinations in the Indian media. Military co-operation in general, and defence procurement in particular are important — but not the end-all of a bilateral relationship between India and the United States.

One of the key issues in front of the two countries is the increasing instability in South Asia. Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Maldives are all undergoing political upheavals. India and the United States have a substantial congruence of interests in these countries. Evolving a joint approach to tackle the instability in these countries — the actual approach may vary from country-to-country — is long overdue.

Then there is Afghanistan. Thanks to American involvement, Afghanistan’s new government is getting on with its agenda of reconciliation and redevelopment. India is one of the leading contributors of developmental aid and economic assistance to the fledgeling Afghan state. Afghanistan may be out of the media focus for now, but it does not mean that the job there is done. Nor does it mean that the Afghan equilibrium is not fragile. Indeed, Afghanistan’s political and economic future is still being held hostage by a paranoid Pakistan. Unless the so-called ‘Taliban-remnants’ are wiped out and overland trade-routes to India freed up, Hamid Karzai and his Afghanistan do not stand much of a chance after the Western forces begin to ship out.

And there is Iran. While India would almost certainly not wish to take a provocative line with the Iranian regime, it can play its part in the good cop-bad cop routine.

Finally, there is Pakistan. And not just in terms of Kashmir or the ‘peace process’. Hundreds of al-Qaeda militants may have been handed over to American authorities, but Pakistan has just announced that it has fully lost the trail of Osama bin Laden. Pakistan may be revealing the extent of its past nuclear proliferation activities in bits and pieces, but it is putting in place a new one. While it is obvious that the United States will allow Musharraf to stay in power until 2007, it is necessary to maintain consistent pressure lest the General forget this deadline too. These issues may be beyond the ambit of ‘de-hyphenation’ of America’s relations with India and Pakistan, nevertheless, they are of serious bilateral concern.

Beyond the subcontinent itself there is China, maritime security in the Indian Ocean region and UN reform.

If that business of arms sales is quickly done with, there is enough on the plate to keep Condi Rice and her Indian interlocutors busy for the whole day that she will be in India.

Related Link: US Congressional Research Service report (pdf) on India-US relations

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