New Delhi: At a time when India-US relations seem to be in limbo, top officials of both countries on Monday reviewed the status of economic and strategic cooperation, taking up issues such as the implementation of a civil nuclear deal and building on economic and defence ties.
US deputy secretary of state William Burns, who arrived in New Delhi over the weekend, started his two-day visit with a meeting with foreign secretary Ranjan Mathai, a government official said. Burns also met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, foreign minister S.M. Krishna and national security adviser Shivshankar Menon, besides finance minister Pranab Mukherjee.
Bilateral talks: US deputy secretary of state William Burns. By PTI
Speaking to reporters, Burns said his visit was a follow-up to a meeting last month in Bali, Indonesia, between Singh and US President Barack Obama.
The security situation in Afghanistan, where international troops are fighting a resurgent Taliban; US’ ties with Islamabad, specially after the deaths of 24 Pakistan soldiers in an attack in a North Atlantic Treaty Organisation air strike last month; pro-democracy protests in West Asia, and the situation in the Asia-Pacific region were discussed.
“We had very productive discussions on bilateral, regional and global issues,” Burns said. “We stressed our shared interest in expanding economic cooperation between our two countries, our shared commitment to the full implementation of the civil nuclear agreement, and our shared stake in expanding defence ties.”
The US had been seeking more clarity on the provisions of India’s nuclear liability law that was notified last month, just days before the Singh-Obama meeting on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit in Bali. The US in 2008 had concluded a landmark civil nuclear pact with India that helped overturn a 34-year-old embargo against India sourcing sensitive technology and atomic power plants from the global market. But it has been holding back investment because of concerns about India’s nuclear liability law, which holds suppliers responsible in the event of an accident. France and Russia have similar concerns.
India says it is bound by its law and has rejected US secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s suggestion that it should get the legislation examined by the International Atomic Energy Agency—the international nuclear watchdog—to see if it was compatible with the international law on the issue, Convention on Supplementary Compensation.
Media reports from Bali quoted Singh as saying he had explained to Obama that India had a “law in place and rules have been formulated...we have gone some way to respond to concerns of American companies and within the four corners of the law of the land, we are willing to address any specific grievances”.
The provisions of India’s nuclear liability law were made public just months after two US companies lost out to two European firms in a bid for fighter jets for the Indian Air Force (IAF) in April. The IAF is expected to buy 126 aircraft in a deal worth about $11 billion.
Burns also discussed economic reforms with Mukherjee. The discussion took place against the backdrop of the Indian government putting on hold plans to allow greater direct investment in multi-brand retail following protests by opposition parties as well as some allies. The proposal was expected to make the way for American retailer Wal-Mart, Britain’s Tesco and France’s Carrefour to invest in India’s retail market—estimated to be worth around $400 billion.
Burns’ visit to India comes as Ashley J. Tellis, a senior associate at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in an article noted “a certain disappointment with India in the (US) administration” on its slow pace of cooperation.
“What is needed at Washington at this stage therefore is a measure of patience. Deeper cooperation will come as the Indian state grows more and more comfortable with the United States and its strategic aims and its manner of doing business,” Tellis said in the article, titled “Ebb and Tide”.
Though both sides have to work on their ties, any talk of “the demise of their strategic partnership have been very much exaggerated”, he added. Ties between the world’s oldest and the largest democracies have warmed steadily in the past decade, with three US presidents visiting India between March 2000 and November 2010.
In his remarks, Burns was careful not to expose any possible tensions between the two countries. “Ours is a relationship where we are not going to see every day the kind of dramatic breakthroughs or achievements every day... but I think everyday we can continue the hard steady work of building on and strengthening the relationship.”