New Delhi: At a time when India-US relations seem to be in limbo, top officials of both countries began talks in New Delhi on Monday to review the status of economic and strategic cooperation.
Discussions are expected to focus on India’s nuclear liability law and the possibility of greater American investment in areas such as infrastructure, said a person aware of the development, asking not to be identified.
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, said the person cited above. Burns is also expected to meet Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, foreign minister S.M. Krishna and national security adviser Shivshankar Menon.
A file photo of the Tarapur nuclear plant
A US state department statement over the weekend said Burns would “discuss a broad range of bilateral, regional, and global issues, underscoring the continued growth in the (India-US) strategic partnership.”
Burns will also visit India’s commercial capital Mumbai, it added.
In New Delhi, Burns is expected to seek more clarity on the provisions of India’s nuclear liability law that was notified last month, just days before Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met US President Barack Obama on the sidelines of an East Asia Summit in Bali, Indonesia.
The US in 2008 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 too have similar concerns and are also seeking clarity on the provisions of the law. Last week, Russian ambassador Alexander Kadakin told reporters in New Delhi he expected two new nuclear plants that Russia is planning to build at Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu not to be subject to the provisions of the nuclear liability law. Russia says no new conditions can be negotiated for the new plants because all other terms are the same as for the first two 1,000 MW units already under construction at the same site under the terms of a 1998 agreement.
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 last month 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 in April. The IAF is expected to buy 126 aircraft in a deal worth about $11 billion.
Besides investment in the civil nuclear space, Burns is also likely to discuss economic reforms in India. The government, which had announced allowing foreign direct investment in multi-brand retail last month, was forced to put the move on hold following protests by the opposition 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.
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.