I think the strategic partnership between India and the US is very strong. It has the advantage that it has been supported over the past decade by both the Congress and the BJP in India, and both the Republican and Democratic parties in the US. So, in effect, it has bipartisan support in both countries. I think the two countries are working together now in a much more positive way than ever before. I would point to the vastly increased trade and investment between the two countries. I would also say that the US and India are working politically more closely together—in South Asia, certainly in Afghanistan, and, I think, we are beginning to do the same in East Asia as well. And so, I have a lot of confidence that we have turned the corner. It is a very strong one with great promise for the future. I think President Obama has continued to stress the importance of India to the US. You saw that in his invitation to Prime Minister Singh to be the first state visitor of the Obama administration, you saw that in secretary of state Hillary Clinton initiating the strategic dialogue at the ministerial level with India. There is no question that President Obama’s upcoming visit will be a very important indication on whether or not the two governments can agree to move the relations forward in an even more ambitious way. I think the current administration in the US is fully dedicated to this relationship and understands the importance for the US going forward.

Civilian nuclear deal

The civil nuclear deal turned out to be the symbolic centre-piece of this new strategic relationship between India and the US. I must admit that when we started negotiating the deal in March 2005, we did not anticipate that it would take on such prominence. But it did because it symbolized that the US and India would work together in a different way, that we would put behind us some of the disagreements of the past, that we would have a very ambitious view of the partnership between the two countries. And we confronted the problem that was exceedingly difficult to resolve and we succeeded. And the civil nuclear agreement stands as one of the most important advances in the relationship in the past 60 years. Much credit, of course, goes to Prime Minister Singh. He was steadfast in supporting the deal, and we in the US feel very proud that we were able to contribute to this very important advance to the relationship between the two countries. Two years down the line, I must say that the US has done everything—both the Bush and the Obama administrations have done everything they were asked to do—to advance the civil nuclear agreement. But I am very concerned that the nuclear liability law that has been passed by the Indian Parliament is going to be a major problem in the implementation of this agreement because it seems to me, and to many other people, that the law is not consistent with international standards, which have a role in administering nuclear commerce. And, therefore, one would hope that the Indian government would take decisive steps to modify the law. So, I think, without a substantial change, it’s hard to see this agreement going forward.

Certainly the Indian government and the people would benefit from a much greater reliance on nuclear fuel. There will be economic, energy and environmental benefits, and certainly, it will be to the benefit of the US and India to see the central agreement between the two countries be fully implemented and fully successful. I think the law needs to be modified so that it is more in line with the practice we have seen in the past so that companies supplying nuclear reactors can have assurances that their investments can go forward. So, I think more has to be done.

Dual-use technology

I think it’s important that both India and the US work to remove barriers to defence trade because it is critical that the military relationship between the two countries move forward; and, in this case, I do support a liberalization of US export control laws so that India can have access to more sophisticated US defence technology. At the same time, I think it is important that the Indian government take steps to make it easier for US firms to invest in India and to work with the defence industry there. And hopefully, if both sides can come through with some reforms, the result will be a much closer military relationship, defence relationship and technology relationship. Strategic partnership, of course, has many different dimensions, but the military and defence dimension is critical to achieving its full promise. So I hope reforms can be made by both countries.

Great promise

Yes, I think there is great promise that India and the US will continue to work together very closely in South Asia. For example, in the last five or six years, the two countries have worked together in a way they never have before to try to alleviate the conflict in Afghanistan, and certainly tried to end the civil war in Sri Lanka and provide more stability in both Bangladesh and Nepal. The record of the two countries working together in South Asia is a very good one. Secondly, as we look at the strategic partnership, one of the most important dimensions will be in East Asia because there, India and the US being democratic countries having very close relations with countries such as Japan, Singapore and Australia, we would want to make sure these democratic powers are strong and working together so that as China rises, it rises in an Asia that is stable, democratic and peaceful. So there, I think it’s very important to expand the way India and the US work together. In Asia, that would mean closer political cooperation in the pan-Asian institutions that are so important such as APEC, Asean and the East Asia Summit. It would also include working together militarily through exercises and training, through naval and air cooperation in the Pacific.

(As told to Elizabeth Roche)

Former US under secretary of state for political affairs Nicholas Burns is currently professor at the Harvard Kennedy School. He was the lead US negotiator for the India-US civil nuclear deal.

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