Strategic dialogue: What does it mean?

03 Nov, 1997    ·   25

P. R. Chari reflects on the real meaning of strategic dialogue.

This has become a much-overworked phrase in the context of Indo-US relations. Ambassador Pickering is believed to have launched a "strategic dialogue" with India during his recent visit. Karl Inderfurth, Assistant Secretary of State, in his testimony, has described this before the House International Relations Subcommittee on the Near East and South Asia as being designed "to insure [sic] regular, high level, comprehensive and forward-looking exchanges on a wide range of issues".



The Americans have been at considerable pains to explain what "strategic dialogue" does not mean. Evidently, this phrase cannot be extended to suggest a "strategic relationship" or "strategic partnership". So, the US intention is to have an engagement with India that is "less formal" but "quite important" and better understand each other with a view "to strengthen the international order and to increase peace and stability in the region". [All these quotes are from a background briefing provided by the State Department before the Pickering visit.



What's the American stake?



Why are the Americans so sensitive about what their strategic dialogue with India means and does not mean? A reasonable surmise would be their desire to distance themselves from the recommendation made in the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations Report suggesting that the United States should forge "a closer strategic relationship" with India . In essence:



"The relationship would be based on shared values and institutions, economic collaboration including enhanced trade and investment, and the goal of regional stability across Asia . Consistent with these interests, the Task Force recommends that the United States adopt a declaratory policy that acknowledges India's growing power and importance; maintain high-level attention including regular reciprocal visits of cabinet members and senior officials; loosen unilateral US constraints upon the transfer of dual-use technologies; increase military-to-military cooperation; cooperate on elements of India's civilian nuclear program and other energy-related issues; and undertake limited conventional arms sales. The United States should also support India 's entry into Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation..."



The use of the phrase "strategic partnership" and the extensive nature of its ambit, as described by the Task Force, drew more than its fair share of criticism, especially from Pakistan and elements in the Clinton Administration that have traditionally favoured its interests. The connotation of a "partnership", moreover, had an anti-China flavour. Current US policy towards China , oscillating between engagement and competitiveness, has been carefully constructed. Any suggestion that the United States wants to develop a "strategic partnership" with India would upset that policy. Hence the emphasis on dialogue, to discern India 's own perceptions of the post-Cold-War world and how it assesses its relations with China in the short and long terms.



Implications for India



It is therefore important for India to develop its understanding on these issues, proceeding beyond the banal declarations that: Sino-Indian relations are improving but its nuclear-missile-conventional arms transfers to Pakistan greatly affect India 's national security. Optimism about Sino-Indian relations must be tinged with caution. In the assessable future, however, the United States would continue to be the only superpower in a unipolar world. However, China is fast emerging as the revisionist power to challenge the United States .



What are the options before India in this milieu? Clearly, the most independent option would be to remain unaligned in the contention between China and the United States . Will this be possible? And what will be its implications? Or should India join the group of developed nations comprising Japan , the EU and the United States . Or join a combination of Asian-Eurasian powers that might emerge, comprising China and Russia . So much is certain: whatever option is chosen by India , its viability would depend on India 's internal stability/cohesiveness and the achievement of a sustainable and respectable (8%) rate of economic growth. That would require steady progress of economic reforms which, in turn, would require the maintenance of financial discipline that weak coalition governments find difficult. In that sense, how India manages the political transition from single-party to multi-party coalition rule will decide its place in the post-Cold-War world. And the viability of whatever option it chooses.