Monday, July 25, 2011

WPS on the US-India Strategic Dialogue, citing me ....

Here's the OpEd written by Dr. WP Sidhu on the recently concluded second US-India Strategic Dialogue, citing me. Space is a relatively non-controversial area for the two countries to step up their cooperation .... However, despite the intent on both sides, space remains an area of promises and no hard decisions.

The recently concluded Indo-US dialogue—only the second—reflects both a deepening and widening of the bilateral engagement. What used to be rare high level visits have now become routine and, to a degree, predictable. At the same time the range of issues being discussed have enlarged to include cooperation on counterterrorism, cyber security, open government, space, peacekeeping, food security in Africa and even women’s empowerment.

Predictably, there has been a focus on the most contentious issues, notably over the differences related to the Indo-US nuclear cooperation and the troublesome state of Pakistan. However, it is important to note that in the absence of such a dialogue these difficult issues would have continued to fester; the regular meetings provides a forum to at least talk through these. Indeed, it is inevitable that even a strategic dialogue is likely to focus on immediate issues of concern partly because they are unavoidable and partly because they have strategic implications. To that extent, because the dialogue focused on the most immediate concerns it was to a degree successful at least at the tactical level.

At the strategic level, however, neither New Delhi nor Washington appears to be any closer to answering the critical question: where would they like to see this strategic partnership 50 years from now? Once the two sides have reached a common understanding a related question would be: how to get there? Given the ongoing internal, regional and international transformation these are difficult questions for either India or the US to answer, although Washington might have a better sense of its objective.

Clearly, to be truly effective a strategic dialogue must focus on at least one or two grand long-term ideas which are mutually beneficial, along with the other issues that now make up the agenda. The nuclear deal was the big idea of the previous decade. However, the growing obsession by both sides over the divergences on this issue has the potential to weaken if not derail the strategic dialogue.

Today, with the last flight of the US space shuttle, which coincided with the strategic dialogue, there is a real opportunity to develop an ambitious Indo-US civil space cooperation programme; an idea first floated by Indian and American scholars a few years ago and further developed by Indian expert Rajeshwari Pillai Rajagopalan recently. Although the space shuttle was a technical marvel —losing only two ships in its 30-year and 135-flight history—it was also incredibly expensive. According to one estimate, while each flight was advertised to cost around $10 million, in reality it worked out to about $1.2 billion per flight. In contrast, the Indian space programme despite being far more frugal has also notched up some incredible achievements. The discovery of water on the moon by the Indian spacecraft Chandrayaan-1 is one such accomplishment. It also underlines that unmanned missions are probably a more efficient (if less glamorous) way to explore and develop space. Interestingly, Hillary Clinton’s last stop in Chennai, where she exhorted India to be more ambitious and assertive, is also the source of some of Nasa’s best scientists and technicians. It would have provided the ideal setting to announce a commercial space initiative, similar to the agricultural knowledge initiative.

Indeed, of the various joint working groups that make up the Indo-US strategic dialogue, the joint space working group has probably been the least ambitious. Instead of a bold cooperative initiative it merely agreed to sharing satellite data on oceans and global weather patterns; explore the possibilities of joint experiments on the International Space Station; and discuss potential cooperation between Nasa and Isro on human spaceflight activities.

It is imperative for both sides to seize the opportunity to make the dialogue truly strategic and space may prove to be the final frontier.

W. Pal Sidhu is senior fellow, Centre on International Cooperation at New York University. He writes on strategic affairs every fortnight.

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