US, India and global security: outsourcing or burden-sharing?

Whatever the outcome of the Indo-US strategic dialogue in Washington this week may be, the speech setting the stage for it by the Under Secretary of State Bill Burns is likely to go down as a turning point in the articulation of the Obama Administration's India policy.

For nearly an year and a half, the top leadership of the Obama Administration seemed to say all the right things about sustaining a partnership with India that was built during the eight years of the Bush Administration.

All those speeches seemed to be no more than polite noises to the critics of Obama's India policy in Washington and New Delhi. In his speech at the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations on Tuesday, Burns chose to directly address all the criticism of the Obama Administration's alleged neglect of India.

His positive assurances to India on China, Pakistan, Afghanistan and terrorism are likely to make the headlines; so will his reaffirmation of the Bush proposition that the United States wants to help India's rise to great power status.

But there are other elements in Burns's speech that are as important. "The United States supports India's leadership in encouraging the emergence of a stable democratic government in Bangladesh... easing tensions in Nepal... and promoting peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka," Burns said.

The idea of India as a natural leader of the subcontinent, like so much else of importance, was first articulated under Bush. Its restatement under Obama should be music to the ears of South Block.

For those in South Asia who might worry about the US ceding ground to India, Burns added that "neither of us intends to outsource South Asia policy to the other, but more often than not our policy prescriptions converge".

Burns praised India for accepting new burdens in the protection of collective international interests. On Asia, Burns welcomed "India's readiness to share responsibility for securing the global commons in Asia, for safeguarding the sea and air routes on which much of the global economy depends".

Burns, who had worked hard under Bush to get the nuclear deal approved in the Nuclear Suppliers Group in September 2008, also noted the now standard proposition in the Pentagon that India has become "a net provider of security" in the Indian Ocean and beyond.

The Obama Administration's decision to return to the Bush thesis that India's rise is beneficial to the United States and the world is accompanied by a big departure from the Bush era.

If President Bush believed that American primacy was unchallengeable, Obama is trying to come to terms with the real and present limits to US power.

The two real trends - India's rise and America's relative decline - demand that New Delhi and Washington work together to address the challenges to international security. Regional and global "burden-sharing" then becomes the potential "big idea" that could shape the future of Indo-US security cooperation.

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