On Track

June 13, 2018  • Pramit Pal Chaudhuri

For India, an emerging player on the world stage, Track II diplomacy has identified solutions to the most intractable problems.

In 2002, the India-US relationship was still emerging from a Cold War fog. The two countries were eager to find a new economic footing, but it was slow going. Bureaucrats in both governments were stuck in geopolitical ruts: Indian and American strategists experienced deep skepticism about working together, and mutual misconceptions made progress difficult. It was time for the Ananta Aspen Centre to step in.

When global politics become too tense or sensitive for government officials to successfully navigate, outside groups specializing in confl ict resolution are often called on to host talks between fractious parties. The Aspen Institute has a long history of such “Track II” diplomacy, offering nation-states neutral forums and subject-area experts to help identify solutions to the planet’s intractable problems. In India, the Ananta Aspen Centre is a leader in Track II diplomacy—currently hosting strategic dialogues between India and a number of foreign countries, including the United States, Japan, China, Singapore, Israel, and South Korea. It is easily the largest collection of Track II talks handled by a single Indian organization.

Working with the US-based Aspen Strategy Group, the Ananta Aspen Centre’s fi rst Track II dialogue in 2002 emerged from conversations between Ananta founder Tarun Das and then–US ambassador to India Bob Blackwill. Together, they helped secure fi nancial backing from the Confederation of Indian Industries and a number of US fi rms. The first delegation heads were India’s leading businessman, Ratan Tata, and America’s leading foreign policy strategist, Henry Kissinger. Das described the delegations at the time as a mix of former ambassadors, service officers, media leaders, thinktankers, business professionals, scientists, and members of parliament.

The nature of the dialogues allowed the two sides—unencumbered by the requirements of official diplomacy—to candidly discuss policies and the direction of future relations. Among other results, the dialogues marked the first time that the possibility of a bilateral nuclear agreement was raised. The suggestion then became a reality during the George W. Bush administration, ending decades of US sanctions against India. The accord also broke the distrust that had developed between New Delhi and Washington during the Cold War.

Since then, the India-US dialogues have covered everything from Afghanistan to China, from warships to space technology, and from the election of Narendra Modi to that of Donald Trump. Last year, India-US Track II diplomacy held its 22nd round. There, serious concerns about climate change gave rise to a separate dialogue focused solely on energy and the environment. Also last year, the Ananta Aspen Centre added a more formal India-US Forum, an annual meeting of 100 leaders in various fi elds from both countries.

As with the United States, the Japan dialogue has been a particular pathbreaker for India. Today, Japan is probably India’s number-one strategic partner: Japan is set to become India’s largest foreign investor, its most signifi cant foreign-aid donor, and its main military partner in Asia. What’s more, the initial discussions with Tokyo often included a US delegation and, as such, soon became a precursor to what are now official trilateral talks on defense and policy.

Not all Track II efforts have been successful. Dialogue with Malaysia quietly faded away. Talks with Ankara were tabled after domestic turmoil in Turkey made diplomacy untenable. And discussions with Bhutan ended when it became clear there weren’t really any major strategic problems between Bhutan and India.

Still, for a newly emerging international player like India, Track II diplomacy has given the nation entrée to the world stage. Once defi ned by its guarded isolationism, India had at one time built protectionist walls around its economy, and for decades its foreign policy was simply one of nonalignment. As a result, India’s diplomatic corps was tiny, and its policymaking was centered around security threats that required immediate tactical responses; grand strategy was a nascent concept, treated almost as an intellectual luxury. In the early 2000s, then, Track II meetings became the perfect means to test new ideas and to recreate India’s place in the international order. And so they have.

If the transcripts of the Ananta Aspen Centre’s Track II dialogues were ever published, they would provide an essential history of the evolution of India’s strategic interests.