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HEED THE SIGNALS
- New Delhi and east Asia’s future security framework

For those who harbour illusions about the United States of America’s global leadership and the centrality of its role in world affairs, there were two wake-up calls last week. One came on the penultimate day of February, when the Dow Jones index plummeted by more than 400 points and triggered the New York stock market’s worst day since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The same day, the Bush administration surrendered to Realpolitik and reversed its long-standing policy of not talking to Iran.

The decision of the US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice — howsoever whitewashed by the Bush team’s spin-masters as a robust continuation of their policies — to sit down at the same table with the Iranians came just a fortnight after Washington was forced to eat crow on North Korea. George W. Bush had infamously described both Iran and North Korea, five years ago, as part of an “axis of evil” and refused to talk to them unless they crawled to Washington on bended knees. Both these countries refused to do so, and the Bush administration is now going to them on their terms: an embarrassing surrender for a super-power.

There is a common thread in the precipitous decline of American military, diplomatic and economic power illustrated by the fall of the Dow, and by Iran and North Korea. That common thread is China and its rise as the next super-power. The global stock-market crisis last week was triggered by jitters about China’s investment policies. Speculation that Beijing may enact new rules to limit demand for stocks or impose a new tax to curb share transactions quickly spilled into a global equities crisis that has now spread to wider issues, some of them challenging the very fundamentals of the US economy. There was a time when the chairman of the US Federal Reserve sneezed and the world’s markets went into a spin. That will still happen, but what is new is that the same boot fits the Chinese too. When they sneeze in Shanghai’s financial market, the Americans now catch a cold.

The February 12 agreement among six countries to work towards dismantling North Korea’s nuclear programme would not have been possible without China’s leadership in the negotiations. The US, having pushed Kim Jong-il into testing his atom bomb by stubbornly dictating to Pyongyang for more than five years, was left with no other option and signed on the dotted line.

On Iran, too, China is playing a major role along with Russia: otherwise, by now the Bush administration would have escalated its misadventure in Baghdad beyond Iraq’s borders into Iran. Instead, Rice announced that the Iraqi government had taken an initiative to sit down with neighbours, Iran and Syria, to discuss the future of Iraq and that the US would join the talks. The entire world knows that Iraq has no government and what passes for a government would not last 24 hours if the Americans pulled out of Baghdad.

India’s pro-American lobby is fond of running down those who harbour doubts about globalization and the nature of a unipolar world as Rip Van Winkles who foolishly dream of a revival of the USSR and refuse to recognize that the US is the world’s only super-power. Therefore, they argue, India has to be for America what it was to the Soviet Union during the Cold War, perhaps a little more.

It is instructive, especially in the light of last month’s developments, how far-removed these apologists for Washington are from the reality that America’s writ is no longer inviolate in the post-Saddam Hussein world. For India, which narrowly averted a tragic mistake of catastrophic proportions by refusing to be associated in any way with the US occupation of Iraq, it is no longer useful to be seen as cosying up too much to the Americans. Until a few years ago, dealing with the US was the priority in Indian foreign policy. It is still important, but it is no longer going to be the most important relationship for South Block, to the virtual exclusion of everything else.

It is a reflection of the infantilism of the communist parties in India that they continue to make a mountain in defence of Iran’s nuclear programme even as they downplay North Korea’s diplomatic success in getting Bush to climb down from his high horse and talk to Pyongyang. This column does not, by any stretch, support the idea that North Korea should have a nuclear weapon. On the contrary, the view of this column is that a nuclear bomb in the hands of Kim Jong-il is a dangerously destabilizing factor not only on the Korean peninsula, but also in greater Asia. At the same time, it must be recognized that for a small country facing up to the military and diplomatic might of the most powerful nation in human history, North Korea has just got away with much of what it wanted on the future of its nuclear programme.

When the six-party talks — among the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the US — stalled shortly after a September 2005 agreement to end Pyongyang’s nuclear programme, Kim Jong-il resolved that he would not take his country back to the negotiating table unless Washington first unfroze his $24 million in Macau’s Banco Delta Asia and stopped penalizing that bank for allegedly laundering Kim’s ‘illicit’ money.

The US position until last week was that action against Banco Delta Asia could not be mixed up with Pyongyang’s nuclear programme. That, the Americans insisted, was a matter of enforcing the law and that the law would take its course. For both sides, it became a matter of prestige until the Bush administration gave in and agreed to legitimize those funds. To start with, $8 million in Banco Delta Asia would be unfrozen to bring the North Koreans back on track to implement their September 2005 agreement to relinquish their nuclear programme.

The North Koreans wanted direct talks with the Americans even before the six-party negotiating format was launched. But the Bush administration insisted that it would not “reward” Kim’s minions with a handshake across a table with only two chairs unless Pyongyang first surrendered to everything the White House was demanding. Desperate for a success — any success — in its foreign policy, Bush sanctioned a “chance encounter” with the North Koreans at Beijing airport at the end of 2006 and allowed a full-fledged bilateral meeting between his negotiators and Kim’s aides in Berlin in January this year. Bush even agreed to a bilateral framework that is expected to eventually take North Korea out of the US list of state sponsors of terrorism, something that was unimaginable before the Iraq quagmire.

When Bush became president in 2001, he decided that just about everything on foreign policy that was done by his predecessor was bad, and that he had to cleanse US diplomacy with large doses of neo-conservatism by disowning most of what Bill Clinton had done.

Virtually, the only exception Bush allowed was India: his administration agreed to not only continue Clinton’s policy of engaging New Delhi, but he actually deepened that engagement as well. Bush’s U-turn on North Korea effectively ends this White House’s legacy of running down almost everything that Clinton did on foreign policy. The outcome of the six-party talks on North Korea last week is not very much of an improvement on the deal that the Clinton administration negotiated with Pyongyang in 1994, a deal which Bush repudiated soon after he occupied the White House even though it was well-known that realists in his own team, such as the former secretary of state, Colin Powell, had serious reservations about dumping the Clinton formula for a diplomatic resolution of the Korean nuclear stalemate.

In the entire process that led to the latest six-party agreement in Beijing, Indian communists have once again been proved wrong. When Kim tested his nuclear bomb in October last year, People’s Democracy, the organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), wrote, “The nuclear test conducted by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is an unfortunate act...The North Korean action has also set back the possibilities of resuming the six-nation talks with China as the key interlocutor to settle disputes and resolve the issues concerning the Korean Peninsula.” How erroneous has that assessment proved to be! The North Korean test actually speeded up the negotiating process, enabled China to play a central role in that process and forced Washington to make concessions to Pyongyang.

India must not ignore last week’s signals from the six-party talks. For New Delhi, there is a danger that the six-party process — if it does manage to make the Korean peninsula nuclear free — may emerge as the future security framework for the east Asia region. There is every danger that India may then be left out of the process.

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