Camouflage, sometimes bordering on deception, has been a part of diplomacy since the earliest record of diplomats among mankind in Mesopotamia in 3,000 BC. There was a time when the United States of America, with its infinite resources, mastered the art of deception as an instrument of its foreign policy.
A high point of such diplomacy was the secret trip made by Henry Kissinger to China through Pakistan to facilitate Richard Nixon’s historic opening to Beijing under Mao Zedong. Since then, smaller men have attempted poor copies of such deception, as in the case of Colin Powell who went to New Delhi in 2004 professing America’s friendship only to fly to Islamabad a day later and gift General Pervez Musharraf the status of Washington’s major non-Nato ally.
Whenever India attempted camouflage as an instrument of its external affairs, these efforts have ended, more often than not, in disastrous consequences. One such attempt was a ‘secret’ meeting in London in April 1994 between Indian and US officials for a non-proliferation initiative in South Asia. The meeting was exposed when a woman Indian foreign service officer, who now holds a very senior position in the government, carelessly walked into a party at the Indian high commission in London in very casual clothes. An alert reporter, who knew that the lady officer ought not to be in the United Kingdom unless something special was going on, immediately contacted his editor in New Delhi, who ferreted out details of the secret talks in London for the next day’s newspaper. The uproar that ensued made sure that it was the end of P.V. Narasimha Rao’s non-proliferation initiative.
More recently, when he was foreign secretary, Shiv Shankar Menon went on a ‘secret’ trip to Madrid to meet the Bush administration’s point man on the Indo-US nuclear deal, Nicholas Burns. That was when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Pranab Mukherjee, the United Progressive Alliance’s nominee for negotiations with the left parties on retaining their support for Singh, were telling Prakash Karat and Sitaram Yechury of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) that India would not approach the International Atomic Energy Agency for a Safeguards Agreement, which would have taken the nuclear deal forward in Washington. Menon met Burns in secret to assure him otherwise.
But Menon did not take anyone in his ministry into confidence or hand over responsibilities during his travel to Spain. When some senior officials in South Block found out, they felt let down. They leaked what was happening. It was this camouflage, which alerted Karat that the UPA was double-dealing the CPI(M), and the countdown for withdrawing support to Singh began.
This week, the foreign secretary, Nirupama Rao, engaged in her brand of camouflage diplomacy in Washington, but she appears to have got away with it. Rao is in Washington ostensibly for a meeting of the Indo-US High Technology Cooperation Group, but her real reasons for visiting the US at this time are entirely different. The HTCG was important in Indo-US engagement when it was formed in 2002, when a range of sanctions against India were in force and the country was finding it next to impossible to obtain dual-use civilian-defence items from America — even a Cray computer for the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore.
Because the Group was already up and running, it helped India steer through a crucial phase of the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership when it was launched in January 2004. The NSSP was the precursor of the nuclear deal, bilateral cooperation in space and high technology trade. But the HTCG meetings are no longer of any great policy interest to India. In fact, they now primarily benefit US commercial interests, but New Delhi goes along with its meetings simply because the mechanism exists. The foreign secretary said as much when she told the Group’s industry-to-industry session on Monday that the “US industry has brought up policy constraints in this forum that have, in their perception, hampered their high technology exports to India.”
The last time an HTCG meeting brought any policy benefit for India was at its fifth meeting in February 2007, when Menon secured a commitment from the US that its high-technology exports to India that still need licences will be in line with the requirements of America’s closest allies: Israel and the UK.
The real objective of Rao’s visit to Washington was to serve notice on the Obama administration that the way things are going in Indo-US relations, it can no longer be business as usual unlike during the UPA government’s first five-year term. This she did in her own understated style, without being offensive or moralistic as New Delhi’s visiting envoys to Washington — including some previous foreign secretaries — can be.
It was not lost on the Americans that Rao emplaned for Washington a day after the Russian prime minister, Vladimir Putin, left New Delhi for home. Putin’s was a brief working visit. Yet, despite the complete absence of trappings of a State dinner or a State visit — designations used by the Obama administration to pander India’s ego — Putin’s one-day stay in New Delhi produced results that far outstripped what the Obama administration has been able or willing to work out with India during its 14 months in office.
The Americans are aware after what Rao has been telling them this week that unless they change their ways of dealing with Singh’s government, Barack Obama’s forthcoming State visit to India will be a pale shadow of Putin’s working visit last week. It ought to make those from Obama’s administration at the HTCG meetings — who are engaged in a comprehensive reform of US export control systems through its “National Export Initiative” — sit up and note that while Indian companies are still on their “Entity List” for restricted dealings, Putin, for instance, agreed not only to let India use Russia’s famous “Glonass” global positioning system for military purposes but also signed a joint-venture deal to produce the navigation equipment.
Rao did not mince words when she told the HTCG that “it is anomalous that a body like the Indian Space Research Organisation, which is developing several collaborations with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, should continue to be on this list.” When Obama’s defence secretary met A.K. Antony in January, the defence minister told Robert Gates that while the US wants India to buy its defence equipment, three units of the Defence Research and Development Organisation and the defence ministry-owned Bharat Electronics Limited and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited are still under US sanctions. Putin, on the other hand, had no hesitation in tying up with India for jointly developing a fifth-generation fighter plane or for the supply of MiG-29s worth $1.5 billion.
Rao put on a brave front when she said in public that “we are in the process of operationalizing the (Indo-US nuclear) agreement through close coordination between our two governments”. But the fact is that at yet another recent round of talks on reprocessing arrangements under the deal, the inclination of US negotiators was to raise new problems that will need one or more rounds. Putin, on the other hand, agreed to the construction of at least 16 atomic power plants without making the heads of India’s nuclear sector jump through more hoops, US-style. The government’s decision on Monday not to go ahead with the civil liability for nuclear damage bill was the right signal to Washington even as the foreign secretary was discussing the issue with the Americans.
It was on Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran — which Rao recently visited — that she did the most plain-speaking with her US interlocutors. She may have convinced the White House and the state department that if the US looks at Afghanistan through unifocal Pakistani lenses at this critical juncture, other countries such as India, Iran, China and Russia, which have interests in Kabul, will fight that trend with some degree of coordination. But the problem is that the Obama administration is in a bind. The swagger among Pakistanis that they have had their way in Afghanistan is proof that the US has surrendered beyond redemption to Rawalpindi’s army general headquarters on Kabul.
Rao’s honest report back to New Delhi ought to be that while India is assiduously courted by the Obama administration, it is not respected unlike China, Russia, or even Saudi Arabia for that matter. That situation will change only if the UPA government resolves to stand up for itself a little more without worrying about what “they” will think in Washington. But it is a report that the Prime Minister’s Office may not want to hear.