The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- The US recognizes south Asia as India's sphere of influence

The composition of the lunch table said it all. When the foreign secretary, Shyam Saran, arrived at the US state department last Wednesday for a working lunch hosted by the under-secretary of state for political affairs, Nicholas Burns, the American delegation at the table truly reflected the historic transformation which Indo-US relations had undergone in the six years between two landmark state visits to India: by former president of the United States of America, Bill Clinton, in 2000, and by his successor, George W. Bush, six years later.

Until very recently, for the Americans, such working lunches with India's foreign secretary were programmes structured around south Asia. This time it was different. South Asia figured at the lunch, but when it did, it was mostly in a larger global geopolitical context. A fly on the wall of the eighth floor dining room of the state department, where the lunch was held, told this columnist that China loomed large in the discussions, notwithstanding assertions by both sides that improved Indo-US ties were not aimed at containing Beijing.

The conversation at the lunch table was remarkable for the candour with which both delegations approached the issues on their agenda. As recently as two years ago, neither Saran nor Burns ' or for that matter, any of those who participated in these discussions ' would have freely discussed many of the things they talked about last week.

Not surprisingly perhaps, the entire discussion on the Indo-US nuclear deal took up only a small portion of more than five hours of meetings which Saran had at the state department on Wednesday.

Saran's talks in Washington were historic because they were part of a steady movement by the Bush administration towards recognizing that virtually all of south Asia ' with the exception of Pakistan ' is part of India's sphere of influence. With a rider, of course. That rider is that New Delhi and Washington must work together on Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and, to a lesser extent, on Bhutan and the Maldives. Even on Afghanistan, the Bush administration is now encouraging New Delhi to step up its already considerable engagement with Kabul. This represents a sea change from Bush's first term, when Colin Powell, then secretary of state, pressured India to go slow on its interaction with Hamid Karzai's government and even cut down on assistance to the post-taliban establishment because it was not to the liking of General Pervez Musharraf.

It is unfortunate that the nuclear deal has become, as Saran puts it, 'very symbolic of what we want to do with India-US relations... whether we like it or not'. Unfortunate because relations between the two countries have gone well beyond an agreement on civilian nuclear cooperation, even though that agreement may be judged by future generations as one of history's turning points for global non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The Bush administration's evolving perception of India's role in south Asia is an opportunity which India must make the most of.

That change in Washington has been made possible because there is greater clarity within South Block now on how to deal with south Asia as 'a compact unit of sub-continental proportions' than at any time since Rajiv Gandhi took the initiative to create the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation two decades ago. India's place as the most dynamic economy in south Asia ' and as one of the fastest growing in the world ' is much more obvious to Washington than to some of New Delhi's neighbouring capitals. In a well-thought-out speech at the capital's India International Centre on 'India and its neighbours' a year ago, Saran raised some questions which were keenly taken note of in Washington in the construction of the Bush administration's south Asia policy in its second term. 'Countries across the globe are beginning to see India as an indispensable economic partner and seeking mutually rewarding economic and commercial links with our emerging economy', Saran said in that speech. 'Should not our neighbours also seek to share in the prospects for mutual prosperity India offers to them' Do countries in our neighbourhood envisage their own security and development in cooperation with India or in hostility to India or by seeking to isolate themselves from India against the logic of our geography'

The US will never make a declaration that south Asia minus Pakistan is India's sphere of influence. The demands of diplomatic niceties make it imperative that even India does not say it in so many words. The farthest that Saran went in his speech was to say that 'India is fully aware that its destiny is inseparable from what happens in its neighbourhood.' The challenge before Indian diplomacy is to complement American endorsement of this geographical advantage for India with a similar acceptance of the idea in Beijing.

In relations between nations, no improvement comes without a price. Thus, the other major challenge before Indian diplomacy is to negotiate as low a price as possible with Washington for what it is offering New Delhi in advancing India's quest for the status of a global power.

The Americans would love to change the regime in Yangon and replace it with a government that at least has a fig leaf of democratic credentials. For Washington, it is a low cost option which has none of the risks that an attempt at regime change in Tehran would involve. The Bush administration's dismal record in Iraq has raised awkward questions about Bush's legacy and undercut global confidence in the US, but a success in Myanmar would erase some of those black marks.

Natalia Narochnitskaya, a leading Russian nationalist member of Duma, the Russian parliament, said this week that the pious pronouncements of the US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, about the progress of democracy worldwide reminded her of Nikita Khrushchev's reports to the Soviet Communist Party congresses in his time ' about the world triumphantly marching towards the lofty goal of socialism, leaving behind only a few bystanders. The US now has the wherewithal to bankroll and force this change if the right nations are willing to cooperate with Washington. It has been clear for some months now that the Bush administration is banking on such cooperation from India in destabilizing the generals in Yangon. The Americans have even calculated that unlike in the case of Iran, India's left parties may not make much of an issue of Myanmar since it is a cause for democracy. But it is vital for India's security that the status quo is maintained in Yangon. Hopefully, the West Bengal chief minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, who is sensitive to national security issues, will energize his comrades into opposing any truck with Washington in its efforts to redraw Myanmar's political map.

By all accounts, Tibet will be another issue on which South Block will come under pressure from both the US and China as the price for India's increased global role. It cannot be a coincidence that the dalai lama is visiting America at the same time that the Chinese president, Hu Jintao, has been invited by Bush to the White House later this month. New Delhi must continue to walk the tightrope on Tibet and resist all attempts to tilt towards any side on the status of Tibet or its autonomy.

A major cause behind the hope that India will be able to negotiate some of these diplomatic minefields in its dealings with Washington is that the US state department has a new assistant secretary in charge of south Asia with whom officials in South Block can actually sit down and have a meaningful discussion about issues. For five years, the south Asia bureau was headed by a file pusher: as a result, officials in South Block had virtually stopped dealing with her except for very routine matters. But in the few weeks that he has been in office, the new assistant secretary, Richard Boucher, has already made a mark and demonstrated to his peers as well as to his Indian interlocutors that he has an effective contribution to make towards the process of Indo-US engagement.

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