A HOST OF FRIENDS - India must balance its relationships with a number of countries

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By Kanwal Sibal The author is former foreign secretary of India sibalkanwal@gmail.com
  • Published 3.11.10
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India will host presidential visits from the United States of America, France and Russia in quick succession in November and December. The bunching may be coincidental, but it does reflect mounting interest in engaging an economically rapidly growing India with rising clout in international affairs.

India’s “strategic relationship” with each of these countries requires tending. France was the first to propose a “strategic dialogue” with India after our 1998 nuclear tests. It understood better than others India’s motives and compulsions in going nuclear. France sensed the opportunity that had emerged to forge a strategic relationship with an independent-minded country that could be a partner in promoting multipolarity as a response to US unilateralism.

With Vladimir Putin taking over as prime minister, India and Russia established a strategic partnership, ending the drift in bilateral relations during the Yeltsin years. Russia’s desperate Westward plunge after the Soviet Union’s demise was met with a strategic rebuff by way of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and European Union expansion. This pushed Russia away from the unifying security and economic structures of Europe, inflicted on it a loss of vital strategic space in its immediate periphery and threatened its political and economic heartland. Putin saw the strategic need for Russia to restore its traditional ties with India as part of a more balanced foreign policy that reflected Russia’s Asia dimension.

With the US, India is forging a new strategic partnership, the foundation for which has been laid by the nuclear deal. Historically, the US has damaged India strategically by subjecting it to sanctions on the nuclear and missile fronts, erecting technology denial regimes, arming Pakistan, interfering in Kashmir, overlooking the India-endangering strategic cooperation between China and Pakistan, unleashing Islamic extremism in our region to counter the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and ignoring Pakistan’s role in regional and international terror. Shared values of democracy, pluralism, rule of law, religious tolerance, respect for human rights and so on, that are of “strategic” importance in shaping the international landscape and governance in individual countries, have until now not figured as a “strategic” bond between India and the US. The burden of responsibility to eliminate the negative elements from the India-US relationship still remains with the US.

All three countries have played their role in obtaining the exception from the Nuclear Suppliers Group for international civilian nuclear cooperation with India, though the US’s role has been central, and all three are looking, as well as competing, for nuclear business in return. All three have been rewarded by being allocated separate sites in India for installing their reactors, without regard to cost differentials. Russian and French companies are much ahead of those from the US in commercial negotiations with the Nuclear Power Corporation of India. The last have demanded in advance a liability regime in case of a nuclear accident compliant with “international practice” in India, that is, one giving total immunity to suppliers. The actual nuclear liability bill passed by India has upset the US side as it is seen as being incompatible with the Convention on Supplementary Compensation, but India has gone ahead with signing it, and so the legal issues involved remain unresolved. France and Russia have been discreet about their concerns regarding the Indian legislation. France has indicated its willingness to work within its framework subject to clarification on the government’s understanding of the law and how it intends to implement it. Russia is not visibly agitating over the issue. The overly demanding US attitude is inconsistent with the logic of a “strategic” relationship and points to further difficulties that may lie ahead in negotiating with US companies.

All the three “strategic” partners are competing in the Indian defence market. Russia is India’s biggest defence partner, and has obtained additional major orders for aircraft, besides agreements on collaboration for developing the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft and the Multi-Role Transport Aircraft. Russia supplies equipment and technologies not available from other countries, as exemplified by the lease of a nuclear submarine and technical help for India’s indigenous programme.

The India-France defence collaboration is decades old, but France, to its acute discomfiture, has lately lost out on key new contracts for helicopters and refuelling aircraft, though some others are near closure. The French are sore that the US and Russia are beneficiaries of major defence contracts on a government-to-government basis, while they are wrung through our convoluted, dilatory and non-transparent tendering process. The political strategic element seems to be lacking in Indian thinking in viewing France as the choice European defence partner.

The US is quickly gaining ground in Indian defence acquisitions with major contracts for maritime surveillance and transport aircraft. While “superior” US defence technology is alluring, there are concerns also about intrusive conditions with which it comes, as well as the risk of disruption of supplies for extraneous reasons. India continues to have reservations about signing pending defence agreements with the US for fear of being drawn too closely into the US defence embrace. France and Russia do not impose sovereignty-infringing conditions on defence purchases. Unlike them, the US is a major supplier of arms to our implacable adversary, Pakistan, and has just announced another $2.3 billion arms aid to Pakistan, on top of the India-centric acquisitions Pakistan has already made with massive US aid. India has held 50 military exercises with the US in the last seven years, and only three with Russia. With France, periodic naval exercises are being held, the French being keen on stepping up anti-piracy cooperation with India in the Indian Ocean. The 126 combat fighter aircraft tender has companies from all these three countries in fray. India would need to finely tune the balance of its defence ties with each of these strategic partners to ensure that all three contribute to Indian security optimally.

The rise of China and the uncertainties associated with it, especially in the context of China’s recent muscle-flexing in the South China Sea, would certainly figure in our conversations with the three visiting dignitaries. India is concerned about the strategic threat from China, sharpened by more aggressive Chinese policies on Arunachal Pradesh and Kashmir, but it also wants to keep China engaged and soft-pedal differences. The US has become more open about its China concerns in its conversations with India, though the US-China interdependence precludes any sharp change in US policy towards that country. France would be wary of the consequences of China’s rise for Europe, but keen to preserve its economic interests in the huge Chinese market. Russia-China relations have become strategically stronger in order to counter US global dominance and expand their own strategic space that has to come at US expense. India is part of the trilateral Russia-India-China dialogue as well as the BRIC dialogue pushed by Russia. India will have to continue to play this complex game of promoting multipolarity through RIC and Brazil-Russia-India-China dialogues and work with the US and Asian democracies, especially Japan, to devise hedging strategies against a threatening China.

Finally, while France and Russia both support India’s permanent membership of the security council, vital for India strategically, the laggard US ought to announce its support during President Barack Obama’s visit as a sealing strategic gesture.