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JOY AND DESPAIR - India?s euphoria over relations with the US is premature

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By Pratap Bhanu Mehta The author is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi in India
  • Published 14.10.04

The prime minister?s visit to the United States of America has generated a great deal of misplaced euphoria about the future of Indo-US relations. While the proposition that relations between India and the US are better than they have ever been is true, it would be foolish to suppose that this entails that there is now a qualitative shift in this relationship. In fact, the significance of the recent announcement that the US is lifting restrictions on the export of some dual use technologies is being vastly exaggerated in India. On the contrary, there are good structural reasons to suppose that improvement in Indo-US relations will not be quite as rapid as we are hoping and prudence would counsel caution in this area.

This is one of the features of international politics that we too easily lose sight of. Good relations ought not to be measured simply by comparison to the past; we also ought to look at how we are faring in comparison to other countries at the moment, especially our strategic rivals. The plain truth is that, for the most part, the US has better bilateral relations with almost all countries than it did in the past. It has better relations with both China and Pakistan, and this alone should caution us against jumping to any conclusions about a ?strategic partnership? with the US. Even on the use of dual use technologies, China is in a more privileged position than India, and the recent breakthrough redresses this balance only more marginally.

Occasionally, our public discourse exhibits an unseemly craving for attention from the US. And our joy and despair over this relationship gyrates more than reality warrants. Barely a few months ago, India was upset over the US offering Pakistan major non-Nato-ally status; and now our expectations are reaching the moon. The truth is that nothing structurally significant has changed in this relationship, and the potential lines of conflict will emerge more forcefully in the coming months. Both India and Pakistan upset the US non-proliferation apple-cart, but India is still far from being accepted as a full member of the nuclear club.

There are two reasons why India is unlikely to be given full recognition as a nuclear power. First, the US laws on non-proliferation remain in force, and no party is likely to overturn them any time soon. Second, the US would like to have a stick with which to beat, or at any rate pressurize, Iran. Admitting India to full membership of the nuclear group would considerably weaken its claims against Iran?s programme, and would force it to acknowledge that non-proliferation is a dead idea. Despite the realities of India, Pakistan, North Korea and Iran?s nuclear programmes, the US is still not willing to give up this cornerstone of its security policy. Thus stage two of the Next Steps in the Strategic Partnership laid out will be difficult for the US to contemplate, regardless of which administration is in power.

India is also much too sanguine about the direction of US intervention in India-Pakistan relations. Obviously, the US is relieved that India and Pakistan are making progress in improving their relations. But as Musharraf seems to be delivering on his promises on terrorism to both India and the US, there will be greater pressure on India to offer him something tangible. In many ways, the question of terrorism had been a diplomatic godsend for India: it delegitmized the Kashmir movement, and made our claims vis-?-vis Pakistan much stronger. But paradoxically, if cross-border terrorism recedes, the onus will be on India to offer Pakistan something in return.

This might be a deal on Siachen or moving the Line of Control eastward. It is not entirely clear what India can offer, but there will be increased pressure from Washington to offer something. Otherwise India will look as if it is refusing good faith negotiations. There is no reason to suppose that diplomatically we have put the Kashmir tangle behind us, and US allegiances in this matter are yet to be tested.

India and the US have come a long way from a regime of sanctions that was in place after the nuclear tests. The growing economic ties, increasing military co-operation and the joint front against terrorism have generated considerable momentum in the relationship. Despite the outcry over outsourcing in the US, India has found new champions in American companies who are looking to outsourcing as a way of increasing their own competitiveness. On outsourcing services, India will become to American politics what Japan and China were in manufacturing during the last two decades: the object of a considerable populist ire in rhetoric. But no significant action was taken against them. The economic interdependence of the two countries is fated to grow, but the next round of trade negotiations is unlikely to resolve the significant differences between the two countries. But despite this economic momentum, significant sources of tension will cast a shadow over this relationship.

This tension stems from the fact that the US will continue to assert its dominance over the world. It is worth remembering that formal strategic partnership with the US comes at a price: either direct military presence, or a strategic incorporation of the country into the US?s objectives. This is as true of Japan and Europe as it is of Latin America. The US rarely enters a strategic partnership in which it grants the partner a free hand over its area of immediate concern. India and China, like emerging powers, will want to retain a sphere of untrammelled influence in their neighbourhood. It is doubtful that such independence will be compatible with the US?s strategic aims. A significant strategic partnership can emerge only if the US is willing to acknowledge its vulnerabilities and rein in its ambitions. There is little evidence that it is about to do either.

The US may support a greater role for India in world forums like a reformed UN. But if it does so, it will be in the context of a similar role for a number of other countries including Brazil and Japan. In other words, we should not expect any special status in the context of whatever little restructuring of multilateral institutions that might happen. Caution is the right posture to adopt on Indo-US relations for three reasons. First, we sometimes give ourselves less credit than is due. Our independence and increasing economic options allowed us to emerge from under the restrictions that the US had imposed on us. And there is no reason to fritter that away for small favours from the big power.

In our euphoria, we tend to overestimate the US?s power. But even as weak a state as Pakistan, in whom the US invested so much, cleverly subverted two of America?s central foreign policy aims, terrorism and non-proliferation, and got away with it. Second, the kind of euphoria we are currently seeing is setting up unwarranted expectations that are bound to be disappointed. Finally, while no one can over estimate the importance of the US, our foreign policy ought not to become too driven by that bilateral relationship. In areas like energy security, there are still other options to be explored and we ought not to be blinded by the emerging level of comfort with the US. The phrase Atal Bihari Vajpayee used in the context of Indo-US relations, ?natural allies?, has a lot of music to it, but it is music without substance. It is better to remember that in international politics there are no permanent enemies or friends, only permanent interests. And it is in India?s interest to stay independent and, dare one say, non-aligned.