Bush Seeks to Draw India, Pakistan Closer to US

U.S. President George W. Bush hopes his maiden tour of India and Pakistan this week will draw both South Asian giants more firmly into Washington’s orbit, as well as help restore his battered foreign policy image back home.

Bush will spend three days in India, which U.S. policymakers increasingly depict as a long-term strategic counterweight to China’s growing power in Asia, as well as an economic giant that offers abundant opportunities for U.S. business, particularly its defense contractors and nuclear industry.

By contrast, he and First Lady Laura Bush plan to stay less than 36 hours in Pakistan, and even that time may be abbreviated if, as rumored, they make a "surprise" visit to Afghanistan in a show of support for its U.S.-backed government and the U.S. troops who protect it – and who can always be counted on to provide a good photo opportunity.

Still, Bush will stay longer than did his predecessor Bill Clinton, who, after a lengthy tour of India in March 2000, remained just four hours on the tarmac in Islamabad’s airport due to security concerns. He also had no desire to be seen as "blessing" President Pervez Musharraf, who had seized power in a military coup the previous year and whose government was widely accused of supporting terrorist groups in Kashmir.

Needless to say, bilateral relations between Islamabad and Washington have greatly improved since then, largely as a result of the necessity of Pakistan’s cooperation with Bush’s "global war on terror." Still, that cooperation – particularly Musharraf’s failure to crack down hard on Taliban and al-Qaeda units in Waziristan along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan – has not been all that Washington has hoped for.

And it has not matched what has been a decisive – some experts say "historic" – tilt by Washington towards India over the five years of Bush’s presidency, a tilt that Clinton himself had already set in motion some years before.

Indeed, the fact that first Clinton and now Bush felt compelled to travel to India, a very rare destination for previous U.S. presidents, is one indication of the strategic nature of the relationship, according to Rick Inderfurth, who served as assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs during Bush’s first term.

"You have a Democratic president followed by a Republican president pursuing a similar policy toward a very important new player on the world stage," he said at a recent conference at the Brookings Institution, an influential think tank where he is currently based. "I think it is an important statement that a trip to India is no longer just a desired, but a required part of an American president’s itinerary during his term in office."

That view was already in evidence last July when Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was greeted by the Bush White House, which normally disdains events like state dinners, with unusual pomp and ceremony.

The summit followed the signing by Singh’s defense minister the previous month of a 10-year "New Framework for U.S.-India Defense Relations," touted as a major breakthrough in military ties by senior Pentagon officials eager to integrate India as fully as possible into U.S. defense strategy by significantly increasing cooperation through joint exercises, training, and the possible sale of advanced U.S. weaponry to New Delhi.

The result of Singh’s visit also included a battery of bilateral agreements covering everything from the creation of a U.S.-India Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Forum to cooperation in space, health, and nuclear energy that would permit U.S. manufacturers to sell reactors and fuel to India despite its refusal to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

The last accord has proven extremely controversial. In Washington, arms-control specialists, backed by many Democratic and Republican lawmakers who were furious that they had not been consulted about the deal in advance, have claimed it weakens the international nonproliferation regime and undermines U.S. credibility at precisely the moment when it is confronting North Korea and Iran over their alleged failure to comply with the NPT and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

In New Delhi, a key provision of the accord that requires the separation of India’s nuclear program into a military component and a civilian one that would be subject to IAEA monitoring has also come under attack, particularly by officials worried that it will constrain the country’s ability to produce the number of nuclear weapons it feels it needs to defend itself in the future.

In addition, a threat by the U.S. ambassador in New Delhi last month that the nuclear deal would be scotched if India did not vote with the U.S. to refer Iran’s nuclear program to the UN Security Council for possible sanctions further inflamed nationalist concerns that closer ties with Washington threaten India’s traditional foreign policy independence. The Bush administration has also repeatedly voiced its opposition to plans to build a gas pipeline from Iran to India.

Precisely because the nuclear agreement has become so controversial and now threatens to overshadow the summit, U.S. and Indian officials have been working furiously over the past two weeks to try to resolve it before Bush lands in New Delhi

But most experts believe it will take more time. "The Indian strategic community has to go through a long debate and discussion and develop consensus as to how many [nuclear weapons] are enough," according to Stephen Cohen, another South Asia expert at Brookings. "My concern … is that the nuclear deal not swamp the rest of the relationship."

Much to Islamabad’s disappointment, Washington has not offered a similar deal on nuclear cooperation to it, largely on the grounds that Pakistan’s record on nuclear proliferation – and particularly its failure to prevent the longtime head of its nuclear program, A.Q. Khan, from exporting his expertise and technology to Iran and North Korea, among others – compares very unfavorably to India’s.

Indeed, Musharraf has turned down repeated requests by Washington to interview Khan, who has been relieved of his position, about his proliferation activities.

Bush may renew those requests, as well as long-standing pressure to step up the hunt for top al-Qaeda officials, particularly Osama bin Laden, on the Pakistani side of the border. And Musharraf is considered likely to urge Bush to press India on negotiating a mutually acceptable resolution to the Kashmir conflict, particularly in light of growing anger among Islamist forces over Musharraf’s deference to Washington.

At the same time, the U.S. administration is increasingly worried about the growing insurgency in Balochistan, which is diverting ever more Pakistani troops and firepower from Waziristan and the Pashtun northwest to the southwestern part of the country.

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.