US and India: Unequal Allies, Uneasy Partners

NEW DELHI – Four years ago, they exuberantly declared they were "natural allies," being two of the world’s biggest democracies. Last year, they vowed to pursue their "strategic partnership" and their campaigns against "terror" with full gusto. And now, the United States and India have re-designated their relationship as an "evolving partnership, based on mutual confidence and concern."

If this sounds like the addition of a qualifying note of caution, in keeping with a slight downgrading of the lofty rhetoric about Indo-U.S. relations, then that is not too far off the mark as far as ground realities are concerned. Although the U.S. and India have announced "the beginning of a new era of cooperation and trust," they are still somewhat uneasy partners.

President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh held their first-ever meeting as heads of government on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 21. By all accounts, the one-hour long breakfast meeting was successful: the joint declaration said the Indo-U.S. bilateral relationship "had never been as close as now."

In some sense, this is true.

The U.S. recently – just four days before the Bush-Singh meeting – lifted sanctions on the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) under the Department of Commerce’s Entity List imposed soon after India’s nuclear tests in 1998. The two governments announced completion of Phase I of what they call the "Next Steps in Strategic Partnership" (NSSP) initiative, launched last January.

The U.S and India have recently held four major army and air force joint exercises, including one in Alaska and another in a cold desert in northwestern India. They are about to commence two major naval exercises off the Kerala coast, in which U.S. nuclear-propelled and nuclear-weapons-bearing warships are expected to participate. The two governments have been sharing intelligence with each other.

India has emerged as a major potential buyer of U.S.-made armaments, including the Orion submarine surveillance airplane and the Hercules C-130 transport aircraft.

This has added a new dimension to India-U.S. relations, which have recently acquired a strong commercial content thanks to the outsourcing of computer software development and especially information technology-enabled services such as call centers and medical transcription. In general, relations between the two countries have substantially improved since former president Bill Clinton’s visit to India in March 2000.

However, in some respects, the U.S.-India "partnership" has more symbolic than real strategic value. It is strongly influenced by the "Pakistan angle" in India’s foreign and strategic policies. And there is competition and contestation in the relationship, as well as cooperation.

For instance, although the U.S. lifted ISRO from the "Entity List," the major importers of equipment for India’s space program are seven agencies under the space agency. These have not been removed from the list, although procedures for imports have been simplified, with "presumption of approval" for all items not controlled for "nuclear proliferation" reasons.

The U.S. has delinked India’s military space program from its military program to facilitate "cooperation" (read, U.S. exports) in the civilian component. But NSSP, whose second phase is meant to start in mid-October, will not resolve ticklish disputes over imports of "dual-use" (military as well as civilian) technologies.

Already, Washington has given indications of its tough stance on any nuclear non-proliferation-related issue. On Sept. 29, it imposed sanctions on two former chairmen of the Nuclear Power Corporation (which builds India’s atomic power plants) on the mere suspicion that they might have helped Iran’s nuclear programs. One of them has never been to Iran, and the other visited it once, reportedly only to "observe" the installation of a Russian nuclear power reactor of a type India is itself planning to import.

The U.S. has accepted India (and Pakistan) as a de facto nuclear-weapons power but won’t do so legally. Owing to its own laws, the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and the obligations imposed by the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the U.S. cannot grant India the same nuclear and missile status as that of the recognized nuclear powers.

Says former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott: "Right now the U.S. and India may feel that they are moving in the same direction, but their destination could be different. I am particularly worried about NSSP. There is this great fixation in India with NSSP, but it is going to set Indians up for a great disappointment. . . . (If) we equate NSSP to a thermometer, then it could register fever at times in Indo-U.S. relations. The two red zones are nuclear technology and ballistic missile technology."

Talbott says India and the U.S. are not opening a new chapter, they are merely turning over a new leaf in the same chapter – aiming for incremental growth, not a quantum jump.

In particular, Talbott, in a comment on CNBC television, warned that the United States is unlikely to share any part of the advanced technology pertaining to ballistic missile defense ("Son of Star Wars"), which the U.S. is deploying at a limited level – despite public protest and at the risk of greatly heightening the global nuclear danger.

In May 2001, India became the first nation, even before the U.S.’ own NATO allies, to welcome Bush’s announcement on implementing the ballistic missile defense (BMD). Many Indian policymakers saw this warm, unreserved welcome as an opportunity to acquire the high technology and equipment needed for India’s nuclear-military programs and fulfill its own BMD ambitions. Critics saw India’s support as "collusive" and compromising the national interest.

Yet, none of this has gained New Delhi special leverage against Pakistan within the triangular relationship the two have with Washington. India’s growing strategic proximity to the U.S. coincided with the period, especially post-Sept. 11, 2001, when Washington greatly needed – and received – Pakistan’s help against al-Qaeda.

Pakistan’s geographical location as Afghanistan’s neighbor, and its proximity to Iran, is of great significance for Washington.

Washington has mounted pressure on President Pervez Musharraf to choke off support to Islamic militants in Kashmir.

But the United States also realizes that if Musharraf is pushed too far, he could lose domestic support and be replaced by someone Washington does not trust.

From the Indian point of view, this puts limits on the extent to which Pakistan’s support to the separatist militancy in Kashmir can be reduced.

Pakistan, for its part, cannot influence Washington enough to get India to make major concessions on Kashmir. (India, too, counts as a friendly state for the U.S.) All that the United States can do, and has done, is to encourage the two neighbors to talk to each other and "facilitate" their dialogue, without overt mediation.

The Indians are not entirely happy with Washington’s role in the South Asian region. In particular, they are suspicious of its growing presence next door in Nepal, where U.S. advisers are believed to be encouraging the king to use military force against Maoist insurgents.

Recently, the U.S. State Department hired a Bulgarian aircraft to deliver arms and ammunition to fight "terrorism" in Nepal. The plane stopped in Ahmedabad in India for refueling amidst reports that it had been "detained" by the Indian authorities. New Delhi was acutely embarrassed by the episode and tried to minimize it as a "scheduled stopover," although its security agencies reportedly inspected the aircraft for its "objectionable cargo."

Washington claimed this cargo was a "diplomatic consignment" meant for "training and equipping the Nepalese anti-terrorist police unit." India sees Nepal, with which it has a porous border, as its zone of influence.

The episode only highlights the grossly asymmetrical Indo-U.S. relationship, which the former government of prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee tried to play down for six years partly because of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party’s ideological affinity for Washington – which goes back to the Cold War days.

The Singh government says it will return to its commitment of a multi-polar world and to the policy of non-alignment. If this happens, occasional divergences and tensions between Washington and New Delhi are likely to grow. A smooth "natural" partnership does not seem to be in the cards.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Praful Bidwai

Praful Bidwai is a New Delhi-based political analyst and peace activist, a columnist with twenty-five Indian newspapers and co-author (with Achin Vanaik) of New Nukes: India, Pakistan and Global Nuclear Disarmament. He shared the International Peace Bureau's Sean MacBride International Peace Prize for 2000 with Vanaik.