India, an Ambivalent Power


Brahma Chellaney

(c) Asian Age  


The emerging US-India global strategic partnership foreshadows a geopolitical realignment in Asia. Such realignment will have an important bearing on global power relations. In an Asia characterized by a growing imbalance of power, a US-India partnership can help build long-term stability, order and equilibrium.

A strategic partnership with the US will be in India’s interest. But that does not mean India entrust its national security to America. The US is in search of dependable new allies, and a partnership with India holds valuable benefits for its continued prosperity and security. It will use such a partnership to assertively advance its interests, even at India’s expense.

For New Delhi, it is imperative that the partnership help underpin its power potential, rather than lopsidedly allow America to unduly influence Indian policies, to India’s long-term detriment. History testifies that a smaller power’s partnership with a globally dominant power has never been easy, given the inherent asymmetry. What is more, such a partnership has rarely helped the smaller power secure a reliable friend. 

That is why the current elation among some sections in India seems so premature and out of place. The nuclear deal has even been viewed as a defining moment paving the way to a US-India axis. The narrow focus on the deal loses the forest for the trees: the deal, far from being a turning point by itself, is actually embedded in a larger strategic framework whose more fundamental elements have become decipherable, one by one, over a year.

The deal is a product of, not a precursor to, an Indian strategic shift. Before America agreed to consider relaxing civilian nuclear export controls against India, New Delhi had already consented to team up with Washington on matters vital to US interests — from participating in US-led “multinational operations” and assenting to “conclude defence transactions” and share intelligence (see the June 28, 2005, defence-framework accord) to joining the US-directed non-proliferation regime (the first step of which was the May 2005 enactment by India of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Act).

When the nuclear deal was unveiled on July 18, 2005, it constituted just four paragraphs in a long “Joint Statement” which roped in India as America’s collaborator on yet more fronts — from a “Global Democracy Initiative” to an enduring, military-to-military “Disaster Response Initiative” designed, in the White House’s words, for “operations in the Indian Ocean region and beyond.” The July 18 statement also buttresses US economic interests through a far-reaching “Knowledge Initiative on Agriculture” that embraces research and outreach in India, as well as through new bilateral dialogues on commerce, finance and energy.

The nuclear deal still remains a four-paragraph affair. The March 2, 2006, oral announcement during President George W. Bush’s visit merely put the US stamp of approval on India’s civil-military “separation plan” — a sanitized version of which was presented to Parliament five days later. As Undersecretary of State Nick Burns put it on March 2, the US is now able to certify India’s “very complex” separation plan as “credible” and “transparent”.

Given the commitments New Delhi has already made, it is likely that in the coming months India will agree to provide logistical support to US forces, “conclude defence transactions” worth billions of dollars with US arms makers, and begin the process to join the controversial, US-controlled Proliferation Security Initiative, or PSI, which the “neoconservatives” in Washington have pugnaciously promoted. Such actions will leave little doubt about India’s movement into America’s strategic sphere.

Yet despite a fundamental reorientation of Indian foreign policy in full swing, there has been little debate. Other than the nuclear deal, the varied, broad policy moves by India have drawn little public scrutiny.

The direction of India’s relationship with America is set clearly — towards closer strategic collaboration. At issue, however, is not the direction but the content that is being added to the relationship largely at the pace and urging of the Bush administration. The content is in the form of firm, difficult-to-retract commitments or actions by India in return for US promises.

Unfortunately for India, the promises are by a president who is becoming increasingly unpopular at home and abroad. As the ruinous US occupation of Iraq entered its fourth year this week, an unabashed Bush vigorously defended his commitment to the war there while ruling out a troop pullout during his presidency. If Bush is still well-liked anywhere, it is in India, despite his rebuff to its claim to a UN Security Council permanent seat. Indeed, India embraced him like an “American maharajah,” as the New York Times said under the headline, "Bush Finds More Respect in India Than At Home."

Having hitched its fortunes to a beleaguered president who has been damaging US interests even as his approval ratings sink, India needs to face up to the risk that Bush has been too weakened to satisfactorily deliver on his promises. Even the nuclear deal is unlikely to be passed by US Congress without the attachment of grating, India-specific riders. India rushed into several far-reaching strategic initiatives (or “coalitions of the willing,” in Bush’s parlance) intended to subserve Bush’s misbegotten global agenda.

US and Indian interests now converge on several issues but they don’t come together on all matters, especially on Bush’s messianic missions. This is brought out by Bush’s just-released National Security Strategy Report­ — the first since 2002 — which tacitly expands his “axis of evil” by targeting seven “despotic” states, including two of India’s neighbours, Burma and Iran.

The report lays out US interests on most issues that form the basis of the “global-partnership” initiatives with India. It includes five of the eight areas of the July 18, 2005, US-India statement (three separate “coalitions of the willing” on disaster response, democracy advocacy and HIV/AIDS, plus stable energy markets and structural economic reforms), as well as the cooperation spheres defined earlier by the June 28, 2005, accord — counterterrorism, counter-proliferation, counter-narcotics and intelligence sharing. What the report brings out is the striking divergence of interests in the areas where America has brought in India as an international partner.

Take the issue of combating global terror. Not only have India’s concerns over Islamabad-directed terrorism been written off, the report actually portrays Pakistan as a victim of terror. India is not even among the 12 identified countries where “terrorists have struck.” In fact, India — with the world’s highest incidence of terrorist attacks, according to the CIA’s Office of Terrorism Analysis — finds no mention in the report’s extensive chapter titled, “Strengthen alliances to defeat global terrorism and work to prevent attacks against us and our friends.”

Democracy is India’s greatest asset, and the global promotion of liberty may sound an innocuous exercise until one reads Bush’s statements and his national-security report. For a president who maintains increasingly close ties with tyrannical regimes in every corner of the world, “the promotion of freedom” is just war by other means against target states.

Bush slights Indian democracy by propping up a Janus-faced dictatorship in Pakistan and arming it with lethal, India-specific weapons. He then seeks New Delhi’s partnership to effect a regime change in Burma — a state that has never acted against India — and in Iran, a lynchpin in India’s energy-import policy and geopolitical strategy vis-à-vis Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia. Indeed, the sole superpower claims that today it “may face no greater challenge from a single country than from Iran,” and that it reserves the right to take “anticipatory action.”

Why should India subordinate its regional interests to America’s intent to play an active strategic role even in states that traditionally have been within the Indian sphere of influence, such as Nepal? Yet Bush designed his stagecraft on Indian soil to publicly demand democracy in Burma and Nepal, vilify Iran and acclaim Pakistan as “another important partner and friend of the US”. The White House even paints international disaster response in southern Asia in geopolitical colours in its report — as part of US efforts in “reconciling long-standing regional conflicts in Aceh and the Kashmir.”

If India followed Bush, it would be left with no independent strategic options in its own neighbourhood other those backed by the US. What kind of a regional power would India be if it played second fiddle to the US in its own neighbourhood and traditional pockets of influence? After making New Delhi cede some strategic space in its backyard, the White House states patronizingly through its report that, India now is poised to shoulder global obligations in cooperation with the United States in a way befitting a major power.”

Long after Bush becomes history, America will still be paying for its follies. An open question is whether India, with its pell-mell embrace of the Bush initiatives, would also end up paying costs.

Fundamentally, India has yet to decide if it wishes to become a true economic and military power, or a power “shouldering global obligations” assigned by the White House. The Indian ambivalence is manifest from the prime minister’s continued denial of permission to scientists to carry out the inaugural test-launch of the Agni 3 missile, which became ready some time ago.

If a mutually beneficial US-India global strategic partnership is to be built, without New Delhi reduced to a subaltern status or passively aiding Bush’s warped, hawkish agenda, sobriety, statecraft and close scrutiny are indispensable. In believing that America is courting it as part of a hedging strategy against a ruthlessly ambitious China, India should hedge against the risk that entanglement with the global hegemon could stunt its strategic potential and influence.  (c) The Asian Age, March 25, 2006

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s