With many hyphens and question marks

Print edition : April 28, 2001

The near-euphoric official optimism over Indo-U.S. relations following Jaswant Singh's Washington visit is unwarranted. It is a downturn that should be expected under George W. Bush - unless the Vajpayee government cravenly kowtows to him.

NEARLY two weeks after Foreign and Defence Minister Jaswant Singh left the shores of the United States, he still has not disclosed what important "agreements on defence cooperation" he reached in Washington. He had promised (on April 7) to do reveal the details after obtaining "Cabinet clearance". But the Indian public remains in the dark, although the U.S. government knows. However, this has not prevented sections of the Indian media from declaring that India-U.S. relations, on the upswing since President Bill Clinton's visit a year ago, have "acquired a whole new dimension"; indeed that Jaswant Singh "pulled off" nothing short of "a coup" in Washington when President George W. Bush held a 45-minute unscheduled meeting with him in the Oval Office, no less.

Jaswant Singh was giddily upbeat about his visit. He outdid British Prime Minister Tony Blair in singing Bush's praises: "I think a great many things that are being said about President Bush are completely untrue. He is a marvellous person.... It is a completely mistaken notion that he does not have a handle on things. He went straight into the core of the issue...."

Jaswant Singh's discussion with Bush was presumably substantial, not just an exchange of pleasantries. The Minister said he expects Indo-U.S. relations to surpass the high reached during Clinton's last year in office: "I don't just see a smooth (post-Clinton) transition, it's much more. There is clear determination on the part of President Bush and his administration to go faster and very much further forward..." (The Times of India, April 12).

Jaswant Singh now has "no doubt in my mind" that his visit "is the start of a new era." India has finally succeeded in establishing with the U.S. what Jaswant Singh rather infelicitously calls "a non-hyphenated relationship", one that is "not a reflection of or reaction to other relationships. It should stand on its own." It has since been triumphantly declared that the U.S. views India as a "global, not sub-continental player". Washington will further build upon the Clinton "framework" for Indo-U.S. relations.

Routine U.S. official statements on the visit have poured cold water upon this breathless assessment. Of the Clinton "framework", State Department spokes-person Richard Boucher merely said: "They are not scrapping it." White House spokesperson Ari Fleischer even more matter-of-factly said that Jaswant Singh "was in the White House this morning meeting with Dr. Rice (National Security Adviser). He had a brief exchange of pleasantries with the President in the Oval Office. But his meeting took place with Dr. Rice."

And yet, many Indian policy-makers and -shapers believe that Washington today attaches qualitatively greater, even unique, importance to New Delhi; the two can work closely together as "strategic partners" because they share "a lot of common ground". Some people argue that India has expanded its room for manoeuvre after Jaswant Singh's visit. They make much of the fact that he left the U.S. not for New Delhi, but for Teheran. But India's Iran initiative is not some fiercely independent phenomenon. According to outgoing U.S. Ambassador Richard Celeste, Washington had been fully briefed on it (The Hindu, April 14). It is smoothly compatible with a softening of America's own stand on Iran 22 years after the "Revolution".

Some votaries of an Indo-U.S. "partnership" are so obsessed with winning U.S. approbation that they blatantly advocate that India should offer itself as a counterweight to China, America's strategic "competitor". A well-known hawkish security analyst has rationalised this with convoluted sophistry: Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld - who rightly emphasises the Pacific Ocean as the likeliest area for U.S. military operations - should recognise that China is the world's worst nuclear proliferator, having transferred missiles and nuclear technologies to Pakistan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. By contrast, there is no "direct conflict of interest" between India and the U.S. The implication is that the two can be allies against common rival China! (K. Subrahmanyam, The Times of India, April 9).

This is a crude attempt to play upon the worst forms of Cold War Sinophobia within the U.S. Far Right and win its support for another "hyphenated" partnership with the U.S. This speaks poorly of its advocates who otherwise claim to be enhancing India's sovereignty. Some of them are impressed by the fact that like New Delhi Bush too opposes the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and is more sympathetic than Clinton to lifting nuclear sanctions on India. But this is only one minuscule policy area. In any case, more than 90 per cent of the sanctions have already been lifted.

In reality, the "strategic partnership" argument glosses over the huge asymmetry between the U.S. and India, including their divergent, sometimes conflicting, economic interests and attitudes to the world order and its reshaping. No "common" interests with the U.S., especially under the Republican administration, warrant India's strategic "partnership", least of all on a Sinophobic basis. If India's national interest lies in a plural, multi-polar world, in a non-hegemonic and equitable global order, and in peace, reconciliation and non-reliance on force, besides greater economic space for itself, then New Delhi and Washington will frequently clash.

The interests of the Indian people diverge widely from the ultra-conservative policies of the Bush administration. Nothing symbolises this more dramatically than the popular reaction to the recent lifting of quantitative restrictions (QRs) on the import of 715 items that could threaten millions of livelihoods, especially in Indian agriculture. And yet, a U.S. trade official termed this liberalisation a mere "mirage" as he demanded still lower duties under 35 per cent.

New Delhi and Washington differ widely on a number of issues: patents and intellectual property, corporate privileges, "freedom" to be granted to U.S. multinationals like Enron (which runs India's single biggest foreign investment project, worth $3 billion), foreign trade regimes, labour standards and their enforcement, not to speak of Kashmir, Central Asia, Russia or human rights.

George W. Bush's record on foreign policy and security matters is extremely conservative - whether on "Star Wars" (missile defence) and global warming, China and Korea, or Palestine and Iraq. Bush's very first decision upon assuming office was to stop funding any government which allows free abortion rights - a capitulation to the U.S. Hard Right's reactionary agenda.

This could be potentially interpreted as a directive to cut off aid and scientific cooperation with Indian agencies too. India, by contrast, has a more relaxed, largely non-religious, approach to abortion.

Bush has declared he will pursue the National Missile Defence (NMD) and East Asian Theatre Missile Defence (TMD) programmes far more vigorously than Clinton. NMD will cost $240 billion (or two-thirds of India's entire annual gross domestic product), strengthen hawkish militarist forces in the U.S., negate recent global arms restraint efforts, and inaugurate a new arms race - indeed, a Second Nuclear Age.

A May 2000 U.S. intelligence assessment says that the NMD could provoke "an unsettling series of political and military ripple effects... that would include a sharp buildup of strategic and medium-range nuclear missiles by China, India and Pakistan and the further spread of military technology in the Middle East." The proposed TMD will threaten China and fuel a new arms race in East Asia. China has threatened to walk out of all recent arms control agreements if the U.S. proceeds with TMD.

India's stated position opposes Star Wars. A TMD will eventually draw India into a ruinous nuclear arms race with China. However, Indian "experts" close to South Block want a "dialogue" on NMD/TMD with the U.S. Ambassador Celeste says there is "ample room for engagement" here between the U.S. and India. He has hinted that India may want such a dialogue (The Hindu, April 14).

All key Bush officials are "Star Warriors". Rumsfeld is devoted to NMD and TMD. He is an unreconstructed Nixon-era hawk and strongly allied to ultra-conservative think-tanks like the National Institute for Public Policy which advocates not just a "deterrent", but a "war-time role", for nuclear weapons.

Rumsfeld is not alone. Secretary of State Colin Powell says "Star Wars" is "an essential part of our strategic system". And Condoleezza Rice, the National Security Adviser, and Stephen Hadley (the Deputy Director of the National Security Council, and earlier Bush Senior's Assistant Secretary of Defence) are both members of a small super-hawkish group formed during the Bush campaign, called the Vulcans, named after the Roman god of fire. The Bush administration is reported (in The Washington Post) to be working on developing new nuclear weapons, especially low-yield armaments with bunker-busting capabilities.

Bushism has revived Cold War-style hawkish attitudes towards Russia and China. Rice is best known for a Foreign Affairs article which demonises Russia and China. Not to be left behind is Dick Cheney, a superhawk close to Rumsfeld since 1969. Cheney played a prominent role during the Iraq War a decade ago.

Bush has done his best to wreck the growing reconciliation between the two Koreas: just one Washington visit by the South Korean President ensured that. Bush has lent partisan support to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's vengeful anti-Palestine policy. He even declared that the U.S. would shift its embassy to Jerusalem, thus endorsing the highly contested Zionist claim over the city, and rationalising occupation in contravention of international law. This aggravated matters, and encouraged Sharon to re-enter Gaza on a military campaign that embarrassed even Powell (who called for restraint on April 17/18).

Bush's arrogant rejection of ratification of the Kyoto global warming protocol was a shock to the European Union and Japan, also to his own Environment Secretary (see story on Page 63). More crucially, his refusal to cut greenhouse emissions by just 5.2 per cent is a blow to the universal cause of environmental protection and promotes egregiously hegemonic oil interests, to which Bush is intimately tied. Bush is ominously close to the Houston-based Enron. Enron chief Kenneth Lay made the single biggest donation to the Bush campaign.

All these positions betray a narrow, parochial, ultra-nationalistic, hegemonic agenda. Those who see a kindred soul in Bush because of his opposition to the CTBT should know that this does not arise from an urge for a better, more thorough, test ban, leave alone genuine, rapid, nuclear disarmament. It is driven by nuclear unilateralism - that is, the view that the U.S. should make its own decisions about the size, composition and disposition of its nuclear arsenal without reference to arms control agreements or the opinions of other nations.

THESE yawning gaps between Indian and U.S. orientations are likely to widen even further in the coming months as the world economy goes into a recession, the technology meltdown continues, and protectionist tendencies rear their head in the U.S. India has maintained a less-than-honourable silence on many issues such as the Sino-U.S. spy-plane spat, on Palestine-Israel, even on non-alignment and Group of 77 (whose Havana summit Atal Behari Vajpayee disgracefully boycotted last year - in deference to the U.S. "partnership".)

Most important, it must not be forgetten that the "upgradation of Indo-U.S. relations in Clinton's last year in office was itself the product of a particular conjuncture: unchallenged U.S. economic, technological, military and political dominance of the post-Cold War world; Europe's and Japan's relative quiescence or non-assertion; India's relative success as a democracy (coupled with Pakistan's failure); and the high profile acquired by the Indian-American community with its Silicon Valley successes, besides New Delhi's own open-door economic policy and its desertion of non-alignment.

This conjuncture is unlikely to last. Indeed, some of its ingredients are weakening, even coming apart. The colossal consequences of the "New Economy" meltdown are yet to unfold. But it seems highly probable that Indo-U.S. relations will take a downturn - unless New Delhi under Vajpayee proceeds further along its Banana Republic direction and further capitulates to Bushism.

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