Strategic trap

Published : Sep 07, 2007 00:00 IST

The nuclear deal has the potential to intertwine the U.S. and India into an even closer strategic relationship than already exists.

WITH the Congress party appearing to be adamant about going ahead with the 123 Agreement and staking the future of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government on the issue, India-United States relations could soon enter choppy waters. The nuclear deal between Washington and New Delhi has the potential to intertwine the two countries into an even closer strategic relationship than already exists.

Perhaps in premature anticipation of the deal being approved, large-scale Quadrilateral naval exercises in the Bay of Bengal are being planned for early September. The navies of the U.S., Japan, Australia and India will conduct war games in the Andaman Sea. Singapore, too, is symbolically joining in, and has agreed to despatch one of its ships. The U.S. has despatched two aircraft carriers, USS Nimitz and the Kitty Hawk, along with guided missile destroyers and nuclear submarines for the exercises. The two aircraft carriers are capable of carrying more than 170 aircraft. Until recently, they were hovering around the Gulf region as part of the psychological warfare being waged by the U.S. against Iran. India will despatch 15 of its ships, including its lone functioning aircraft carrier INS Viraat. Japan, too, will participate in a big way by sending two destroyers.

The Left parties are demanding that the Malabar exercise, which clearly has China on its radar, be called off. According to media reports in India, some Cabinet Ministers wanted the government to extend an olive branch to the Left by deferring the military exercises, in order to save the nuclear deal from collapsing. The Left parties have announced that huge rallies will be organised along the east coast in cities such as Visakhapatnam and Kolkata to protest against the military exercises. They are of the view that the nuclear deal and the increasingly frequent military exercises are a result of the 10-year India-U.S. defence framework agreement signed in 2005. The Left parties had predicted at the time that Indian foreign policy would become congruent to U.S. foreign policy as a result of the defence deal.

India-U.S. relations started to become especially warm by the early 1990s. The Congress government started distancing itself from traditional foreign policy planks and cosying up to the West as it began opening up the economy. Forging closer security links with Washington and its allies was also a top priority of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, which came to power in 1998. Israel is today Indias second largest defence partner. The nuclear tests of 1998 only signalled a momentary pause in New Delhis burgeoning relationship with Washington. Within days of the tests, the Bill Clinton administration lifted many of the sanctions it had imposed.

By October 2001, the new American President, George W. Bush, waived almost all the sanctions imposed on India in 1998. By 2002, India and the U.S. had set up the High Technology Cooperation Group (HTCG). The HTCG approved 90 per cent of Indian applications for dual use technology. The two countries then set up the Next Steps for Strategic Partnership (NSSP) in January 2004 when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was still in power. The NSSP provided the foundation for deals such as the U.S.-India Defence Relationship and eventually the nuclear deal.

A joint report released by a Washington-based think tank, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies; the Confederation of Indian Industries; and the Japanese Institute for International Affairs on the eve of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abes visit to India has recommended that the U.S., Japan and India cooperate on enhancing stability in the Persian Gulf region. Prime Minister Manmohan Singhs special envoy S.K. Lambah was part of the high-level Indian delegation responsible for drafting the report, titled The United States, Japan and India: Towards New Trilateral Cooperation. U.S. policy in West Asia today is focussed on combating Iran. Japan has always been supportive of the Bush administrations policies. India also seems to be on the verge of jumping onto the anti-Iran bandwagon. India has already voted with the U.S. in the IAEA against Irans nuclear programme.

In May, key U.S. Congressmen who have been supportive of the India-U.S. nuclear deal wrote a strongly worded letter to Manmohan Singh, expressing their grave concerns about Indias ties with Iran and warning him that this could adversely impact on the deal. The letter listed a series of meetings between Indian and Iranian officials. It is difficult to fathom why India, a democracy engaged in its own fight against terrorism, would want to enhance security cooperation with a repressive government widely regarded as the worlds most active sponsor of terrorism, the letter stated. Indian Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon had to dismiss reports of a close military cooperation with Iran to placate the Congressmen soon after the contents of the letter became public. Other backchannel assurances must have been given to the U.S. by the Indian government to get the nuclear deal expedited.

The report on U.S.-India-Japan cooperation recommends that future trilateral military exercises between the countries should address areas such as peacekeeping operations, technology cooperation and intelligence sharing. Washington has been pressuring New Delhi for quite some time now to sign its Proliferations Security Initiative . The PSI seeks to monitor and interdict the clandestine movement of materials needed for weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The idea has now resurfaced as the Container Security Initiative (CSI), which India seems to be on the verge of signing. The U.S. launched the CSI in January 2002. It envisages the screening of all containers at foreign ports by U.S. Customs officials along with their counterparts in the host nations. There are reports that India is on the verge of signing up for the CSI despite concerns about the infringement of sovereignty and threats to national security that are involved. The report notes that the new challenge for the three nations is deterring unreliable nations from exporting fissile material.

The report also recommends further development of the U.S.-Japan-Australia-India Quadrilateral Forum. The present Australian and Japanese governments are the closest Asian allies of the neoconservative administration in Washington. The countries being openly targeted these days are North Korea, Iran and Syria. But the Chinese leadership feels that China is the long-term target. Chinese officials have expressed reservations about U.S. efforts to draw in India as a tool for its global strategic pattern. The Pentagons Quadrennial Defense Review Report (QDR), published last year, identifies China as the only potential long-term military threat to the U.S. The U.S. National Security Strategy of 2002 talks of the common interests of both Washington and New Delhi in a strategically stable Asia.

This view was in fact articulated by Prime Minister Abe in his address to Parliament on August 22. Abe, who recently suffered a humiliating defeat in the elections to the Japanese Upper House and whose pro-U.S. policies face immense criticism at home, called for the creation of an arc of freedom and prosperity in the Asia Pacific Region. He said that this network, which pointedly excluded China, would bring freedom and prosperity to a broader Asia. Abe told Indian Members of Parliament that he expected this broader Asia to evolve into an immense network spanning the entirety of the Pacific Ocean, incorporating the United States and Australia. This formulation by the Japanese Prime Minister is being interpreted in many quarters as a clarion call for the creation of an Asian version of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO).

The Quadrilateral Forum should be viewed from this perspective. The first meeting of this group took place in Manila in May without much publicity. This was preceded by trilateral military exercises involving the navies of the U.S., Japan and India. It was on Tokyos initiative that the Quadrilateral Forum took off. The U.S. already has close military alliances with South Korea and Taiwan. U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney supported the Japanese initiative during his visit to the region earlier in the year. Cheney has also been credited with playing an important role in the eventual clinching of the India-U.S. nuclear deal.

There were clear indications that the UPA government was preparing the ground for a close military tie-up with the U.S., forgetting the foreign policy principles enumerated in the Common Minimum Programme of the alliance. The U.S. and Indian governments announced a Logistics Support Agreement during Bushs visit to India in 2006. The deal gives the militaries of the two countries the privilege of using each others facilities for maintenance, servicing, communication and refuelling. Theoretically, the U.S. Seventh Fleet will be able to avail itself of the Indian Navys refuelling facilities in the Arabian Sea.

Japan and Australia have also signed a comprehensive security agreement. The two countries are also emphasising on their respective alliance with the U.S. China is not explicitly mentioned, but Beijing is in no doubt that all the new treaties are aimed at countering Chinas emergence as the major power in the region. Although the U.S., Japanese and Australian economies profit from China, Beijing has not been offered any defence pacts or security agreements of the kind being offered to New Delhi by the West. The Chinese leadership has reason to fear that once Washington gets over its war on terror phase, its attention will once again focus on the rise of China as a world power.

The 2005 joint India-U.S. Global Democracy Initiative is another ham-handed effort to build a partnership based on so-called shared values. The U.S. administration also set up the Community of Democracies. The Indian government, then led by the BJP, was an eager participant in the first meeting held in Warsaw, Poland, in 2000.

The Democracy Initiative was essentially the brainchild of the neoconservative think tank The National Endowment for Democracy. NED works closely with the government of Taiwan. In his first State of the Union message, Bush said that he was committed to the goal of spreading democracy and ending tyranny in the world. Among his main targets were countries such as Cuba and Venezuela. The U.S.-sponsored coup attempt in Venezuela against a democratically elected government is an illustration of the extent to which the U.S. administration is prepared to go to spread freedom.

The other important goal of democracy building was to ensure that other states did not oppose American diplomatic, military and economic initiatives. In 2005, Bush appointed neoconservative ideologue Elliot Abrams to head the Global Democracy Initiative. Abrams had been implicated in the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s. U.S.-sponsored democracy has generally meant regime change. New Delhis identification with the cause has not earned it any brownie points in the developing world. Under the initiative, Washington and New Delhi pledged to work together to promote democracy and development. Both countries pledged $10 million each to the Democracy Fund set up under the auspices of the United Nations.

The main purpose of the nuclear deal from Washingtons perspective is to gain a strategic foothold in South Asia. Since 2005, the Bush administration, mired in the Iraqi quagmire and seemingly reconciled to the fact that Americas days as the sole superpower in the world were numbered, has seen India as a potential ally against the two new rising powers China and Russia.

Both Moscow and Beijing were also trying to woo New Delhi into a strategic partnership. The high-profile visits to India of Chinese President Wen Jiabao in 2005 and Russian President Vladimir Putin in January were steps in this direction. Both Beijing and Moscow have not objected to the nuclear deal. In fact, Moscow has reasons to be disappointed if the deal does not go through as it hopes to do lucrative business in nuclear technology with India. China has only pointed out the double standards involved in the deal and the dangers to global non-proliferation but has indicated clearly that it is willing to live with the deal.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), of which Russia and China are key members, wants to combat NATO expansionism in Asia. The SCO would like India to play an active role in its deliberations. New Delhi has instead chosen to distance itself from the SCO, while other observer countries such as Iran and Pakistan seem eager to become full-fledged members of the grouping.

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