On Wests coat-tails

Published : Sep 25, 2009 00:00 IST

THE signing of the end-user agreement with the United States during the recent visit of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, analysts say, is yet another example of Indias foreign policy being subordinated to the strategic interests of the U.S. The ambition of Indias political class to achieve great-power status riding on the coat-tails of the West continues to be pursued with renewed vigour by the new Congress-led government.

Rajiv Sikris book Challenge and Strategy: Rethinking Indias Foreign Policy gives an insiders view of developments in Indias foreign policy over the years. It covers a wide range of issues, from Indias relations with its neighbours to India-U.S. relations, relations between the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and the Prime Ministers Office (PMO), energy security, and the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

Sikri joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1970 and has served in several key positions. This has given him a vast knowledge about the functioning of the Foreign Office. He resigned from service on being superseded for the post of Foreign Secretary in October 2006.

Sikri argues that the priorities and vision nurtured during the anti-colonial struggle and in the initial decades of nation building have been abandoned. The underpinnings of Indias foreign policy were laid during the freedom struggle. This gave rise to the notion of non-alignment in foreign relations. India was the founding member of the non-aligned movement (NAM) and hosted the 7th NAM Summit in New Delhi in 1983. The foreign policy of the country reflected a belief in a just global order, commitment to decolonisation, and universal nuclear disarmament. Compromises made in domestic and foreign policies in the past two decades have changed the direction of political discourse in the country.

In elite circles, it is now taken for granted that the U.S. and India are natural allies. Since the 1990s, military-to-military cooperation between the two countries has increased dramatically. As a result, the space for independent foreign policy to suit the strategic interests of the country is getting limited. In the largest democracy, crucial decisions are taken and international treaties signed without disclosing their terms and conditions. Indias ruling elite and its supporters, who are ecstatic after the signing of the India-U.S. nuclear deal, have failed to appreciate that a lasting strategic partnership cannot be crafted by stealth and subterfuge, Sikri argues.

After the collapse of the socialist bloc, there has been a tilt in Indias foreign policy against the national consensus of retaining strategic autonomy. The defence pacts with the U.S. and Israel, the vote on Iran, the dithering on the gas pipeline, and the policy articulation on China appear to be influenced by the strategic interests of the U.S. The phoney war on terror led by the U.S. and its aggressive policy of exporting democracy and regime change have gone without any critical comment from Indias foreign policy exponents. Under pressure from the U.S., Indian policymakers are speaking with a forked tongue to satisfy the Indian public and the American masters.

A similar approach was seen during the signing of the India-U.S. nuclear deal. The Government of India has not so far revealed all the terms and conditions that it has acceded to. Some of the letters and memos, which have been released for the media in the U.S., give an idea of the nature of the treaty signed by India. The nuclear deal impacts the direction of Indias foreign policy and that of its defence policy. Sikri states that Indias policy on Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka is already being guided by the U.S., something that was unthinkable a few years ago.

Sikri considers Pokhran II as the defining moment in Indias foreign policy, leading to a qualitative change in Indias relationship with the U.S. The turning point in this relationship started with a series of meetings between Jaswant Singh, then Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission of India, and Strobe Talbott, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State, between 1998 and 2000 (page 173), which culminated in the visit of President Bill Clinton to India in 2005. This growing friendship was carried forward by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in an accelerated manner and proceeded with dialogue as envisaged in the document called Next Steps in Strategic Partnership (NSSP), announced in January 2004.

Sikri points out that the Clinton administration tried hard to cap, rollback and eliminate Indias nuclear weapons programme by insisting on signing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT). The signing of the nuclear deal appears to be a tacit acceptance of the terms in these treaties.

In his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in April 2006, Ashley Tellis, a senior U.S. diplomat who played an important behind-the-scenes role in the nuclear deal, stated that India has now agreed to obligations that in fact go beyond those ordinarily required of [Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty] NPT signatories. This goes clearly against the national consensus in India that it should definitely preserve its strategic autonomy in conducting its foreign policy and in developing its nuclear programme.

A lot of ingenuity has been used by Indias political class and its apologists in explaining the implications of the Hyde Act passed by the U.S. Congress in December 2006. We are told that the Indian side is only bound by the 123 Agreement even though the American side has always maintained that that the terms of the India-U.S. nuclear deal are in accordance with the Hyde Act. India has committed to put its future nuclear reactors under safeguards, as clearly stated by the then U.S. Under Secretary of State, Nicholas Burns, that all of Indias future civil reactors, including fast-breeder reactors, would be under [International Atomic Energy Agency] IAEA safeguards and that within a generation about 90 per cent of Indias reactors and nuclear establishment would be fully safeguarded.

Sikri points out that it appears that there is more to the deal, perhaps even confidential agreements or understandings, than the Indian government is willing to admit. Similar concerns emerge over the disclosure of a 26-page letter of January 2008 from the Bush administration to the Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and released to the media in September 2008. The letter reiterated the importance of the Hyde Act and the right to suspend or terminate cooperation by the U.S. It stated that the U.S. government would not assist India in the design, construction or operation of sensitive nuclear technologies through the transfer of dual-use items and that there would be no assured fuel supply.

Sikri argues that the real U.S. policy objective is to ensure that Indias foreign policy is congruent with that of the U.S. To this is added the dimension of harmonising the foreign policy with the objectives of Israel in West and South Asia. The so-called war on terror and the policy of exporting democracy have led to unilateral military action by the U.S. to fulfil its global ambitions and to keep the world unipolar. The nuclear deal is expected to induce greater political and material support to the achievement of U.S. foreign policy goals, namely, the retention of all-round U.S. global domination.

According to Sikri, the shift in Indias foreign policy to suit the interests of the U.S. has created confusion in Indias policy towards its neighbours. India has ceded the space for policymaking in South Asia again to suit the strategic interests of the U.S. He states that Indias strategic planners cannot be sanguine about the massive U.S. military presence, which will be a long-term one, in the northern Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf region, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia.

The India-U.S. strategic dialogue conducted by a small group of Indian interlocutors with limited political influence is based on the terms set by the U.S. and reflects its strategic interests in the region. Speaking to the American Jewish Committee in May 2003, Indias former National Security Adviser (NSA) Brajesh Mishra called for a trilateral grouping of India, Israel and the U.S., given the complementarities and common interests that bring India closer to both the U.S. and Israel. The obvious outcome of this proximity was the controversial votes by India in 2005 and 2006 referring Irans dossier on the nuclear question from the IAEA to the United Nations Security Council. The posturing on various issues dealing with the Arab world has been influenced by the concerns of the U.S. and Israel.

The ties between Israel and India have led to increased dependence on Israel for defence supplies and advanced defence technologies. In return, India has reciprocated by recently launching for Israel its TECSAR spy satellite.

There has been a high degree of pressure on India to accept deals for the supply of weapons by the U.S. Sikri points out that the foreign policy of the Manmohan Singh government throughout 2006 focussed on the U.S. in general and India-U.S. nuclear deal in particular. On several occasions in these years, India has been coerced into taking positions in international forums to suit the global agenda of the U.S. The Bush administrations arm-twisting of India on Iran for referring it to the IAEA is a pointer on the extent to which India has given in to pressure from the U.S. and Israel.

Sikri points out that India has not pursued its interests in achieving energy security. It has not seriously explored other options available in securing energy security. The Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) gas pipeline, the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan (TAP) pipeline, and the pipeline from Myanmar are different options that India has not been able to concretise thus far. Gas from Russia and Central Asia could also be sourced without much difficulty.

India submitted to pressure from the WTO in changing the trade-related policies much before the deadline. The dominance sought by the industrialised countries of the West, led by the U.S., through the rules and regulations formulated by the WTO has coerced poorer nations, including India, into changing domestic laws making them favourable to multinationals based in developed countries.

The rush to appease the West and other developed countries was visible in the haste to implement the WTO measures much before time. Sikri points out that the outcome of the Uruguay Round was not the best deal from Indias perspective of the mid-1990s. Even before it was necessary, India, through agreements such as the Agreement on Trade Related Investment Measures (TRIMS), the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) and the Agreement on Agriculture, was pressured into giving commitments in areas such as foreign investment, intellectual property, services and agriculture for which it was not yet ready.

With the experience of 36 years in the Foreign Office, Sikri has some advice on how to professionalise the Department/Ministry.

The controversial manner in which Foreign Secretaries have been frequently appointed in recent years has regrettably devalued the position of MEA Secretaries. From 1998 onwards, the NSA has emerged as a very powerful behind-the-scenes figure on foreign policy issues, even though he need not necessarily have any background or expertise in foreign affairs. The NSA has the advantage that he is not accountable to either the Parliament or the public in fact to no one except his political bosses (page 265). The NSA has much more control over foreign policy formulation and supervision than the MEA.

Sikris book is a reminder of what has gone wrong with Indias foreign policy as well as what needs to be set right at the level of the MEA and other policymaking institutions in the country. The book is written lucidly and should be essential reading for those interested in understanding the current foreign policy of India.

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