Two high-level visits

Published : Aug 04, 2001 00:00 IST

If upgrading defence ties was the theme during General Henry Shelton's visit, the focus during Assistant Secretary Christina Rocca's visit was on subcontinental issue.

IN July, the Indian government played host to two important functionaries from Washington. Just after the conclusion of the Agra Summit, General Henry H. Shelton, Chairman, U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, was on a two-day visit to New Delhi. He was soon followed by the new Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Affairs, Christina Rocca, who landed in Delhi on July 22, on a three-day visit. Rocca, a former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operative, spent 10 days in the subcontinent. Nepal and Pakistan were also part of her itinerary.

The visit of Gen. Shelton was significant, as it is for the first time that the Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff has made an official visit to this country. In the wake of India's nuclear tests in 1998 the U.S. government had decided to downgrade visits by senior U.S. military officials. Only those up to the rank of the Pacific Area Commander (PACOM) were given the green signal to visit India and Pakistan.

Shelton's visit was indicative, to an extent, of the growing closeness between Washington and Delhi. Earlier, in May, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage was in Delhi drumming up support for the Bush administration's NMD (nuclear missile defence) plans. New Delhi's embrace of the NMD has become an international embarrassment, given the fact that even Washington's traditional allies have been critical of the Bush administration's plan to weaponise outer space and in the process scrap the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which the international community considers a bulwark against a renewed arms race.

Ever since the Bharatiya Janata Party assumed power, Delhi has sought unabashedly to establish a "special relationship" with Washington. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, in a letter to the then U.S. President, Bill Clinton, after Pokhran-II, described India and the U.S. as "natural allies". Vajpayee's feelings were not reciprocated by the Clinton administration immediately. But assiduous legwork by Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh, whom many describe as the most pro-Western Foreign Minister the country has ever had, seems to have paved the way for closer relations.

Jaswant Singh's last visit to Washington coincided with the crisis which erupted in Sino-U.S. relations, following the downing of a Chinese fighter plane in April 2001. Jaswant Singh, was given the honour of an audience with President George W. Bush. Only Foreign Ministers of states which are allies and client states are usually given the privilege of an unscheduled meeting with the President of the United States. The Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, Brajesh Mishra, who is also the National Security Adviser, who was on an official visit to Washington in the first week of July, had a lengthy meeting with the CIA chief George Tenet.

This was for the first time that somebody holding such a senior position in the government of India had an official meeting with a serving CIA chief. Before Bill Clinton's visit to India, the BJP-led government had given permission to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to set up shop in New Delhi. India now has the dubious privilege of being, along with Pakistan, among the handful of countries in Asia to give this privilege to the U.S.

During his visit to Delhi, Gen. Shelton announced that the Defence Planning Group (DPG) involving the U.S. and India, which was put on ice as part of the post-Pokhran U.S. sanctions on India, would be revived. Shelton's visit came after the meeting between Jaswant Singh, in his capacity as Defence Minister, and the U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in Washington in April. It, however, has not signalled the lifting of U.S. sanctions in the areas of defence and technology.

Shelton, as in the case of all recent high-profile American visitors, said that Washington would address the issue as part of an ongoing review. Military analysts in the region expect only an "incremental easing" of sanctions. The General told mediapersons in Delhi that the U.S. will continue to work with Pakistan and that "the growing military engagement with India" had nothing to do with the China factor.

Shelton indicated that for the time being defence ties between Washington and Delhi would be confined mainly to the fields of international peacekeeping, search and rescue missions and military training. The DPG was part of the agreement which was signed when former Defence Secretary William Perry visited India in 1995. At that time, both countries had agreed on reviving military-to-military cooperation, the setting up of a joint technology group and the DPG among other things.

Shelton wants the DPG to be upgraded, involving the greater participation of the senior officer corps of both the armies. The DPG in its earlier avatar was monopolised by civilian bureaucrats. Shelton held out hope for those in India wanting close ties with the U.S. by stating that the DPG would look into strategic and politico-military issues. After a meeting with Jaswant Singh, Shelton said, "There is a common desire on the part of two countries for a substantive military to military relationship."

The Left parties have warned the government against going in for deeper ties with Washington. They argue that this would give the U.S. access to Indian military bases. There are reports that the Indian government is not averse to forging links with the U.S. Central Command based on the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia. Previous Indian governments had been loudly demanding that the U.S. military base in Diego Garcia be vacated and the island be handed over to Mauritius. The island was illegally handed over by the British to the U.S. without consulting the people of the island or the government of Mauritius (Frontline, September 15, 2000). Besides, closer military alliance with the Americans in the Indian Ocean area goes against the concept of the Indian Ocean as a zone of peace.

The Foreign Ministry spokesperson said that regional, global and strategic issues were discussed during the Shelton visit. The Indian government had announced two years ago that its strategic interests extended all the way from the Persian Gulf to the Malacca Straits. When George Fernandes was the Defence Minister, he had suggested that India's interests stretched up to the South China Sea. Shelton said in Delhi that the U.S. saw India "as a major power with global interests".

ASSISTANT Secretary of State Christina Rocca's visit, was billed as a familiarisation tour. Before embarking on her South Asian tour she had focussed on the importance of a sustained dialogue between India and Pakistan. She said that "the U.S. strongly supports sustained engagement at the senior level between India and Pakistan as the best way to address long-standing bilateral disputes and make progress towards reducing tensions". In a departure from the past, the Bush administration is shaping its South Asia policy in a way that allows the U.S. to develop good relations with both countries independently. "We have strong interests in both countries. We want to pursue those interests and we don't want them to be dependent one upon the other," Rocca said.

Talking to the media in Delhi, Rocca described the Agra Summit as a "step forward". She said the U.S. strongly supported a sustained senior-level dialogue between India and Pakistan, and reiterated the U.S. position on Kashmir. She said it was an issue that "needs to be resolved between India and Pakistan taking into account the wishes of the Kashmiri people".

Rocca said that the U.S. did not intend to play the role of a mediator in the dispute unless specifically asked to do so by both the parties. Her boss at the State Department, Secretary of State Colin Powell, had earlier suggested that the U.S. would do everything it could to lend its good offices for the improvement of India-Pakistan relations and to address other difficult issues such as the nuclear issue. The CIA Director had stated in February that "if any issue has the potential to bring both sides to full-scale war, it is Kashmir. Kashmir is at the centre of the dispute between the two countries".

The CIA chief also said that he was worried about the proliferation and the development of weapons of mass destruction in the region. Rocca reiterated these concerns just before her visit to the subcontinent. She said that one of the reasons why sanctions against India and Pakistan remained in place was "the fact that proliferation concerns remain an issue and are important". She categorically stated that there would be no lifting of sanctions without consultation with Congress.

The new Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman, Democratic Senator Joseph Biden, said in a speech in June that promoting non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction was a priority and that the only way the U.S. could be successful was by "remaining engaged in the peaceful resolution of conflict". The U.S. must "encourage India, Pakistan and supporting countries to search for new approaches to security in the region". But the government in Delhi keeps on hoping that the lifting of U.S. sanctions is only a matter of time.

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