Talking about sanctions

Print edition : July 18, 1998

LEFT to themselves, the administrations in Washington and New Delhi would each want to have its way and ask for the moon in the process. But diplomacy being what it is, the search is on for the so-called middle ground, or acceptable formulations that would be "sellable" at home. It is in this context that the talks between U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott and Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee's special emissary Jaswant Singh have to be viewed. The two rounds of talks held in Washington on June 12 and in Frankfurt on July 9 and 10, and the third round to be held in New Delhi on July 20, should provide a firmer perspective of where Indo-U.S. relations are heading. Or at least that is the expectation.

If nothing substantive has been coming out of Washington on the precise nature of the Talbott-Jaswant Singh talks, it is because neither side is for conducting delicate diplomacy through the media. In fact little has come out for a month since June 12. By and large it has been routine statements - that, among other things, the U.S. and India would be discussing a broad range of issues that would include nuclear proliferation and security matters and that there is continuing concern within the Clinton administration over the developments in South Asia.

Although the State Department sticks to its standard text in respect of the Indian subcontinent in the aftermath of the nuclear tests by India and Pakistan in May-June, one has to be naive to believe that the Clinton administration will have its way - that is, India and Pakistan will sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) "immediately" and "unconditionally", put a total freeze on their nuclear and missile programmes and start addressing the contentious issues between them, including the so-called core issue of Kashmir.

If the Clinton administration decided to "upgrade" the level of its dialogue with India and Pakistan in the wake of the nuclear testing, it had nothing to do with "rewarding" the countries for what had been done. Rather, the decision came out of the feeling that the dialogue had to be conducted through certain channels that were a part of, if not close to, the actual decision-makers.

The expectation is that by the time the Talbott-Jaswant Singh talks are over, a final decision could be made on whether or not President Bill Clinton will visit India and Pakistan in early November. There is also the realisation that for this to materialise, the U.S. and India should come to some broad understanding on not only the CTBT but also other linkages in the present scheme of things, such as the Indian perception of the strategic environment, the concept of "minimum deterrent" and the issue of sanctions.

Hardliners in the U.S. administration have made it a point to brush aside the concept of minimum deterrence that New Delhi is supposed to be seeking. They hold that this idea goes against everything that the U.S. and the "international community" have asked and stood for in the aftermath of the nuclear testing. But at the same time, many knowledgeable people in the U.S. are convinced that unless Washington comes to terms with New Delhi's point of view in a reasonable manner, the negotiations will reach a point of no return, each side blaming the other for the breakdown.

There is no denying that the Clinton administration is indeed trying to find a way out of the difficult situation that has come about following the developments in South Asia, although for the record all the tough words are said almost on a daily basis. Heading their list would be what is said on the sanctions that "had" to be imposed on India and Pakistan as mandated by the 1994 Glenn Amendment.

The administration is getting some flak from Congress for its policies towards India and Pakistan. The comparison has been with the policy towards China: the Clinton administration is perceived as bending over backwards to accommodate that East Asian giant, talking about the multi-facetedness of the relationship and the need for a policy of engagement that takes into account the longer-term point of view. But in the case of India and Pakistan, it is argued that the administration has not been willing to look at South Asia in a longer-term point of view and has been keen to play by the rules.

IMPOSING sanctions, later asserting that these measures were going to hurt India and Pakistan, and then insisting at every available public forum that the administration was determined to stick to the letter and spirit of the 1994 law were all easy. Lost in the gloating was any realisation that sanctions are a two-way street and that they were going to hurt the U.S. as well. Ironically, even before the administration has finalised how the sanctions would be implemented, efforts are on to undo the measures gradually but expeditiously.

It took the full weight of the farmers' lobby to point out to the administration and Congress that U.S. economic interests would be hurt if the country persisted with the idea of implementing the sanctions. Banks and other business interests were telling a different and yet the same story before, but it was the lobby of the farmers and the producers that would make an impact. The administration and Congress may, under the garb of humanitarianism, put out the claim that food should never be used as an instrument of foreign policy but the fact is that the American farmer, particularly in the Pacific northwest, would be severely hit if wheat credits were not extended to Pakistan. The bottomline is the dollar bill.

The speed with which the U.S. Senate came up with a stand-alone piece of legislation, called the Farmer Export Relief Bill, on July 9 indicated nothing but a sober realisation that if the administration and Congress did not act, Pakistan had the easy way of turning to the competitors of the U.S. The idea of Islamabad turning to Canada, France or even Australia to meet its shortfall in wheat was simply unacceptable. The bottomline again was $ 88 million tied up this year and up to $ 300 millions next year as a result of the sanctions. And no lawmaker wanted to "cross" the American farmer, and that too in a congressional election year.

But there is another aspect to the sanctions that goes a little beyond dollars and cents. From the very outset the argument in the U.S. has been that while India might not feel the effect of the sanctions in a way that is highly detrimental to its economy, this was not going to be the case with Pakistan since its economy was highly vulnerable, given its dependence on the U.S. The real fear that has been expressed in many quarters is that pushed to the wall, Islamabad would start peddling its nuclear technology. The fear of the "bomb" reaching West Asia and being targeted against Israel is very much there, in administration and congressional circles.

As Senator Sam Brownback, the Chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on the Near East and South Asia, put it on July 9, "Last week I travelled to India and Pakistan, and I am now convinced that Pakistan in particular is on the brink of economic collapse. Our sanctions are only further destabilising the region. We must act immediately to put in place a plan to repeal the remaining sanctions to reduce tensions and to re-engage the United States economically and diplomatically in the region."

The broad range of sanctions against India and Pakistan, together with the specific concerns of the American farmer and farm producer, have resulted in a concerted effort in Congress to re-examine the entire gamut of sanctions as an instrument of U.S. foreign policy, starting with India and Pakistan and extending to other parts of the world. A Special Task Force has been set up by the Senate, which is expected first to give by July 15 its report on sanctions against the two South Asian nations. And, hopefully, by September 1 a fuller report on "sanctions" will be ready. Meanwhile, individual law-makers such as Senators John Glenn of Ohio and Richard Lugar of Indiana have come up with their own Bills that seek to address the issue of sanctions with a view to maintaining the objectives by injecting an element of flexibility into foreign policy, in both its making and implementation.

In the view of the administration, there must be a forward movement in bilateral relations - in the context of what has happened in the last two months - if a presidential visit is to the subcontinent materialise. Clinton has not visited India, though his wife, Hillary Clinton, has visited the country twice and come away with positive and deep feelings. The President is scheduled to visit India, Pakistan and Bangladesh in early November prior to his trip to Kuala Lumpur for the Economic Summit of Asia Pacific Leaders, which is part of the annual meeting of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum.

But the point that is being made in the U.S. is that the President will have to look at an India visit in terms more tangible and concrete than just the atmospherics. For this to take place, there must be a meeting of the minds on political and security-strategic issues, and some definite headway has to be made towards lifting sanctions fully.

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