Balance of power in South Asia

Print edition : April 22, 2005

Pakistan Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan (right), with U.S. President Harry Truman, inspecting the guard of honour at the reception accorded to him on his arrival at Washington airport in May 1950. - THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

IT was Condoleezza Rice's first visit to India as Secretary of State. She had to be instructed and instructed she was in Indian thinking on relations with the United States, in an impressive chorus: "We passionately seek good relations with her country but it must ever be mindful of our interests; vis-a-vis Pakistan, predominantly. We disclaim `hyphenation' between India and Pakistan; but it is about Pakistan we wish to talk first and foremost. The U.S. must not put India on a par with Pakistan. India is a global power. Our ambition? You and the P-5 of the U.N. Security Council must call us `brother'. Our South Asian neighbours must call us `uncle'. We will, of course, cooperate with you; give us time to educate public opinion and soften those troublesome leftists. You will soon find us willing partners in Iraq and elsewhere. Do not lecture to us as a Stanford Lecturer on the basics of diplomacy. It is not a pursuit of congruence of interests we seek. The U.S. can take care of its interests. It must, first, pull our chestnuts out of the fires raging around us; especially in Islamabad."

Rice, however, had a different agenda. Her salary comes from the American taxpayers' money. Unlike Indians, Americans are not moved by ideals or principles; they are guided by their own selfish interests. Rice did, as she always does, just what she is paid to do - pursue American interests. But none of this quite registered on those who presented Indian demands. Some were charmed even. They will discover in good time, what American commentators have noted already, that her style is more abrasive and her approach more arrogant than those even of Madeleine Albright; which is saying a lot.

Read the texts of transcripts of her utterances and you will find her making the same claim in both countries - the U.S. will be arbiter between the two. She said in New Delhi on March 16: "We want very much for there (sic.) to be a military balance in the region that preserves peace." She said in Islamabad the next day: "We're concerned about issues of military balance, and as good allies, we will continue to do so" (emphasis added, throughout). This was apropos the sale of F-16 planes to Pakistan, an acknowledged major non-North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) ally.

This is in keeping with a tradition that goes far back; a tradition to which India contributed as much as Pakistan. Non-alignment is compromised when a major dispute arises between non-aligned neighbours. The weaker seeks support from a great power to redress the balance, driving the other to seek support from that power's rival. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto called it "the plus factor".

In his book The Myth of Independence, he recalled: "In February 1963, the American government sent Mr. Phillips Talbott, Assistant Secretary of State, on a visit to the subcontinent. He said in Pakistan that, to keep the balance of power in the region, the United States would not give more arms aid to Pakistan; adding that, just as the United States continued to supply arms to Pakistan despite Indian protests in the past, his government would likewise continue to supply arms to India despite Pakistan's protests." His book is a fine essay on how small powers can preserve their freedom. Conflicts between the U.S. and the Soviet Union were not only ideological "but also a struggle for hegemony"; hegemony over the smaller states and an edge, if not ascendancy, vis-a-vis each other. Once a "balance of terror" was struck, detente in superpower relations evolved.

The bipolar word is gone. India and Pakistan vie with each other to seek the U.S.' support and the U.S. will regulate the balance of power between them since they are too immature to do it by themselves. As the stronger power India is more culpable. It seeks unrealistically a cordon sanitaire around South Asia with, incredibly, the U.S.' help. It is prepared to pay the price if that support is forthcoming. None other than Jawaharlal Nehru set a precedent for this way back in 1948.

Sir Girja Shankar Bajpai, the first Secretary-General of the Ministry of External Affairs, was the most accomplished of the heads of the Foreign Service. He wrote an insightful essay on "India and the Balance of Power" for The Indian Year Book of International Affairs (1952), published under the auspices of the Indian Study Group of International Affairs, University of Madras. Its editor was Prof. C.H. Alexandrowicz. Bajpai began with a quotation from Thucydides: "We both alike know that into the discussion of human affairs, the question of justice only enters where the pressure of necessity is equal, and that the powerful exact what they can, and the weak grant what they must."

He posed the question "whether power developed in defence of neutrality helps to create an enduring balance of power". He was obviously concerned at the rhetoric which Nehru had begun to use and warned of the danger "in the unqualified condemnation of `power politics'; if that phrase be meant to mean the support of policies by power". Nations will continue to increase their power and their freedom of action. "`Balance of power' is not an ethical principle or even a permanent feature of international relations; it is a product of circumstances which the righteous and the upright may dislike but cannot afford to ignore."

Jawaharlal Nehru with sister Vijayalakshmi Pandit and President Truman on October 11, 1949, during a goodwill visit to the United States.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

A reference to Nehru? One wonders, for, by then he had had a good measure of Nehru's brand of realpolitik of which cleverness, as distinct from sagacity, was an integral component. His reservations on Nehru's China policy are well known; those on Kashmir were bared to colleagues like A.D. Gorwala, also of the Indian Civil Service.

In his presidential address at the Kerala Provincial Conference on May 27, 1928, Nehru asked: "What external dangers will face us when the British leave India? We have an Indian Army brave and efficient, well-tried in many continents... . The strength of the country depends not only on the defence force but even more so on the international situation and the balance of power... the other countries could not tolerate that the rich prize of India should fall again to another power" (Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru; First Series; Vol. 3; pages 236-7). India was protected by the balance of power. This explains his constant refrain during the confrontation with China in the 1960s; "War between India and China... will mean war" globally, he said on December 6, 1961. The concept of limited war eluded him though considerable literature had built up on the subject since Denis Healy's article in a widely read magazine, Encounter (July 1955), besides specialised writings. That explains his Forward Policy in Ladakh.

Like Gladstone, Nehru began to cloak a policy conceived in self-interest, under the garb of morality and idealism. He began criticising "the intrusion of the military mentality" in the chanceries of the world, the approach which considers everything "in terms of black or white - those with us or those against us"; their "dogmatic fervour" and their "great immaturity in political thinking or understanding".

Unknown to his countrymen and to the rest of the world, he had begun to woo the U.S. at the very outset. He sought secretly a military relationship with the U.S. early in 1948. The approach was made by Col. B.M. Kaul, the military attache in the Indian Embassy in the U.S., who won high honours in the 1962 war with China. Nehru bypassed Ambassador Asaf Ali, a close friend. Kaul conveyed "the interest of the Government of India in a long-term military collaboration between the U.S. and India" on an "exclusive basis".

The U.S.' refusal greatly upset Nehru. On a visit to the U.S., Girja Shankar Bajpai raised the subject on April 2, 1948. He drew a blank. On Nehru's instructions, the Embassy asked the State Department on July 30, 1948, "what international contribution might be made by India in the event of further deterioration in international relations in general". In September he informed the U.S. and Britain that he would not support the Soviet Union in the event of war. The U.S. was unmoved. Nehru's offers were based on two tacit conditions: "exclusivity" and support on Kashmir. His rhetoric on the U.S.' injection of the Cold War into India, by giving arms to Pakistan was for public consumption. Where success of his moves in 1948 would have left the lofty ideal of non-alignment can well be imagined.

This explains Nehru's sullen mood during his visit to the U.S. in 1949 and his pique at the reception accorded there, by no means extravagantly, to Pakistan's Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan. In a letter to his sister Vijayalakshmi Pandit on May 10, 1950, Nehru roundly condemned the entire nation: "I must say that the Americans are either very naive or singularly lacking in intelligence. They go through the identical routine, whether it is Nehru or the Shah of Iran, or Liaquat Ali." Inconsistently, but very characteristically, he added: "I do not mean to say that I deserve more honour than others" (Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru; Second series; Vol. 14, Part II, page 380).

This mentality bedevils India's foreign policy to this day - put us not on a par with Pakistan; differentiate between us to prefer us. There can, it follows, be no parity, between us - and no balance of power between us, either. Nehru wrote to his sister in private. A lesser man Atal Bihari Vajpayee, spoke publicly and crudely. He told Le Figaro, on February 17, 2000: "Your country has to make a strategic choice between the great democratic power that India is and Pakistan, a small country under military dictatorship." If the big powers were so foolish as to follow his advice, they would find themselves left out when India, for its own reasons, decided to make up with Pakistan. They, of course, know better.

THE former U.S. Ambassador, Robert Blackwill, tartly remarked in late 2001: "Hyphenation seems to reside mostly in India. When I want to talk about the U.S.-India relationship (people talked) about either Pakistan or Kashmir." Another friend of India, Chris Patten, European Union's Commissioner for External Relations, echoed this view on October 9, 2000. He asked India to "shed the narrow prism of Pakistan [and] develop a wider worldly view like that of China".

A Pakistani dimension to Indo-U.S. relations existed always. But as the most ardent suitor for the U.S.' affections, the Bharatiya Janata Party felt it had an extra claim on its services to bring Pakistan to heel. Mani Shankar Aiyar was only too right when he wrote on March 18, 2003: "The overarching objective of foreign policy under NDA [National Democratic Alliance] has been currying favour with the high and mighty in the expectation that they will pull our irons out of the Pakistani fire."

Pakistani's polity was divided between stooges of the West and congenital baiters of the Soviet Union - like Ghulam Mohammed and Zafrullah Khan - and mass leaders like Liaquat Ali Khan who preferred non-alignment. From 1947 to 1951 India and Pakistan voted mostly alike in the United Nations General Assembly. Their own Cold War brought the global war to the subcontinent. Pakistan sought the "plus factor" from the U.S. and, later, from China. The military aid pact was limited to attack from a Communist country. On November 5, 1962, the U.S. Ambassador Walter P. McConaughy gave President Ayub Khan an aide-memoire in confidence, which pledged that the U.S. "will come to Pakistan's assistance in the event of aggression from India against Pakistan". It was published in 1996.

It is a bit boorish to keep reminding Henry Kissinger of the despatch of U.S. Enterprise every time he comes to India; inept, too. Why not seek his explanation for his instigation to China to attack India in December 1971? He took China's representative to the U.N. Huang Hua, to a safe house, on December 10, 1971, informed him of the U.S.' despatch of an aircraft carrier, accompanied by four destroyers, a tanker and a helicopter carrier plus two destroyers and said: "The President wants you to know that... if the People's Republic were to consider the situation on the Indian subcontinent a threat to its security, the U.S. would oppose efforts of others to interfere with the People's Republic." The message was: "You attack India; if the Soviet Union intervenes under its Treaty with India, we will oppose it." Lest the meaning should be lost he said towards the end in obvious exasperation: "When I asked for this meeting, I did so to suggest Chinese military help, to be quite honest... I did it in an indirect way."

By then China had arrived at some understanding with Pakistan, which encouraged Bhutto to claim on July 17, 1963: "An attack by India on Pakistan would also involve the security and territorial integrity of the largest state in Asia."

What emerges from the diplomatic record is clear proof that the survival of Pakistan as an independent state had become a vital interest of all the Permanent-5 members; not least the Soviet Union. A balance of power would be maintained on the subcontinent. Moscow did not favour the break-up of Pakistan, and when that became inevitable, it did its best to help it save face and save west Pakistan. India and the Soviet Union differed on the objectives of their Treaty of August 9, 1971. India sought it to warn China against intervening in the war to come. The Soviets intended to use it to restrain India (Tad Szulc's report in The New York Times, August 10). David Bonavia of The Times (London) reported on the same lines.

Pakistan was not unduly alarmed, as is evident from the minutes of a meeting of its Ambassadors held in Geneva on August 24-25, 1971. The texts were published in Samar Sen's weekly Frontier (October 13, 1971). Sultan Mohammed Khan, the Foreign Secretary, who presided, mentioned a letter, which Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin wrote, on August 17, a week after the Treaty was signed, "promising Russia's continued desire to help Pakistan". Pravda and Izvestia continued to balance reports from New Delhi and Islamabad until Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's visit to Moscow, in late September. She brought about what Andrei Fontaine of Le Monde called "the Great Switch". Moscow abandoned the fence.

The Soviet Union moved, through Poland, two resolutions in the Security Council shortly before Dhaka fell. Its own two resolutions of December 6, 1971, envisaged an "immediate ceasefire" and simultaneous "action (by Pakistan) towards a political settlement in East Pakistan, giving immediate recognition to the Will of the East Pakistan population as expressed in the elections of December 1970." Poland moved its first resolution on December 14, 1971, and another the next day. They envisaged independence of Bangladesh, withdrawal of troops of both countries from its territory and from each other's in the west; and repatriation of Pakistan's personnel, civilian and military. It would have been an orderly transfer of power from Islamabad to Dhaka leaving New Delhi high and dry. Not a prisoner of war nor an inch of Pakistan's territory would have been acquired. There would have been no Simla Pact. Bhutto tore up the resolution and walked out of the Security Council. He preferred that Dhaka should fall so that he could oust Yahya Khan.

BOTH India and Pakistan have come a long way since 1971. A vastly more prosperous and powerful India faces a Pakistan on the mend from the years of instability. Both are nuclear-weapon states. India is far ahead in conventional arms and is far more admired; but Pakistan's travails and progress are not ignored. Like it or not, the hyphen will remain in some form or the other, tacitly or explicitly.

Centuries ago Francis Bacon wrote in his essay Of Empire: "For their neighbours, there can be no general rule given... save one which ever holdeth which is that princes do keep due sentinel that none of their neighbours do overgrow so... as they became more able to annoy them than they were", before. The locus classicus on the subject was written by Britain's greatest Permanent Under Secretary in the Foreign Office ever, Sir Eyre Crowe, in a memorandum on New Year's Day 1907.

"History shows that the danger threatening the independence of this or that nation has generally arisen, at least in part, out of the momentary predominance of a neighbouring state at once militarily powerful, economically efficient and ambitious to extend its frontiers or spread its influence, the danger being directly proportionate to the degree of its power and efficiency and to the spontaneity or `inevitableness' of its ambitions. The only check on the abuse of political predominance derived from such a position has always consisted in the opposition of an equally formidable rival, or of a combination of several countries forming leagues of defence. The equilibrium established by such grouping of forces is technically known as `the balance of power', and it has become almost a historical truism to identify England's secular policy with the maintenance of this balance by throwing her weight now in this scale and now in that, but ever on the side opposed to the political dictatorship of the strongest single state or group at a given time."

Britain was the "holder" of the balance; the "balancer". Neither India nor the Non-Aligned Movement could ever perform that role between the superpowers; their aspirations were based on delusions. Regionally India can. Up to a point, it can intervene not only internationally but even domestically in the affairs of at least a few of its neighbours. But its equation with Pakistan is far from what it would wish it to be. Pakistan wields a clout with the P-5, which India resents. But, it offers no alternative except periodic display of pique and resentment. India refuses to learn from the lessons of the Cold War. This book (The Cold War; The Essential Readings edited by Klaus Larres and Ann Lane; Blackwell Publishers; pages 256, $68.95 (hardback), $31.95 (paperback) is one of the finest guides available. It demonstrates in essays by acknowledged authorities the folly of seeking an unrealistic power equation, of mindless arms purchases and hugging of misperceptions that doom foreign policy to sterility.

One of them writes: "The principal gap in perceptions was the broader and deeper one between the Soviet Union and the United States and more generally between East and West. The inability to empathise with the other side or to consider the perceptions of the other side as real [even if not necessarily valid] was an important perceptual failing... . There was also a strong tendency to attribute to the other side exaggerated strength, control over events, and consistency both in purpose and in implementation of policy. What made this irony dangerous was that each side acted on its perceptions of the intentions and power of its adversary in ways that tended to make these perceptions self-fulfilling prophecies."

Encouraged by their American admirers a crop of "realists" grew up during the reign of the BJP regime. They should read H.W. Barnd's essay "Who won Cold War? 1984-1991". He writes: "Self-described `realists' in the United States could ignore the Third World carping - How many divisions did Nehru have? And contend that any illusions anyone harboured of meaningful American moral superiority were better off debunked. The Cold War, they held, like all great-power conflicts, was essentially amoral. The strong did what they wanted, the weak what they were required, and there was little of right or wrong about the matter. And it was the philosophy that, slightly disguised, informed the Jeane Kirkpatrick doctrine of support for right-wing dictators and antagonism to left-wing dictators." Morality is despised as a sign of weakness.

The famous historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr draws "Some lessons from the Cold War". As an adviser to John F. Kennedy, he should know. "In Washington by the 1950s the State Department, the Defence Department, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the National Security Council developed vested bureaucratic interests in the theory of a militarily expansionist Soviet Union. The Cold War conferred power, money, prestige, and public influence on these agencies and on the people who ran them. By the natural law of bureaucrats, their stake in the conflict steadily grew. Outside of government, arms manufacturers, politicians, professors, publicists, pontificators, and demagogues invested careers and fortunes in the Cold War." He deplores the self-righteousness that overcomes American leaders.

There is another aspect to it - the vain quest for absolute security. As Kissinger remarked - when he was a teacher - absolute security for one state is absolute insecurity for all others. We have to strive for security based on an uncertain balance that poses no danger to others. That is the nobler aim of diplomacy - establishment of an order whose legitimacy is rooted in the self-interest of all.

India, Pakistan and China must strive for precisely such an order. Resolution of disputes of old would be one part of it. The other would be an understanding on the arms balance they can all live with. The alternative to such a rapprochement is a continued bid by India and Pakistan for American favours and, with it, an unchecked rise in American power in Asia. For India this would accomplish much more than security. This High Road of good relations with all its neighbours - Bangladesh included - will add immensely to its prestige and to its legitimate claims to a seat at the high table. This is the assured, if slow, regional route to greatness. India must spurn any role as a surrogate of the U.S., as some "realists" suggest.

Read this: "As in the case of Pakistan, it all started in the spirit of the good Samaritan. Advice was proffered on fiscal policies leading to the devaluation of the Indian rupee. Elated by this success, the United States moved forward to interfere in the industrial and agricultural policies of India. The Indian government was advised to grant concessions to private entrepreneurs in order to strengthen the fabric of free enterprise. The Indian government ... capitulated... . The United States has every reason to feel satisfied with the hold it exercises over the six hundred million people of the subcontinent, where at the end of the Second World War it had no influence. India and Pakistan have already given the equivalent of the Diwani of Bengal, bestowed by the Mughal Emperor on [Robert] Clive, in order to obtain foreign economic and military assistance. It seems that neither country has learnt the lesson from that part of our inglorious past that brought about the subjugation of our people for almost two hundred years." This was written by Bhutto in 1969.

Postscript: Well after this article was written came the news on March 25 that as has been expected for a few months, the U.S. would transfer F-16s to Pakistan. The synthetic foams at some mouths in New Delhi are in good tradition. So is the U.S. decision as the holder of balance of power in South Asia.

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