A balancing effort

Published : Apr 09, 2004 00:00 IST

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell visited the subcontinent to consolidate India-U.S. relations, reassure the government in Islamabad, and give a push to the India-Pakistan peace process, among other things. Did the mission make the expected headway?

THE visit of the United States Secretary of State Colin Powell to New Delhi, Kabul and Islamabad in the third week of March coincided with large-scale military operations against Islamic militants along the Afghanistan border. A top priority of the Bush administration is to get Osama bin Laden dead or alive before the U.S. presidential election, to be held at the end of the year. The Powell visit also came at a time when the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government was reduced to a lame duck, with the general elections just around the corner. Since the events of September 11, 2001, the Bush administration has given a lot of importance to the South Asian region. Another avowed priority of the administration has been the prevention of nuclear and missile proliferation from the region. The visit was aimed also at further consolidating India-U.S. relations, while ensuring that the ties with America's closest ally in the region,Pakistan, remained on an even keel.

As Powell left Washington for South Asia, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had reported to the President that the Khan Research Laboratories in Pakistan had provided North Korea with all the equipment and technology required to produce uranium-based nuclear weapons. The Bush administration so far has taken a rather lenient view of the proliferation activities of the Pakistani establishment, focussed as it is on the anti-terrorism drive in Pakistan and Afghanistan. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief Mohammed el-Baradei described Pakistan as the "Wal-Mart" (the name of the leading American supermarket chain) for clandestine nuclear weapons shopping.

The U.S. seems to have chosen to be soft with Pakistan for the time being, especially when both the countries are engaged in efforts to weed out the Taliban and Al Qaeda from the region. The Pakistan Army has deployed more than 70,000 of its troops along the border with Afghanistan. Serious clashes have been reported involving Pakistani troops and angry tribesmen, many of whom resent the military presence in their autonomous areas. Powell said in New Delhi that he was pleased that Pakistan had strengthened its military operations in the frontier areas near Afghanistan.

Powell's visit to New Delhi was also aimed at keeping the latest dialogue process between India and Pakistan on track. A few days before the visit, there was a diplomatic flutter after Pakistan President Gen. Pervez Musharraf once again stressed on the centrality of the Kashmir issue in an address to an Indian media conclave. Musharraf emphasised that those fighting in Kashmir were freedom fighters, not terrorists. He said that until India paid serious attention to the Kashmir issue, there would be no progress on the other issues.

External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha reacted strongly to Musharraf's statements. Indian officials are of the view that Musharraf's comments would encourage militants from across the Line of Control (LoC) to resume terrorist activities once the snow started melting with the onset of summer. India had also expressed its concerns about the nuclear proliferation from Pakistan. India takes pride in the fact that it has strictly adhered to its pledge not to profit from its expertise in nuclear and missile technologies. India wants the Bush administration to appreciate its good behaviour and has expressed surprise at the latter's reluctance to punish the Pakistani government for its clandestine proliferation activities.

India-U.S. relations have been exceptionally warm in recent years. The U.S. was initially unhappy with India's decision to back out from despatching troops to Iraq. The issue is currently on the back burner and the armies of the two countries have since been holding joint military exercises regularly. The last joint exercise between the air forces of the two countries was held in February this year in India. Powell said in New Delhi that he wanted to put in place a "Next Steps in Strategic Partnership" with India, which would include expanded bilateral cooperation in civilian nuclear activities, civilian space programmes and trade in high technology. However, severe U.S. restrictions are still in force on the transfer of dual-use technologies to India,They were imposed following India's first nuclear test in 1974.

During his brief stay in New Delhi, Powell met key Indian leaders and officials, including Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha, Finance Minister Jaswant Singh and National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra. Powell said that wide-ranging talks on issues of mutual interest were held and that they were essentially bilateral in nature. Powell, observed that the infiltration from across the Line of Control (LoC) had come down substantially. He expressed the hope that the infiltration would be stopped permanently. He said: "I think that it is important that this kind of activity should not be only something for the winter season, it really has to be of a more permanent nature in order for us to see the kind of progress that we are hoping for."

Powell seemed to support the Indian stance that there was no single pre-eminent issue standing between India and Pakistan. He pointed out that there are "eight baskets" in the composite dialogue agreed upon by the two countries. He was all praise for the progress both countries have made in the last couple of months in the quest for peace in the region. He expressed the hope that "the spirit of cricket that we have seen in the last few days affects the whole comprehensive dialogue process between the two countries".

On the issue of proliferation, Powell said that the U.S. would not rest until the entire clandestine nuclear network in Pakistan was dismantled, adding that the Bush administration would make sure that "no residual element of the network is left". The U.S. Secretary of State said that Musharraf was "as determined as we are" to put an end to the spread of nuclear technology. Powell also allayed Indian fears about Pakistan getting new F-16 fighter jets by stating that the planes did not figure in the recent aid package for Islamabad announced by President Bush.

Economic issues, especially those pertaining to "outsourcing of jobs" from the U.S. to India, figured in the talks. Powell, while admitting that the "outsourcing" had led to the loss of some jobs in the U.S. and conceding that it had the potential to become a political problem, said that outsourcing had become a "fact of life" in the 21st century. He said that Americans would accept "outsourcing" of jobs readily if "India helps generate more American jobs by supporting trade liberalisation in the World Trade Organisation and further opening up its markets to U.S. exports". Powell told the media that there was scope for a much larger increase in trade between the two countries. U.S. officials have made no secret of their desire for a further lowering of trade barriers between the two countries.

Powell pointed out that bilateral trade increased by more than 20 per cent during 2003. He made a pitch for the further opening up of the Indian economy and the removal of what was described as "bureaucratic impediments". "India is going to become a major trading partner and we should do everything to encourage that kind of progress and growth. It benefits both peoples. But we should work through some reform issues having to do with the ability of Americans to have more direct investment in Indian activities. Should India be doing more with respect to privatisation?," Powell was quoted as saying, in an interview to Doordarshan.

Indian officials had initially said that there was no pressure from the American side to sign the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI). However, Powell told the media in New Delhi that he wished that India joined the PSI. The Washington-led initiative is aimed at interdicting "suspect" weapons of mass destruction being exported to countries that the Bush administration has characterised as "terrorist". Powell said that he "had a good discussion" on the issue with Yashwant Sinha. Powell disclosed that the U.S. would "increase the dialogue" with India to try and convince New Delhi to be on board the PSI. As of now, only 11 countries, all part of the Western military alliance, have signed the PSI. The international community, as evident from the opinions expressed at the United Nations (U.N.), is by and large against this new initiative, which is against the principles enshrined in the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Seas. India has traditionally enjoyed good relations with many countries that figure in the Bush administration's list of countries allegedly sponsoring terrorism.

THE Indian government gave the impression that it was caught off-guard by Powell's announcement in Islamabad that the U.S. would be granting Pakistan the status of "a major non-Nato" ally. This status has been accorded by Washington to only a few nations that have been doing its bidding in international affairs. Pakistan now joins the ranks of countries like Israel, Egypt and Japan. This gesture by the Bush administration theoretically allows Pakistan to have access to advanced military technology and weapons for the first time since 1990. Observers of the South Asian scene feel that it is now only a matter of time before the long-pending Pakistani request for the F-16 fighter planes is acceded to by the Bush administration.

Washington's move is also being viewed as an attempt to assuage the fear of the Pakistani establishment of being discarded once its utility as an ally in the war against terror is over, as had happened in the early 1990s, after the Soviet troops left Afghanistan. The all-out support being extended by Musharraf to the Bush administration's military onslaught against the Taliban and the Al Qaeda is extremely unpopular in Pakistan. If the American government follows up the announcement with concrete gestures such as the supply of F-16s, the Pakistan government can point to some tangible strategic gains. As a major non-NATO ally, Pakistan will be eligible for "priority delivery" of defence supplies from the U.S. Powell, during his visit to Islamabad, also held out the promise that Washington would review the travel and visa restrictions with regard to Pakistan.

Some sections of the BJP-led government that are keen to jump on the American bandwagon seem to be rattled by the new development. However, the Indian Foreign Office, since the last year, has been busy trying to build close strategic ties with the E.U. and Russia. The G-3 initiative involving New Delhi, Pretoria and Brasilia is also aimed at countering American global hegemonism.

For Pakistan, being designated a non-NATO ally of the U.S. will have great symbolic value. But for all practical purposes Pakistan has been one of the closest allies of Washington since the early 1950s, having been part of American military groupings such as the South East Asian Treaty Organisation (SEATO) and and the Central Treaty Organisation (CENTO).

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