Courting Uncle Sam

Published : May 26, 2001 00:00 IST

India's decision to support the United States on the National Missile Defence programme is widely seen as a hasty one that will upset the security equilibrium in South Asia and lead to an arms race.

INDIA welcoming the Bush administration's decision to go ahead with the National Missile Defence (NMD) programme was a sudden and unexpected development. Opposition parties have said that the decision goes against the national consensus on nuclear policy. The Indian reaction to the NMD surprised the international community as well. Even close allies of the United States have expressed their misgivings about the NMD which, if implemented, will unleash another arms race and weaponise outer space.

While announcing his intention to go ahead with the NMD, the U.S. President suggested that the Anti-Ballastic Missile (ABM) Treaty which was held sacrosanct by the rest of the international community, would be dumped. The effusive Indian welcome to the U.S. proposals came only a few months after External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh stated in Parliament that there is no change in the country's policy and that it stands opposed to the weaponisation of outer space.

The NDA government's hasty decision has been criticised by all major Opposition parties. Questions have been raised about the propriety of a government, which is increasingly viewed as a "lame duck" one, taking such a momentous decision. K. Natwar Singh, the Congress(I)'s foreign policy spokesman, called the decision "thoughtlessly premature and dangerously immature". He pointed out that despite the international community having grave reservations against the U.S. proposals, India alone "thought it fit to welcome the NMD".

Natwar Singh stressed that India was a leading player in the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and it was the country's duty to stay away from power blocs. India was not a "satellite state and should not be identified with any camp," he said.

According to the Bush administration, the NMD is a shield against "rogue" states such as Iran and Iraq. The U.S. categorises countries it does not like as "rogue states". Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, during his recent visit to Iran, had talked of shared strategic interests between the two countries. Diplomats from the Third World are now astounded by New Delhi's virtual volte-face.

The External Affairs Ministry has continued to insist that the response was not a hasty one. A Foreign Office spokesman claimed that the government's statement on the NMD was a "considered view welcoming" the U.S. move away "from the hair trigger alerts associated with prevailing nuclear orthodoxies". A statement from the External Affairs Ministry also said that India believed that there was a strategic and technological inevitability in stepping away from a world that was held hostage by the doctrine of mutually assured destruction (MAD).

When the rest of the world is of the opinion that the NMD would signal the start of a new Cold War, the External Affairs Ministry, in its statement, lauded the desire of the Bush administration to make a "clean break from the past," especially from "the adversarial legacy of the Cold War". The statement also claimed that NMD would lead to a "de-alert" of nuclear forces. Interestingly, President George W. Bush's statement on the NMD has no mention about the de-alerting of nuclear forces. In fact there is no mention of this anywhere in the NMD doctrine. There is also no hint of any change in nuclear doctrine by the proponents of the NMD in the U.S.

There were not too many takers for the Indian government's changed stance. Even former foreign secretaries such as J.N. Dixit and Mukchund Dubey, criticised the External Affairs Ministry's arguments. Dubey said that the government's statement was an "unqualified endorsement of the idea of missile defences". He pointed out that many people in the U.S. were themselves sceptical about the feasibility of the NMD and the rationale behind it. India, he said, had decided to jump on to the U.S. bandwagon even before the bare outlines of the NMD were in place. Similarly, Dixit expressed doubts about whether India had understood the motivations behind the U.S. plan.

Washington wants to retain perpetually its status as the only superpower. There are many people who have concluded that India, in endorsing the NMD, has taken the first step towards accepting a strategic security umbrella from the U.S. Then there is the question of the Theatre Missile Defence (TMD), which the U.S. wants to instal in East Asia. Even close allies of the U.S. such as South Korea and Japan are not overly enthused by the NMD, which is now increasingly referred to in the U.S. media as the "scarecrow defence". John Kerry, the U.S. Senator, recently said that if the NMD was not able to knock down 100 per cent of the incoming missiles, that meant the threat of total mutual annihilation had not been eliminated.

There have been noisy demonstrations against the NMD and the TMD when the U.S. President's envoys visited Tokyo and Seoul to explain the rationale behind the NMD. The Vajpayee government, on the other hand, welcomed President Bush's personal emissary, Richard Armitage, who is Assistant Secretary of State, with unusual warmth. Armitage had high-profile meetings with External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh and the Prime Minister.

There have been comments in the U.S. media that India's support to the NMD was dictated by its desire to get the sanctions imposed by the U.S. lifted. Bush administration officials have indicated that the U.S. may start lifting them selectively, in six months' time. The U.S. is throwing broad hints that if India pitches its tent in the U.S. camp, help will be forthcoming in the area of nuclear power projects.

The Communist Party of India (Marxist) has characterised the government's decision on the NMD as both "shocking and outrageous" and demanded that the Vajpayee government rethink its stand. The party said in a statement that the NMD was part of a U.S. quest for unbridled dominance in nuclear and missile weaponry which would upset existing arms control measures. It would result in a new arms race, which would have repercussions for India and the rest of South Asia, it said.

The U.S. aim is clear. While claiming that the ABM treaty is a "relic", the Bush administration is preparing world opinion in favour of tremendous financial infusions into the U.S. military-industrial complex. If the NMD progresses, it will mean that fissionable material will be put in space. The very presence of plutonium or uranium in space has the potential to jeopardise the future of humanity.

THE international reaction to the Bush plan has been noticeably chilly. Swedish Foreign Minister Anna Lindh said that the Bush administration should renounce its plan. Almost all the European governments believe that the NMD would set off a new arms race. The United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan expressed the hope that the 1972 ABM Treaty would not be abrogated and that nuclear weapons would not be deployed in outer space. London and Tokyo, close allies of Washington, were lukewarm in their responses. The newly appointed Japanese Foreign Minister did not find the time to meet U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell when he visited Japan in the first week of May.

Canadian Foreign Minister John Manley said that a unilateral decision to abrogate the ABM Treaty would create problems. German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer expressed his doubts about the feasibility of the NMD and said that his country was against isolating Russia and China.

When Vajpayee was in Malaysia in the third week of May, the Malaysian government did not hide its disappointment over India's stance on the NMD. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed reminded the Indian Prime Minister at a banquet that New Delhi was committed to a nuclear-free South-East Asia. Even Pakistan, a U.S. ally of long standing, has chosen to criticise the NMD proposals. During the Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji's recent visit to Pakistan, Gen. Pervez Musharraf said that his government was in agreement with the Chinese position on the issue. Zhu did not make any statements on India's endorsement of the NMD.

It may not be a coincidence that after George Bush announced his NMD plan, the US failed to get elected for the first time into the United Nations Human Rights Commission and the International Narcotics Control Board.

China and Russia are the two countries that have to fear the most from the Bush administration's move. Both countries have condemned the proposals. Russia's Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov was in New Delhi for high-level discussions in the first week of May. Ivanov sought a reiteration of Indian support for the ABM treaty. Russian Foreign Ministry officials have underlined the fact that India was among the first countries to support the ABM Treaty. Russia has time and again emphasised the importance of trilateral cooperation between Moscow, Beijing and New Delhi on key foreign policy issues. The Indian government reassured Moscow that it remained committed to the ABM Treaty.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson described the U.S. NMD proposals as a "fruitless step that would endanger global security". Although the NMD is claimed to be intended to protect the U.S. against missile threats from "rogue states", it is widely accepted that the programme is primarily aimed at neutralising China's relatively small nuclear capability, which includes around 18 long-range missiles. The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said that his country would not stand idly by if Washington implements its NMD plan.

China will then be left with no other option but to increase substantially its missile forces and develop counter-measures. Chinese officials say that such a development would lead to an arms race in the region, with India and Pakistan trying to keep pace with China. The Congress(I) has cautioned against India "falling into the trap of believing that it would gain from a Sino-U.S. conflict in the area".

The Indian government has tried to explain its reversal of a long-standing policy to Li Changchun, a ranking Politburo member of the Chinese Communist Party, who was on a week-long visit to India in the third week of May. In New Delhi, Li held wide-ranging talks on many issues with the External Affairs Minister and the NMD seems to have been on top of the agenda. The Indian side is said to have conveyed to the Chinese that India had no desire to be part of any U.S. game plan of containing China and that the Indian decision to endorse "parts of the Bush proposals" were based on India's basic interests, the Foreign Ministry spokesman stated.

The Indian side briefed the Chinese dignitary about the visits of Armitage and Ivanov to New Delhi. The Chinese leader did not talk publicly about the NMD but said that the "commonalities in our bilateral relations far outweigh the differences". But New Delhi's endorsement of the U.S. plan is bound to raise suspicions in Beijing about the BJP-led government's moves, coming as they do when relations between China and the U.S. are at an all-time low.

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