India welcomed as new sort of superpower

Posted in India | 21-Jul-05 | Author: Anand Giridharadas| Source: International Herald Tribune

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (left) and US President George W. Bush.
MUMBAI, India The visit to Washington this week by India's prime minister, Manmohan Singh, symbolizes a change in the fraught but inextricable relationship between the world's two largest democracies: an unrivaled superpower and an aspiring one.

For decades, it has been a dalliance of love and hate. Indians have craved American visas, denim, movies and music. But the two countries were "estranged democracies" in the past, as Singh said recently. Previously, the Cold War had led to chilled relations, with Washington backing Pakistan and the Soviet Union backing India.

This week, in a joint statement issued by the two countries, President George W. Bush called India a "responsible" nuclear country. He also recommended a deal that would allow India to buy fuel and parts for civilian nuclear reactors if it opened its nuclear sites to inspection.

The proposal is expected to come under fire from those reluctant to reward a country formerly known as a renegade nuclear power. But the Bush administration has gotten a "fairly positive" response from allies and congressional leaders for the proposal, an official said.

Regardless of how soon uranium will flow to this country of one billion, Singh's visit may signify America's welcoming of a new type of superpower - militarily potent, economically dynamic, regionally assertive, independently minded but still nonthreatening to the United States. Call it superpower lite.

Singh, a bookish former scholar with a sky-blue turban and hushed voice, manages to achieve a combination of humility and assertiveness.

India's image is starkly different from that of China, the other fast-developing country, which is seen as a menacing rival, especially after President Hu Jintao said it would become a "world power second to none."

Compared with the United States' relationship with China, there seems to be less conflict with India, despite India's efforts to project its economic, diplomatic and military influence more assertively - including in ways that contravene U.S. desires.

It raises the question of whether India, which has jealously lagged behind China economically, will have a long-term advantage because it can be a world power without being a threat.

The Bush administration earlier this year said that it was the United States' official policy "to help India become a major power in the 21st century." It is a startling contrast to the harsher vocabulary used in Chinese-U.S. dialogue.

Standing beside Bush at a White House media briefing, Singh struck a decidedly humble note.

"The support and good will of the friendly people of the United States in managing the transition from a developing country to a fast-expanding economy is something we greatly welcome and greatly appreciate," he said.

The agreement could have important consequences for India's power balance with Pakistan. Since 1998, when India and Pakistan conducted nuclear tests, the region has lived under fear of nuclear conflict between the two nations, which were partitioned in 1947 when British colonists left the subcontinent.

In the patois of regional politics, the Washington deal "de-hyphenates" India and Pakistan, giving New Delhi a different relationship to Washington - as a power in its own right, not a weight to be balanced against Pakistan's. Though Pakistan is believed to seek a nuclear status similar to India's, analysts describe that prospect as highly unlikely.

Pakistan, which has acknowledged that one of its chief scientists has shared nuclear technology with Iran and other countries, had no official reaction to the agreement. But Nicholas Burns, under secretary of state for political affairs, told The New York Times that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had spoken to President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan. Burns described Musharraf's reaction as "constructive" and "not overly problematic."

Bush made a surprise decision to propose lifting what some Indians have termed "nuclear apartheid" - a prohibition that has stopped other countries from selling fuel or parts for civilian nuclear reactors to India. India's nuclear program has been labeled as renegade since it first tested nuclear weapons in 1974 and refused to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which has 187 signatories.

The deal, if backed by the U.S. Congress and other nuclear states, would help satisfy India's demand for energy, which exceeds supply by 11 percent.

There is also symbolic importance in Bush's comments in the joint statement that India is a "responsible state with advanced nuclear technology" that "should acquire the same benefits and advantages other such states."

The deal would usher India into the inner sanctum occupied by other "responsible" nuclear states like the United States, Britain, France, China and Russia - the permanent members of the Security Council. In a speech to Congress, Singh asked U.S. lawmakers to back India for a permanent seat.

"You would agree that the voice of the world's largest democracy surely cannot be left unheard on the Security Council," he said.

While Washington is cool to such an idea, Bush's overture reflects the peculiar kind of nuclear power that India represents. It forswears first use of nuclear weapons - as does China, in fairness, but in contrast to Pakistan. It lives by a self-imposed moratorium on new testing. It has strenuously argued for the phased abolition of nuclear weapons.

Yet India is no geopolitical shrinking violet. It is pushing its influence in Asia with trade agreements, direct investment, military exercises, aid funds, energy cooperation and new infrastructure. Its circle of friendships spans from Iran to Japan and includes emerging ties with countries like Tajikistan, Thailand, Myanmar and Vietnam.

India has also irked the Bush administration by negotiating a multibillion-dollar deal to buy natural gas from Iran, which Washington is seeking to isolate over alleged nuclear proliferation.

India's military is also retooling to project force more expansively. The navy is said to be leasing nuclear submarines and has announced plans to become the first developing country to build an aircraft carrier - a $662 million vessel that, were it afloat today, would be the largest from any country outside of Europe and the Americas, officials and analysts say.

Yet these developments do not seem to worry U.S. officials. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has compared India with China explicitly. "We anticipate that the relationship with India will continue to be strengthened," he said in June. "With respect to China, it's not completely clear which way they are going."

The transparent, manageable ascendance of this superpower lite puts India in an unusual position and has sparked confusion in India: Has Singh won a victory for India's standing, or will India be a U.S. satellite?

The Hindustan Times, a national newspaper, said that the nuclear agreement this week was "a historic bargain which could transform the global balance of power in as significant a manner as Richard Nixon's opening to China." It said the deal recognized India as a "thriving Asian nation that possesses sufficient gravitational force to keep the balance of power stable."

But Bharat Karnad, a defense analyst at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, argued in a newspaper article just before the agreement that India's unthreatening posture symbolizes its submission to the United States.

"A deep-rooted mother vein of servility mixed with complacency prevail in New Delhi," he wrote in The Asian Age, another national daily. He bemoaned the "easy option of riding another state's coattails" and projected that "India will continue to be what it has always been, a big little country bobbing along like cork in water - all buoyancy and drift, and no substance."

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