India can be America's best friend

Posted in India | 01-Jul-05 | Author: Brahma Chellaney| Source: International Herald Tribune

NEW DELHI At a time when anti-Americanism has spread across the globe, a new poll shows that more people in India have a positive view of the United States than in any other nation surveyed. The poll, conducted by the Pew Global Attitudes Project, raises a larger question: How long will it be before the courtship between India and the United States leads to a strategic partnership?

Despite a congruence of vital national interests and a shared political goal to build a long-term strategic relationship, the United States has yet to forge a true partnership with India.

To be sure, there have been important shifts in U.S. thinking, largely on account of India's rising geopolitical importance, its abundant market opportunities and its role in ensuring power equilibrium in Asia.

The United States and India are discussing cooperation on missile defense, nuclear energy, space and high technology. The two have also opened a quiet dialogue on India's largest neighbor, China, whose rise is likely to pose the single biggest challenge to world security in the years to come.

U.S. public pronouncements on India, however, have yet to progress from statements of good intent to tangible policy changes. And it is not clear whether President George W. Bush - weighed down by Iraq and domestic policy discords - can give sufficient priority to India to help mold a dramatic new turn in bilateral relations.

If Washington really wants to "help India become a major world power in the 21st century," as a background briefing in Washington stated the very day Bush made public his controversial decision to sell F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan, it should be willing to demonstrate that this is not just an attempt to mollify India over the rearming of Pakistan.

At the global level, the United States can easily translate such commitment into action by bringing India (and China) into the G-8 and by supporting India's inclusion as a permanent member of the UN Security Council.

For a strategic partnership to emerge, Washington and New Delhi need to resolve their differences on two key issues - stringent technology controls against India, many dating back to the 1970s when India conducted its first nuclear test, and Bush's coddling of the military-mullah complex that runs Pakistan.

The supply of major combat systems and multibillion-dollar aid encourages Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf not to dismantle the terror infrastructure that his military maintains against India.

The F-16 decision comes on top of the action to arm Islamabad with the P-3C Orion maritime reconnaissance aircraft, TOW anti-tank missiles and Phalanx defense systems - all hardware that can be used against India.

Although the United States has come to accept India as a de facto nuclear-weapons state, the bilateral process to find ways to ease the U.S. technology-export restrictions has become a slow, drawn-out affair involving bureaucratic haggle.

If the White House were to order a liberal interpretation of existing U.S. laws and guidelines, it would throw open for export to India many high-tech items currently barred.

During the Cold War, America relaxed tough national laws when it suited its strategic interests.

A number of influential Americans have suggested important policy changes relating to India, including an end to technology controls; broad, long-term space collaboration; the sale of commercial nuclear-power reactors, and India's assimilation into the nonproliferation regime as a friendly nuclear-weapons state.

The next three weeks of senior-level bilateral meetings leading up to the Indian prime minister's meeting with Bush at the White House on July 18 may determine whether the U.S.-Indian relationship will continue to progress incrementally or be dramatically transformed as a durable strategic partnership.

The Indian defense minister's talks in Washington this week, for example, could decide whether the United States will become a reliable long-term supplier of advanced weaponry to one of the world's largest buyers of arms.

At issue is whether India will emerge as an independent power or as a U.S. strategic ally. The choice will profoundly shape Asian and international geopolitics.

(Brahma Chellaney is a professor of strategic studies at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi.)