New Delhi comes in from the cold

Posted in India | 23-Jul-05 | Author: George Friedman| Source: Straits Times (Singapore)

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (left) listens as US President George W. Bush (R) speaks at a joint press conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington D.C.

INDIAN Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was in Washington and addressed a joint session of Congress. Most visiting heads of government do not get that privilege, but Dr Singh is no ordinary leader.

The Indo-American relationship is emerging as one of the foundations of the global system. For the United States, India - particularly since Sept 11 - has come to represent a strategic partner in the US-jihadist war: By its very existence as a US ally, it serves to keep the pressure for cooperation very high on rival Pakistan. For India, the US has come to represent an alternative to its former relationship with the Soviet Union, which helped to guarantee New Delhi's regional interests. Thus, Dr Singh's visit, while dealing with the normal minutiae of international relations, represents confirmation that something of fundamental importance has happened.

Unlike many summits, this particular one has had the look, feel and substance of a significant event. Foreign leaders do not usually get to address Congress. The entire tone of the meetings implied a significant turning point. But in this case, the concrete agreements were as important as the symbolism: Significant deals were signed.

The most publicly significant was a deal giving the Indians access to US nuclear technology for civilian uses. India became a nuclear power in 1974, against strong US opposition. The decision to give India nuclear technology - even for civilian uses - marks a sea change in US thinking about India's nuclear capability. To be more precise, it marks the culmination of a sea change.

Washington used a series of severe, near-nuclear crises between India and Pakistan after the Sept 11 attacks to leverage Islamabad towards greater cooperation with the US. It was clear then that the US was changing its view of India on the fly. This new deal is a public affirmation that the US regards India's nuclear capabilities as non-threatening to American interests and, indeed, as a potential asset.

In agreeing to increase India's nuclear technology base, albeit only for civilian uses and under international supervision, the US is affirming that a special relationship exists with India.

At the same time that this public agreement was being reached, official leaks from the Pentagon said that India would begin purchasing up to US$5 billion (S$8.4 billion) worth of conventional weapons, once Congress approves the deal. This requires an act of Congress because current law on non-proliferation bars the sale of a wide array of military technology to countries that have acquired nuclear weapons - focusing specifically on any technology that might be useful to a nuclear weapons programme. Should Congress approve the Bill, it would place India in a position similar to that of Israel (save that Israel does not acknowledge publicly that it has nuclear weapons).

The things being sold to India are also interesting. For example, it will be allowed to purchase Aegis technology, which is designed to protect naval vessels - and battle groups - from antiship missiles. So far, only Japan has acquired the technology, partly because of its cost. New Delhi will also be able to purchase anti-submarine patrol aircraft. The US, which until a few years ago regarded the Indian naval build-up - based on Soviet technology - as a threat to US control of sea lanes in the Indian Ocean, has now reversed its posture. It is selling New Delhi naval technology that will allow the Indians to control regional sea lanes. The US would not be providing this technology without having achieved a far-reaching strategic accord with New Delhi.

This has the Pakistanis worried. Islamabad clearly understands that its status as Washington's ally in the US-jihadist war will go only so far in terms of duration and dividends for Pakistan. In other words, while India gets a long-term strategic relationship with the US, Pakistan's relationship is viewed as short-term and tactical.

To understand the major shift taking place between Washington and New Delhi, it is important to understand the geopolitical context that created it. Almost from the beginning, there were tensions between the US and India. India's formal position was non-alignment between the Soviet Union and the US. It was one of the founders and leaders of the Non-Aligned Movement. Apart from its formal position, India had fundamental problems with the geopolitical stance of the US, which during the Cold War was heavily focused on developing Muslim allies.

The primary interest of the US was the containment of the Soviet Union. This inevitably caused Washington to focus on two predominantly Muslim countries that bordered the Soviet Union: Turkey and Iran. American strategy could not work if either of these nations were not allied with the US, and Washington did everything it could to assure their alignment, including engineering a coup in Iran in 1953.

The focus on Muslim countries extended beyond these two. The Americans did not want their rear and flanks turned by the Soviets; the US and Britain, therefore, focused on both Syria and Iraq, as well as on the Arabian Peninsula. Recall that during the 1950s, the US had rather cool relations with Israel; it was pursuing a pro-Muslim strategy out of political necessity.

The Indians then were the ones with a Muslim problem: The partition of India into Muslim and Hindu-majority nations had created Pakistan, which represented India's primary national security concern. As the crow flies, the Pakistani border is only a couple of hundred kilometres from Delhi and Mumbai.

As the US was pursuing the Muslim world, the Indians saw themselves as threatened by the Muslim world. US and Indian interests, already strained by ideology, diverged fundamentally. India needed a counterweight to the US and found it in the Soviet Union. Though it never became Communist, India became an ally of the Soviets. The Indians built their armed forces on a foundation of Soviet technology and their highly bureaucratised economy found some commonality with the Soviets.

However, from a purely strategic point of view, the Indo-Soviet relationship did not mean all that much. India was never the military counterweight to China that the Soviets needed - not because its forces could not challenge the Chinese, but because geography prevented the two forces from coming to grips with each other. India's isolation limited the significance of its alliance. India, therefore, became marginal to the international system. Its major point of contact was with Pakistan, with which it had fought a series of wars - major ones in 1948, 1965 and 1971 - had serious territorial issues and deep distrust. Pakistan was supported by the US and China, the two anti-Soviet powers in the 1970s and 1980s. This was partly due to India's relationship with the Soviets and partly due to US interests in the Islamic world.

Marginalisation is the key concept to understanding India's position in the world prior to 2001. Geography prevented it from having substantial interaction with the great powers. Its point of contact, Pakistan, was of some, but not decisive, importance. Before becoming a nuclear power, India had only one recourse: naval power. But its economy would not support a fullblooded fleet-building programme. Its strength was in its army, but that army could not be projected anywhere.

Its economy was also marginalised. Built on a socialist model that took the worst from Soviet planning and Western markets, the Indian economy isolated itself by severely limiting outside investment. Its infrastructure did not develop and, while several key industries - pharmaceuticals and electronics - emerged, this never created the fabric of what might be called a national economy. India was a huge, fragmented country, on the margins of the international system. Its friendship with the Soviets and its enmity with the US were tepid on all sides.

Then came the Sept 11 strikes, and the US relationship with the Islamic world was transformed almost overnight. Suddenly, Pakistan became a critical piece of the US' long-term war plan. India, therefore, became an extremely valuable asset. The Indians understood two things. First, that as marginalised as they had been in the Cold War, they had become irrelevant to the international system in the post-Cold War period. Second, they understood that the USjihadist war could become its entry into the broader international system.

US-Indian collaboration began intensely shortly after Sept 11. Part of it consisted of a mutual interest in manipulating Pakistan; part of it had broader implications.

As the US began to view the Muslim world as an unreliable and threatening entity, it started to see India in the same light as Israel. It was a potentially powerful ally that, in spite of its hostility to the Islamic world, or perhaps because of it, could be extremely useful. Long, complex negotiations ensued, leading up this week's summit in Washington. The 'terms of endearment' were defined. A range of issues on which the two sides could collaborate emerged.

A not-so-hidden issue at the summit was China. Sino-US relations are deteriorating fairly rapidly. There was much speculation about India being an Asian counterweight to China. We have no idea what this means, since geographically China and India occupy two very different Asias. The US does not need a nuclear counterweight to China, and China is very far from becoming a major naval power capable of projecting force outside its regional waters, fighting and winning battles. The nuclear technology agreement that Dr Singh obtained in Washington increases the likelihood that China is not going to project force west of Singapore. On the other hand, it was never likely to do so.

But there is another dimension to this. For a generation, China has been the place where hot money in search of high returns was destined. It was where the action was. It is no longer that place. But India could well be. If one thinks of China in 1980, the notion that its bureaucracy, lack of infrastructure and a culture antithetical to rapid development would yield the economic powerhouse of 2000 would have been unthinkable.

India is in China's position of 1980. It has a mind-boggling bureaucracy, poor infrastructure and a culture antithetical to rapid development. At the same time, it has the basic materials that China built on. As the Sino-US relationship deteriorates, India can be a counterweight to China - not in a military sense, but in an economic sense. If the US has an economic alternative to China for investment, Washington develops leverage in its talks with Beijing on a host of issues.

Another factor underscoring the significance of the shift in Indo-US relations is New Delhi's relationship with Teheran. India's relations with Iran have always been a serious point of contention and concern for the US. But due to the situation in Iraq, tensions with India over this issue are declining. The US and Iran are developing parallel interests at the moment, each with their own reasons to work together to ensure the success of the fledgling Shi'itedominated government in Baghdad.

The Indo-American relationship did not develop out of the subjective goodwill of the leaders. The Sept 11 attacks created a dynamic that could not be resisted, and that created a reality that the Bush-Singh summit confirmed. It does not transform the world, but it changes it fundamentally. India will come out of this a very different country, and the US will look at the Indian Ocean Basin in a very different way.