For a meaningful relationship, India should not hitch its security concerns on the US bandwagon
To understand the significance of the meeting between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President George W. Bush for Indo-US relations, it is fitting to first recapitulate what has been accomplished so far since the 1998 nuclear tests when bilateral relations hit an all time low. The 14 rounds of talks between Strobe Talbott and Jaswant Singh succeeded in the US restraining India from building a minimal credible deterrence against China. By tacitly agreeing to have a minimum credible deterrence for Pakistan alone, the very need for nuclear testing was undone as India and Pakistan already had an unweaponised deterrence in place. Worse, nuclear testing led to problems. With a declared strategic parity, Pakistan has restricted India’s conventional war options. Moreover, India will now be dependent on the US for its national security vis-à-vis China. It is another matter that India refuses to publicly view China as a military threat, and the US, for reasons, does not openly accept China as a destabilising factor in Asia. However, China will do more to ensure that India remains strategically boxed in the sub-continent: Beijing will oppose tooth and nail India’s entry into the US Security Council, the nexus between China and Pakistan has strengthened, China refuses to talk nuclear issues with India as it does not accept it as a nuclear weapons state, and China will not resolve its border dispute with India before Pakistan reaches a satisfactory settlement of the Kashmir issue with India. The question is how have nuclear tests helped India?
Supporters say that as a consequence of the tests, bilateral relations between India and the US have improved tremendously. This is partially true as India was already on the US’ radar screen. The information technology revolution in India, a strong Indo-American lobby in the US, a stable democracy, and the end of the Cold War ensured that India could no longer be ignored by the world’s dominant power. It is well known that President Clinton had planned to visit India in spring of 1998, which finally happened two years later. However, what the tests did to Indo-US relations is that the focus got changed: strategic relations assumed primacy over comprehensive relations. This was more pronounced during the first term of the Bush administration. The latter lifted sanctions on India imposed after the tests, set-up the High Technology Cooperation Group, and agreed on Next Steps in Strategic Partnership (NSSP) initiative. Like its predecessor, the Bush administration sought continuous Indian strategic restraint, but unlike the previous administration, dispensed with bench-marks like the CTBT, and sought a varied strategic relationship with an added emphasis on defence relations. Things, however, have not been a smooth sail, not because the Bush administration is playing games, but because the US, as the leading world power, has its geo-political and strategic compulsions. At least three things come in the way of NSSP moving on a fast track: various international control regimes which the US must honour, complicated US export control laws which are framed and protected by the US Congress which is independent of the government, and the Major Non-Nato Ally status conferred on Pakistan by the US which ensures that Washington does nothing to upset Islamabad’s interests. Therefore, it does not help when known analysts in India lament the fact that the US sells nuclear reactors to China, but not to India. The fact is that, unlike India, China is a nuclear weapon state under the NPT, and despite its murky proliferation record, is qualified for trade in certain restrictive items with the US. It is a foregone conclusion that India will be disappointed if it expects too much from the NSSP.
For this reason, the present US ambassador to India, David C. Mulford is the right choice to move the Indo-US relationship forward. Given his background of business and finance, Mulford’s task is well cut out: to reverse the primacy of strategic relations to the comprehensive relations mode. While talking about this with FORCE, he explained how important it is to have an overall developing relationship between the two democracies. He spoke about areas as diverse as education, financial services, banking, insurance, energy and infrastructure development for more foreign direct investment. This does not imply that he desires to duck the strategic imperatives, but that he wishes to make the relationship more stable. Unfortunately, from India’s perspective, there are two problems in the US approach. One, unlike the US, all Indian companies dealing with strategic products are in the public sector, and the government, for reasons, is cagey to fulsomely involve the private industry in these areas. On the one hand, this creates an interaction mismatch between the Indian and US industries; on the other, the Indian government is under domestic pressure to show results in areas which it controls. There is thus an urge for more movement on NSSP. And two, India sees the bilateral relationship with the US as a stand-alone one, which, from the US’ perspective, it cannot be. For Washington, India is just a country, though an important one, to be integrated in its Asia-Pacific thinking. It is evident that India’s national security cannot be US’ responsibility as is the case with Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. India will do well to balance its relationship with the US while not compromising on its national security. Only after this is understood, great possibilities will open up to take the Indo-US relations forward.