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Indo-US Ties: Why the Flak?

Manmohan Singh’s recent visit to the US has come in for criticism from both hawks and doves, most of it undeserved. The relationships t...

Manmohan Singh’s recent visit to the US has come in for criticism from both hawks and doves, most of it undeserved. The relationships that he set up will serve to strengthen India’s interests at both national and civic levels. While they give substance to the partnership that was launched by the NDA government, they have broadened its parameters and shifted its emphasis, from being centered on defence to including development, democracy and peacemaking.

The Right’s criticism, unfortunately echoed by Mr Vajpayee, focuses on the one deal that it would have liked to make — regarding India’s nuclear status. The issue of civilian nuclear technology has been obscured by this hue and cry, but it is more important. Civilian nuclear technology is a key element for a diversified energy portfolio. With the competition for energy resources set to increase, our best hope for growth is to access as many sources as possible. Civilian nuclear energy technologies — which US waivers will allow other countries such as Canada and France to provide us with as well — will enable us to make the dream of rural infrastructure development a possibility.

Nor do the Manmohan-Bush agreements alter our energy options with Iran. India and Pakistan were always going to be under US pressure on the pipeline, especially after the Iranian elections. In fact, it looked as if Pakistan would be the weak link. Now the India-US agreements have widened our room for maneuvre. We might find larger and cheaper energy sources than Iran through the US — or we might find Iran has better to offer. It is up to us.

The Left’s criticisms are more serious than the Right’s. But several of them are as misplaced. First of all, there is little danger of India becoming a US dependency when it comes to our international relations. On the contrary, the accusation reveals a puzzling sense of inferiority. If our Prime Minister can voice his pleasure in cooperating with the US and his opposition to the Iraq war at the same time, then what is all this fear-baiting about? (Apropos, I suppose that if we can’t talk about the British building railways, we can’t talk about the Mughals building roads?). Comparisons with Germany or Japan — the former was more vociferous in its criticism of the Iraq war than India, and both countries wield more global power independently of the US than India does — are historically false. Germany and Japan were, for obvious reasons, most closely aligned to the US when under its occupation; but both countries also feared that early ‘‘independence’’ from the US might plunge them back into fascism.

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These are not situations that India is likely to find itself in. India is today developing a range of bilateral and multilateral relations, especially at the institutional level, which will surely protect against domination by any one. Most countries that have done well in recent times — and both China and South-East Asia are examples — have done so at least partly because of the range of international and regional relations they have created.

The trouble with these criticisms is that they preempt serious discussion of what we can and cannot do with the US. I hear some of our analysts say, in hushed tones, that we most prevent the US from using India as a counterweight to China. Excuse me? Up until recently, China used Pakistan as a counterweight against India; this attitude only changed when the US-India rapprochement began. The US, moreover, is far more closely tied to China than to India, and talk of counter-weights is merely muscle-flexing between the two giants that we would do well to ignore.

Some of the results of India-US cooperation are already plain to see. Pakistan would not have come so far as it has in reducing support for terrorist attacks on India without US pressure, and though this is not far enough it is still a long way further than they were earlier willing to go.

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Other results are fairly easy to predict. Joint exercises and military co-production will help India’s army modernise, which it sorely needs. Missile defence, on the other hand, appears to be wasteful expenditure. It is still in the R&D phase, and we surely don’t have the money to spend on as yet unproven technology?

Sadly, the areas of potential cooperation that are the most disinterested are the ones that have been most misrepresented. We tend to view US peacemaking as a misnomer for war-making as in Afghanistan or Iraq; and US democracy-building as neo-imperialism. But the US has also shown considerable capacity for ending wars, especially in Europe; and in the post-Cold War world there is new US interest in conflict prevention through strengthening regional peacekeeping organizations, for example in Africa.

The African Union (AU) has begun to take on peacemaking tasks that they could not and would not a decade ago, largely because of chivvying by the US, UN and Europe. This is another step towards African ‘‘sovereignty’’, a cause that has long been dear to us. Our governments have helped many African countries to independence in the immediate aftermath of empire. Why would the Left object to India and the US cooperating, most likely with the G-8 countries, to train African peacekeepers? If the AU is ready to take the initiative, why demand that it be the UN alone?

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Cooperating with the US to strengthen vulnerable or emerging democracies is more questionable. The US’ track record in this area is poor (as, for that matter, is ours). On the other hand, the London bombings underline the need for democracies to support each other, and to work together to ensure that they do not trample on civil or human rights in their quest for security. Whether these two goals can be achieved together is an issue that we could engage the US on.

Closer to home, the benefits of US cooperation in supporting democracy are undeniable. The restoration of democracy in Nepal is a priority; more democracy in Pakistan and Bangladesh would help too. The question is — can we work out a sustainable policy with the US on South Asian democracy, and keep the Europeans and China on board?

These are the real issues for debate, not whether Uncle Sam’s embrace will be a bear hug. By most unbiased standards, the PM’s visit was a triumph, but our politicians seem bent on denying the country its benefits. How absurd is that?

The writer is a trustee of the Delhi Policy Group and Visiting Professor at Jamia Millia University

First published on: 28-07-2005 at 00:42 IST
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