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June - July 2005

Political News

Condoleezza Rice in India: The Continuing Saga of Estranged Democracies

by Sashanka Sekhar Banerjee

It is not difficult to understand why US-India relationship remains lacking in warmth and occasionally prickly, despite the best of intentions to the contrary and irrespective of the end of the Cold War. The bilateral relationship continues to remain uncomfortably too accident-prone - good this moment, bad the next minute. On the one hand, they are engaged in developing and deepening a whole gamut of strategic relationships, holding hi-tech joint exercises between their defence forces and consolidating economic ties and so on, while on the other they keep teasing and provoking each other, almost gratuitously. Somebody aptly described the quarrelling non-identical twins as “estranged democracies”. The end of the cold war, it seems, has hardly changed the old mind-set. Apparently it may not change at all since these are above all dictated by divergences of perception of national interests. More to the point, both suffer from ego problems. This may explain why important ceremonial events are more often than not jinxed. The US and India need each other, which they know all too well – they are natural allies to quote former PM Vajpayee - yet unfortunately they don’t seem to care much for each other’s sensitivities perhaps unmindfully and by default.

Two examples of such a state of affairs , speak for themselves. The last time, as General Colin Powell, toured India and Pakistan, prior to laying down his office as the US Secretary of State, he used the occasion to announce that the US had decided to grant Pakistan the status of a major non-NATO ally, thus opening the doors to Islamabad for unhindered access to US military stockpile. Pakistan was being rewarded for supporting the US in its war on terror. India recognises that the US, as a sovereign nation, can do whatever it likes promoting its national security interests. What irked New Delhi however was the timing of the announcement. Powell was supposed to be on a good-will visit and this was what India got out of it ? Predictably there was a noisy outrage in India. There was always a lurking suspicion in New Delhi that, both being men in uniform, General Colin Powell and General Pervez Musharraf were good buddies and supportive of each other at the expense of India. Not hiding his feelings, the then Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee, never allowed himself the pleasure of having a personal encounter with US Secretary of State Powell.

The newly appointed Secretary of State in the second Bush Administration, Condoleezza Rice, after assuming office, took an early opportunity to pay a visit to India. Regarded as a friend of India, she was seen as the spirit behind President George W Bush’s key foreign policy document “The National Security Strategy of the USA” presented to the US Congress in 2002. It described India as a great democratic world power with which the US has common strategic interests and declared that Washington wanted to develop with New Delhi strong bilateral relations. Dr. Rice was received in New Delhi with great warmth. Lavish hospitality was extended in her honour.

Her arrival filled the Indian capital’s air with great expectations

The outcome of the important visit however turned out to be disappointing. The blame as it seemed must lie on both sides .

Indians were fondly hoping that the US Secretary of State would make a declaration in New Delhi that Washington supported India’s candidature for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council. It never happened. The subject hardly figured in any of the statements made by the US side. It touched a raw nerve with the Indians.

Condy Rice in a joint press conference with Natwar Singh, the Indian Foreign Minister, made a statement that India should consider desisting from going ahead with the oil link with Iran and advised shelving the Iran-Pakistan-India Gas Pipeline Project. She assured India that her oil and gas needs would be met by the US. In the background of US rejection of India’s case for a UNSC seat, Natwar Singh, showing open displeasure, abruptly countered her in full view of the TV cameras by saying that India’s relationship with Iran was good and negotiations with Tehran on the issue were progressing well. Judging from her uncomfortable grin, one could see that she was visibly shaken by the instant rebuff. The unfortunate thing was that it looked as if the FM was trying more to make a point with the anti-American Left Front partners whose support is crucial for the survival of the UPA Government, than taking into account the possibility of US sanctions being imposed on India if it went ahead with developing relations with Iran against US pleading. Nobody can question India’s sovereign right to decide what is best for her national interest but the kind of attitude put into public display, makes one wonder if there will ever be a genuine friendship between the two nations.

Within a little over a week after Condoleezza Rice ended her visit, US President George W Bush phoned up Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh to inform that he had ordered the lifting of the ban on the transfer of Lockheed Martin’s F-16 multi-role military jets to Pakistan imposed in 1998 following Islamabad’s nuclear tests. President Bush added a sweetner by offering to India to supply 126 of the more advanced F-18 jets for which India was looking for its Air Force. There was dismay in New Delhi because the bomb-shell came in the midst of the on-going India-Pakistan peace talks. India was apprehensive that the decision had the potential of creating a set-back to the peace process which India was determined to pursue and see it succeed.

It is true that India was in the market for some time now looking for replacing 126 of the old work-horse MIG 21s evaluating the US made F-16 along with the more advanced versions of the Russian MIG 29s, the French Mirage 2000 and a Swedish variant called Briken. The US offer to sell F-18s to India was nothing out of the blue. Apart from the need to establish a quid pro quo with Pakistan on the F-16s, a possible sale to India of F-18s would have kept Lockheed Martin’s end of line production facility of the F-16 series going for a few years more, thus saving jobs. The Indian Air Force has 26 different types of military aircraft in its inventory. Adding a new one in its front line configuration would be very expensive in terms of creating infrastructure for their operation. If India decides to phase in the F-18s to its inventory, it will be a political decision founded on the advancement of vital national interests. Who knows if the purchase of 50 Boeings for Air India – already a done deal as announced on April 26, 2005 – and the acquisition of 126 F-18s for the IAF are tied to the US agreeing to extend support to India for a permanent seat in the UNSC.

Interestingly while on one hand Condy Rice told India that Washington had not yet made any final decision on India’s candidature to the UNSC seat, she declared in Tokyo the firm support of the US to Japan’s case for a permanent seat in the UNSC. Take it as you like. Was it a snub for not playing ball or was it meant to bring pressure on India to quickly decide on the purchase of the Boeings and the F-18s. The business like deal will total between USD 12 to 15 billion. It is something the US cannot be expected to allow slipping through its fingers. Boeings are now out of the way. F-18s should hopefully clinch the UN deal for India with the US.

US support for Japan for an UNSC seat opens up a broader question of what will happen to the evolving strategic alliances in Asia. The Japan-China spat over a ) the WW2 atrocities on the Chinese people by the Imperial Japanese Army for which Tokyo is not prepared to readily apologise substantively and pay compensation and b ) Japan starting drilling around the Senkaku group of Islands in the East China Sea for oil and gas claimed by both the nations as their very own territorial waters, between them have driven an unbridgeable wedge. China is now opposed to Japan’s membership of the UNSC and will go to the extent of exercising veto against Japan’s entry. As the US and Japan re-vamp and strengthen their traditional military ties, it is looking as if Japan may be getting ready to serve an identical role, more than before, in Asia as Britain is playing in Europe – both are island nations cut off from the mainland of their respective continents and are solidly supportive of Washington. South Korea may join in to make the alliance a triangular alliance. India does not yet figure as a partner in this configuration. There are so many things to sort out before India is taken on board.

On the other hand, India is already searching for a strategic space of its own in Asia. The proposed Grand Asian Alliance between Russia, China and India has attracted the attentions of New Delhi and talks are underway. But China has not given any categorical commitment to India so far except that it will be pleased to see India playing a bigger role in world affairs. Russia has extended its support to India which may pave the way for China to follow in time. If the US and India decide to partner with Japan and South Korea, China may drop India and support Pakistan. It is tangled network working at cross purposes and extremely sensitive to handle.

In the midst of all these complications, there is one big problem. India may fall a prey to the old line of thinking that it is best to keep away from both sides of the big power rivalry and remain non-aligned, positioning itself as the third force in the strategic configuration of Asia. India’s unwillingness to take sides may delay the reform process of the UN for a long time to come. The biggest loser will be India, should this come to pass.

The author is a political analyst and commentator

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