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Political News

US President George W Bush’s India Visit: A Defining Moment

by Sashanka Sekhar Banerjee


President George W Bush, delivering his State of the Union message in January 2006 warned his fellow countrymen to beware of India and China, which were emerging as “ new competitors ” in a dynamic world economy. This was the first time ever that a reference about India was made in the State of the Union by a US President. Bush laid down his agenda for reinforcing the US and retaining its primacy in the world. The way to meet these challenges, he said, was not to escape competition but to kindle America’s inventive spirit with better education and breakthrough technologies. Interestingly, India too has adopted similar policies to achieve enhanced competitiveness of its economy to remain relevant in the international market place.

Shortly after delivering the State of the Union, in the background of his impending visits to India and Pakistan, President Bush delivered a speech at the Asia Society in New York on February 22, 2006 where he outlined the contours of the US relationship with the two countries of the sub-continent. Curiously he sounded somewhat different both in tone and content from his recent speeches in regard to India. What he omitted saying about the US-India bilaterals were no less important than what he actually said on the subject. The speech nearly killed the euphoria that followed Nicholas Burns, the Political Under Secretary’s statement made on October 18, 2005.

Bush’s Asia Society speech gave no hint that India would get the much sought after “nuclear power status” which the Manmohan Singh Administration had been claiming would be the case since his joint statement with George W Bush of July 18, 2005. The US President made it clear that under his Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, the US would work with nations that have advanced civilian nuclear programmes such as Russia, Britain, France and Japan adding that these countries would share nuclear fuel with “countries like India that are developing civilian nuclear energy programmes”. The supplier nations will collect the spent fuels and invest in new methods to reprocess them so that these could be used for advanced new reactors. These strategies would allow “countries like India” to produce more electricity from nuclear power and rely less on fossil fuels. To achieve this objective, India would have to open its civilian nuclear programme to international safeguards like any other country developing nuclear power programmes. The President went on to say that his administration expected India to produce a credible, transparent and defensible plan to separate civilian from military nuclear programmes.

Bush’s speech could not have been more unhappily worded, particularly seen in the context of his forthcoming India visit.

Such intrusive conditionalities by Washington were noted with deep suspicion and received with great indignation by India’s scientific community at the senior most level, proud of their achievements in developing high quality research in nuclear science. They made their view public in no uncertain terms embarrassing the Government. US demands on opening India’s nuclear establishments to international inspectors were seen as offensive and insulting to the nation’s pride and prestige. India has come a long way from the punishing technology denial regimes imposed by the US post-Pokhran 1 nuclear tests of 1974 and further tightened following the subsequent Pokhran 2 nuclear tests of 1998. The most vociferous objection was against exposing India’s very own advanced Fast Breeder Reactors to international inspectors.

New Delhi has reportedly established a minimum nuclear deterrence against Pakistan but such an equation has not yet been quite achieved against China. Therefore any attempt by the US to put a cap on India’s endeavours in this direction was unacceptable to India. It was a question of the nation’s ultimate security. If the US is apprehensive that any future development of ICBMs by India would pose a threat to the US security, India’s scientific community found such fears amusing, given that both the nations share common secular democratic values and claim that they are natural partners.

Also, President Bush’s dash to Islamabad at the end of his visit to India, brought back the ghost of Pakistan to re-visit the newly evolving US-India strategic relationship. Washington-New Delhi connection has never been in the past a bilateral relationship. It was always trilateral with Pakistan’s unwelcome presence, so far as India was concerned, spoiling the India-US relationship.

President Bush’s idea of a solution of the Kashmir problem that India, Pakistan and the Kashmiris ( meaning the separatist All Parties Hurrayat Conference ) should sort it out between themselves, was not seen by most Indians with equanimity. In fact it upset and angered many. Bringing in Kashmir, which India did not even see it as a dispute, was not the way to forge a new long-term strategic relationship. It was more of the same in perpetuity. Bush could not have been unaware that that the State of J&K was an integral part of India which is a thriving democracy where free and fair elections are held as regularly as in the US. It hardly needs reminding that military dictatorship has extinguished democracy in Pakistan. One third of Kashmir is under the illegal occupation of Pakistan.

It sounded like the Clintonian realism demonstrated on July 4, 1999 in the wake of the Kargil War committing the US to India and Pakistan maintaining the sanctity of the LOC had evaporated. Bush also failed to condemn or even refer to the relentless cross-border terrorism run by Pakistan’s ISI, which India is fighting every day of the year. Secular democratic India needed to be handled with much greater care than what Bush had mustered so far. As of now, the suspicions of the cold war days had not really ended in the sub-continent, the hyphenated relationship continues in perpetuity.

Apart from these perceived differences on security issues, India-US strategic partnership based on common democratic values and the opening up of economic opportunities was expected to blossom into a thousand flowers of mutual benefit. Such were the thoughts at the back of the minds of the majority of Indians when President George W Bush arrived in India.

Over to New Delhi
A remarkable pass-over defined President Bush’s visit to India. There was a dramatic change of heart after he arrived in New Delhi – his first ever to India. He exuded all warmth and friendship for India at every turn. The body language was positive and engaging. His appreciation of the grand welcome extended to him throughout the trip beginning with the magnificent ceremonial guard of honour presented in the forecourt of the stately Rashtrapati Bhavan knew no bounds. On occasions particularly during his visit to the N.G. Ranga Agricultural University in Hyderabad the spontaneity he showed while inter-acting with the staff and students there was touching. He spoke with passion at the Purana Qila in New Delhi when he alluded to the common values and common destiny of India and the US as secular democratic nations.

The President charted a two tier diplomatic offensive while in India. First was the forging of a new artefact of civilian nuclear co-operation with New Delhi. It was the centre-piece of his endeavour. On it rested the second part addressing other important issues like intensifying co-operation and collaboration in space, defence, energy, health, science and technology and so on. The nuclear deal having been achieved with hard bargaining of mutual give and take, the nascent strategic partnership was now given the green signal to be taken to a higher level.

The nuclear deal meant that India would place 14 out of its 22 nuclear facilities under the IAEA safeguards in a phased manner between 2006 and 2014. India also agreed to place future civilian reactors under permanent safeguards. Fast Breeder Reactors were excluded from international safeguards. On its part India was guaranteed supplies of Uranium in perpetuity. The deal finally separated the civilian from military reactors.

Eight nuclear reactors involved in the weapons programme were excluded from and did not form part of the deal. Perhaps for reasons of secrecy, the n-deal did not mention or carry any reference to the sources from where India would secure nuclear fuels for its weapons programme. If however this black-out produced the effect of putting a cap on the Indian weapons programme it would be a disaster for India. It is to be hoped that the Prime Minister had taken good care of the nation’s vital security interests. The US Government will have to secure the approval of the India-US Civilian Nuclear Co-operation Agreement from the Congress before it becomes law. With Republican majority in both Houses of the Congress it should be a matter of formality. The n-deal should set an example to nuclear proliferators and persuade them to discontinue their clandestine activities.

Why did the US pursue so hard the civilian nuclear co-operation deal with India? Firstly it was seen as an essential long-term component of George W Bush’s war on terror. The argument goes like this. High oil prices produced billions of additional petrodollars for the middle-eastern potentates who were known to be funnelling some of that money to funding Islamic terror groups if only to secure their own safety and security from them. Funding terror organisations out of the extra petrodollars disrupted world peace and stability. This must stop. It can be achieved by denying the sponsors of their exponential profits flowing from high oil prices.

The emergence of China and India as energy hungry nations has put enormous pressure on international oil prices. It led to price levels soaring to $65 per barrel. High oil prices held back the faster growth potential of emerging economies. The US therefore wanted to move away from dependence on fossil fuels and develop clean nuclear energy for the generation of electricity. Costs would be lower. A nuclear power plant may cost about $1.5 to $2 billion at current rates. As the US and India move away from reliance on fossil fuels to nuclear energy and other nations follow, demand for oil, as indeed oil prices would fall which would benefit the global economy. To meet the requirements of fuels for cars, America is spending large amounts of money to find alternative sources of energy. India’s civilian nuclear co-operation was expected to greatly help in the international effort in securing these strategic goals. It would also enhance India’s very own energy security. The US-India nuclear co-operation deal was welcomed by Russia, Britain, Japan and France. China is the only country that expressed reservations and hoped that the deal was in line with the NPT. A group of lawmakers in the US Congress, both Republicans and Democrats, known as non-proliferation Ayatollahs are also opposed to the deal. Their contention is that George W had rewarded India, a non-signatory to the NPT, for bad behaviour.

The US-India N-deal ended India’s three decades of nuclear isolation and technology denials. Support for India was now geo-political and Washington has begun seeing India and Japan together as Asian counter-weight to China, which it thinks must be contained. For reasons of geography of long common borders, India will have to be careful not to be seen openly going along with the China-containment policy of the US.

Other pay-offs from the n-deal for India were sumptuous. A Science and Technology Endowment Fund was created, an US-India Framework for Maritime Security Co-operation was established, a clean coal zero-emission power project was envisaged, a Knowledge Initiative on Agriculture with the aim of generating a second green revolution was set in motion, steps were taken to promote collaborative partnerships in industrial research and development, opened commercial co-operation in satellite launches, space exploration, satellite navigation and earth science, it was agreed that a MOU between ISRO and NASA would be inked soon, India would join Container Security Initiative aimed at reducing the risk of shipping containers concealing weapons of mass destruction, India would be represented at the Budapest International Centre for Democratic Transition and so on.

One can see from the above that the India-US N-deal had already opened many doors for India.

Other doors will open in good time. The economic benefits of the strategic partnership will be substantial for both India and the US. With the US-India Defence Framework Agreement in place, military co-operation will start in right earnest soon. A key component of this nascent US-India partnership is that it has the support of Russia – India’s long-term ally and partner. It showed the maturity of their relationship.

India’s arrival on the world stage having been announced, it should be a matter of time when New Delhi’s aspirations for a permanent seat in the UNSC and a place at the high table of the G-8 or G-10 group of nations would be addressed. Whatever the critics may have to say, India was now seen as a nuclear weapons power.

As for Pakistan, President Bush concentrated almost exclusively on its role in the US-led war on terror, indicating a level of frustration over Pakistan’s failure to live up to Washington’s expectations in the war against the al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Significantly Kashmir was also not mentioned at all in the public pronouncements during the Bush-Musharraf Summit in Islamabad. Such an omission, the first ever by the US at a Summit like this, sent tremors of nervousness in the ranks of Pakistan Army. Rejected and heart-broken, General Pervez Musharraf must be worried about his future. Does it mean that Bush is getting serious about promoting democracy in Pakistan?

Such being the state of multi-layered pressures from the US, Pakistan may be left with no alternative but to strengthen its strategic co-operation with China even further. Such a tie up could turn out to be a matter of considerable concern to India’s own security.

Regarded as his own man with his own ideas, George W Bush’s reaching out to India, taking her on board as a democratic ally, must be one of the most far-reaching decisions of his Presidency

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