July 20, 2005Foreign Affairs

Ten answers to ten questions

Neither paranoia nor confidence should deter India from pursuing a closer relationship with the United States

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

India-US relations are being transformed — and critics of this tectonic transformation fall into two broad camps. First, dogmatic sorts from the Left and holdovers from the Cold War days; and second, pragmatic sorts who advocate an independent’ foreign policy for its own sake. Invariably, feathers in both camps were ruffled in recent weeks — when a defence partnership was signed a few weeks ago, and when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Bush shook hands on a whole lot more.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta, who professes to belong to the pragmatic camp, asks ten questions about the India-US relationship. Those questions are not at all hard to answer.

India and the US allegedly converge on combating terrorism and promoting democracy. But this shared objective is, at best, an abstraction; at worst, misleading. What is the US track record of building democracies outside of Europe and Japan? Not moralistic qualms about intervention, but prudence demands that we recognise that America will exacerbate the challenge of building democracy, not solve it.

And is it feasible to think that democracy will take root in the Asian region spontaneously, without external encouragement, inducement or support? If it is agreed that the spread of democracy is in India’s interests, it then is imperative on India to help bring this about. By themselves, both the United States and India may be inadequate to the challenge — together they have a better chance. Even in its immediate neighbourhood, India will find it near impossible to bring the Nepal imbroglio to a democratic conclusion without American support.

Much of our terrorism problem is rooted in the histories and geo-politics of our region. The anti-western, apocalyptic strain of terrorism has at best been a marginal phenomenon on the sub-continent. Is it in our interest to align with the US and give terrorism ideological and political succour?

In other words, Mehta suggests that India avoid a closer relationship with the United States because that will infuriate the terrorists. Even if pragmatism can be used to explain moral chickening out, Mehta needs to ask why the United States must be sympathetic to India’s own fight against Pakistan-sponsored jihadi terrorists if India, on its part, does not reciprocate. While most Indian commentators are quick to lament that the United States is not helping India (by squeezing Pakistan) as much as it should, very few bother to ask what India is doing to assist the Americans.

Three, India wants to help shape a new nuclear non-proliferation order but isn’t it astonishing that we want to sign on to cooperation in this area without clearly ascertaining what kind of non-proliferation regime the US wants?

The way to shape a new non-proliferation order is through engagement — co-operating with the United States, and for that matter with France, Britain, Russia and even China. A new non-proliferation game is emerging. It is always better to sign on as an early investor in a new non-proliferation system and influence its agenda, than sign on later when the big boys have set the rules.

Doesn’t focusing on civilian nuclear cooperation with the US deflect us from pursuing a path that makes us more self-reliant?

Building self-reliance in technology, if it were ever possible, is not a bad idea. But what about nuclear fuel? To ensure an uninterrupted supply of fuel for its nuclear reactors, India needs the support members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group; without American approval this support will not be forthcoming.

Isn’t it in our best interests to keep out of the emerging Sino-American rivalry, so that India does not become a frontline state in this power game?

Well, it may be, if it were possible. While India should try to stay out of the Sino-American rivalry, it must be prepared to take sides if it comes to that.

Six, in one profound sense, the India-Pakistan hyphen has been broken…(but) the US’s choice of allegiances has not been tested. It would be great if the circumstances under which they would be tested do not arise; but it is still too premature to conclude that the US will make the right choice.

And the US is more likely to make the right choice’ if India-US relations remain in their Cold War state?

Seven, the interests of the US and India do not converge on the shape of international institutions ranging from the UN to an Asian Monetary Union.

They don’t converge on a whole lot more than that. But why is this important?

Eight, they do not converge in the approach we have to our region. There is talk in Washington of imposing sanctions on companies doing business with Iran. The US consistently wants to subvert the natural geography of Asia and deny us the power of creating the links we need. Does this fit in with our strategic objectives?

American foreign policy is based on its interpretation of its own interests. India’s key goal in its partnership with the United States must be to shape this into something that is favourable to India’s own interests. This will not be achieved the day after the partnership is signed, and surely will not be achieved without immense effort on the part of the Indian government.

Nine, every single power that the US has helped to build up, from Germany to Japan, lost its capacity for independent political and military action. China engaged with the US, but entirely on its own terms.

After being defeated in the Second World War, Germany and Japan relied on America for their subsequent redevelopment. India owes no such favours to the United States. Like China, India can engage with the US on its own terms. But those terms need not be antagonistic or confrontationist.

By embracing the US as ardently as we are, we are giving up our bargaining chips too soon. We are letting the US set the terms of this relationship more than is warranted. India should become a different kind of great power, not one that orients itself to endorsement by the United States.

Mehta contends that this question comes from a point of confidence, not paranoia. But everything about these contentions are paranoid. It ignores a simple fact — India is no pushover. Not even for the United States. Ask the Americans.

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