South Asia: There’s plenty on the table

Siddharth Srivastava – Asia Times

Jun 23, 2005
NEW DELHI – It is a courtship set to redefine the geopolitics of the region. One standing landmark of this relationship will be the three-day visit next month of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to the United States, where he will likely meet President George W Bush on July 18. Such are the myriad areas in which fresh initiatives are being sought – from military to energy to regional power plays to commerce – that not a single day goes by without important functionaries flying in or out of India. This is likely to continue for the next few weeks, after which preparations will begin for Bush’s India visit scheduled for later this year.
Sometimes commentators are blamed for going overboard about a high-profile interaction between the leaders of two countries. In the end, the meeting remains a photo opportunity, allows for the exchange of plenty of well-written dialogue, good food and a free holiday for the accompanying entourage. However, the buildup to Manmohan’s US visit has been quite encompassing, simply because there have never been so many issues to talk about and iron out, nor fresh beginnings to be made in Indo-US relations. It has been fortuitous, too, as it is the height of summer in India, and the country’s political and bureaucratic class are trying to wrangle visits abroad to escape the heat.
The list of Indian dignitaries who have or will head to US with the express purpose of preparing for the Manmohan visit is impressive. It includes Defense Minister Pranab Mukherjee, due to visit next week to discuss arms deals, including prospects for the joint production and supply of F-16 fighter jets, in a US bid to promote business as well as shoring up India against China; Foreign Minister Natwar Singh, who met Bush recently, during which the invitation to Manmohan was extended; Commerce Minister Kamal Nath, who spoke of Indo-US business prospects during his visit; and Science and Technology Minister Kapil Sibal.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was in India in March to set the ball rolling by talking about cooperation in nuclear energy and much more. A host of officials who have been traversing the distance include India’s Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran, officials of the Planning Commission, and the bureaucratic who’s who. National Security Adviser M K Narayanan is currently in Washington to iron out issues related to civil nuclear energy cooperation. Planning Commission deputy chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia, who has been structuring the “energy dialogue”, met with Energy Secretary Samuel W Bodman recently, which resulted in the setting up of five working groups, including nuclear energy. Ronen Sen, India’s ambassador to Washington, has met US National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley.
The visits have been from the other side too. US State Department chief Stephen Krasner is making the rounds of India’s Foreign Ministry to inform about the US policy focus for the region. Krasner provides the intellectual thrust to India matters in the Bush administration. The US under secretary for political affairs, Nicholas Burns, who is third in the State Department hierarchy, will be here soon to give a final shape as well. He is likely to throw light on US thinking on UN reforms, including its support for two new permanent Security Council members without veto powers, which has been dismissed by some observers as a dubious attempt to break the unity of G-4 nations India, Brazil, Japan and Germany.
Recently, top American general Lieutenant-General Jeffrey B Kohler, who is director of the Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency, gave a detailed presentation to senior Indian air force and defense officials on F-16 and F-18 fighter aircraft. Executives of Lockheed Martin, maker of F-16s, have been lobbying hard with Indian officials in the face of competition from French and Russian manufacturers of similar aircraft. In another related decision, India is to permanently station defense attaches at America’s central and pacific commands as part of a rapidly expanding military relationship.
The above meetings are just an indicator of the parleys that have been happening. At Manmohan’s initiative, India is strategizing to secure a China-like massive leap in its exports to the deep US market. In its first meeting recently, the newly constituted trade and economic relations committee (TERC), chaired by Manmohan, discussed the outline of a medium-term strategy to be in place before the premier’s visit to the US. The aim is to double India’s share in the US market from the present 1% to 2% in the next five years. India’s exports are targeted to reach US$30 billion by 2010 from $13.2 billion in fiscal 2005.
In addition, trade in services and investment flows will be the focus areas of India’s US strategy. At the TERC meeting, the premier endorsed this assessment and emphasized that India must increase the level of economic interaction with the US. “China’s economic engagement with the US is 10 times that of India. There is vast potential for increased trade and investment relations with the US. We must consider how we can realize this potential,” he said.
Recently, India awarded a multi-billion-dollar aircraft augmentation exercise of government-owned Air India, to US-based Boeing, despite stiff competition from France’s Airbus. One of the reasons the contract went the US way was a personal intervention by Bush, who spoke to Manmohan.
However, there are those who have been expressing caution. Commenting on the new Indo-US dynamics, analyst K Subhramanyam said: “It should be appreciated that the US administration will not find it easy to do a U-turn in its policies towards India. It took some eight to 10 years after [Henry] Kissinger’s visit to China for American policies towards that country to become fruitful from the Chinese point of view. It would not be prudent for India to have a short list of demands as a litmus test of US sincerity. The list should be broad enough to allow flexibility to the US even while testing its avowed purpose to help India become a world power.”
In a recent article on Indo-US relations, Ashley Tellis, an India-born American and former staffer of the National Security Council, said: “The greatest risk to the new Bush strategy, therefore, is that the administration may be unable to realize the policy changes needed to make increased Indian access to such technologies possible.”
One sticking issue is the Iran-Pakistan-India oil pipeline that the US is opposing, given its distrust of Iran over its nuclear program. Rice expressed misgivings about the pipeline while she was in India in March. Earlier this month, the US threatened sanctions on Pakistan if it went ahead with the project, disregarding US concerns over Iran’s nuclear plan (US plays spoiler in pipeline accord June 17). In the new environment of improved India-Pakistan relations, both the countries are keen to go ahead with the construction of the pipeline, which will make the gas transport much easier and cheaper for India and generate large revenues for Pakistan.
In an unusual rebuff to the US, Pakistan has asserted that the decision on whether or not it will allow the pipeline to run through its territory will solely be taken in consideration of its national interest, thus hinting that it is willing to take on the US on the issue. All of this makes for an interesting play of international diplomacy and arm-twisting, with Iran declaring that a decision on the pipeline will be made in two weeks.
But apart from the pipeline and issues regarding UN reforms, the mood is to make things work. In a speech Burns made to the Transatlantic Democracy Network Conference in Brussels on May 26, he said: “I think if you look at American foreign policy worldwide, the greatest change you will see in the next three or four years is a new American focus on South Asia, particularly in establishing a closer strategic partnership with India … Our relationship is now at the best point that it’s been since the creation of modern India in 1947,” he noted.
“If you look at all the trends, there’s no question that India is the rising power in the East. India is the world’s largest democracy. India has so much in common with the United States and with Europe in what it wants to achieve in the world and what kind of world it wants to see,” said Burns. “I think you’ll see this as a major focus of our president and our secretary of state, and it will be the area of greatest dynamic positive change in American foreign policy.”
Indeed, the fury of the parleys in the past few months cannot be dismissed as a flash in the high-octane summer months in India. There is every indication of the beginnings of a new threshold.
Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist.
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