Copyright The International Herald Tribune
MONDAY, MARCH 6, 2006
HONG KONG At the bilateral level, President George W. Bush’s visits to India, Pakistan and Afghanistan may be judged a success. But from a wider global perspective they may have done more harm than good to stability and U.S. influence. Effective foreign policy is more than the sum of bilateral relationships.
For sure, the closer relationship between Washington and New Delhi has been long overdue, given India’s commitment to democracy and pluralism and, more recently, the opening of its economy to foreign trade and investment. A new focus on India by U.S. business and news media is just beginning to give a little more perspective to the still strong obsession with China. India has been flattered and its self-esteem has risen another notch.
Bush also made the right noises for consumption at home, as well as in India, about the benefits of open markets, in the outsourcing of services as well as manufacturing. Wary though they may be about aspects of U.S. foreign policy, India’s leaders are happy to be courted by an America looking for counterweights to the rising power of China.
In Pakistan, Bush was able to be seen reinforcing the position of his ally in “fighting terrorism.” President Pervez Musharraf did his part by serenading Bush’s departure with the announcement of a big slaughter of Taliban sympathizers in the Northwest Frontier Province.
All this may have been undone, however, by the centerpiece of the whole tour, the nuclear cooperation agreement with India, a nuclear power that has not signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
India’s enthusiasm about this deal has probably assured that for now it will follow Washington’s lead on the Iran nuclear issue. It may well also slow down India’s plans to buy large quantities of Iranian gas. But handing nuclear cooperation benefits to India has seriously undermined the case for strong action to deal with the nuclear ambitions of both Pyongyang and Tehran.
That can hardly go unnoticed in Beijing, whose cooperation is essential if Iran is to be seriously challenged by the Security Council, and which is the only power able to bring significant influence to bear on North Korea.
Enhanced military cooperation between the United States and India, including arms sales, is understandable given the strategic concerns of both. Many in the region may welcome India’s emergence as a counterweight to China. But overt cooperation with India on the nuclear issue has irritated Beijing at a time when it has been trying to develop cooperation with India, particularly on energy security.
To others in Asia, the nuclear deal is a reflection of America’s narrow perceptions of its own interests and, as with that other nonsignatory of the nonproliferation treaty, Israel, further evidence of the double standards of the U.S. position on nonproliferation
The lurch toward India will have done nothing to strengthen pro-U.S. sentiment in America’s old ally Pakistan, and will not make it any easier for Musharraf to stay in power while confronting pro-Taliban and Islamist sentiments.
In the wider Islamic world, meanwhile, the tilt toward India is likely to be seen as another example of anti-Muslim attitudes in Washington. That may be unfair, but perceptions matter. Similarly, Bush’s failure to address India’s and Pakistan’s dispute over Kashmir suggests to this same Islamic constituency that America is unwilling to put pressure on India.
India and Pakistan would both benefit from focusing on economic cooperation. But that will be more difficult for Pakistan if it feels that America is no longer even-handed. Pakistan will begin to look more toward its other old ally, China.
The nuclear deal also now confronts the U.S. Congress with an awkward dilemma. In principle it should reject the deal on the grounds that it conflicts with the nonproliferation agenda and that Pakistan needs to be kept on America’s side. But rejection would probably enrage India – which is hypersensitive to slights to its national dignity – without necessarily undoing the damage to America’s other Asian relationships.