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The coming isolation

India has to gird up to face internationally new tough times, warns N.V.Subramanian.

11 November 2009: As the Australian prime minister, Kevin Rudd, meets Manmohan Singh tomorrow purportedly as a "friend" and so does the US president, Barack Obama, later, it should be clear to policy-makers here that India is entering a period of strategic isolation. The isolation is on account of two facts, one longstanding, and the other of more recent origin.

The current reason for the isolation that this writer perceives coming arises from the presidential change in America, although that change is more than nine months old. Obama is not the close friend of India (although he is fairly close to the Indian-American community and has an incredible fondness for Hinduism) that his predecessor George W.Bush was. For example, he is not as keen on the Indo-US nuclear deal as Bush was, who was its architect.

Without promising ENR technologies to India, Obama is benchmarking further progress on the deal on India entering the non-proliferation regime, and his officials are in Delhi (proper non-proliferation ayatollahs) to soft-soap Manmohan Singh on it before he visits the US as Obama's state guest. This writer has already warned of this in previous commentaries, and urged him to go to the US with limited or no expectations (Commentary, "Manmohan Singh's US visit").

But not only is Obama less friendly to India than Bush, he is a weaker president, and he is being steadily daunted by the problems he has inherited (Afghanistan, the economy) and by the new ones that have arisen in this presidency (for example, the Fort Hood shooting, which suggests an internal crisis with Muslim community integration almost as dangerously significant as the 9/ 11 attack that was externally inflicted). This writer had warned that China, for one, would see through Obama's growing weakness and exploit it to India's disadvantage, and this happened with Obama's Dalai Lama meeting, which he dropped out of under Chinese pressure, although the White House denies it. Almost simultaneous with Obama chickening out of squarely facing the Tibetan issue, China has inexorably raised the pressure on India on Arunachal Pradesh and the Dalai Lama's visit to it, orchestrating a barrage of criticism against the Dalai Lama and against India in the controlled Chinese media, and making threatening references to the 1962 war that India lost to the PLA. But in a reversal from before, India has withstood Chinese threats, and permitted the Dalai Lama to go ahead with his programme, although with the usual qualification that no political activity is being undertaken during the tour. The fact remains though that Obama has softened on the Chinese on Tibet because he needs them to save the US economy, and this has tilted the balance in China's favour vis-a-vis India. If China benefits against India, so will Pakistan, etc. The linkages are very well-defined to be repeated again (see Commentary, "Fighting on two fronts").

That is the current reason for India's looming isolation. By the looks of it, India is also going to be isolated in Af-Pak, and it may have to fall back on the Northern Alliance-II option (Commentary, "Northern alliance II?"). The longstanding reason (mentioned earlier in the piece) for India's recurrent isolation is that it is unable to influence international outcomes, not at least since Indira Gandhi liberated Bangladesh, absorbed Sikkim, and so on.

A friendly US president (George Bush) had to do all the heavy lifting to get the nuclear deal past the American Congress and the NSG (the Americans privately then complained that the Indians were doing very little successful international lobbying for the NSG waiver; the watchword is successful), and when that president's Republican party was voted out, his Democratic successor has commenced to reverse it all. India cannot put all its eggs into one presidential basket. And of course the most ignominious example of India being unable to influence outcomes is its failure to win a permanent UN Security Council membership.

But China is not the only state to perceive India's isolation as a friendly US president is replaced by an unfriendly if not hostile successor, on top of which India's inability to influence outcomes is well-advertised. Australia, among others (and importantly, the South East Asian countries), has perceived India's helplessness perfectly (it is another matter that Australia is also adrift), especially Rudd, a China-lover, or at least a former aficionado. Australia voted with China against India when the Arunachal Pradesh issue came up in the ADB, and Rudd, being a liberal politician like Obama, won't dare befriend India at the price of annoying the Chinese. It is small consolation that Australia says Arunachal Pradesh is indisputably India's when it voted otherwise in the ADB. Added to the fact that Obama is tilting China-ward, Australia would have no option but to go the American way. So forget any breathtaking breakthroughs when Rudd meets the PM tomorrow. No Australian uranium will reach India in a long time, unless, that is, India is able to influence outcomes.

What should India do with this approaching strategic isolation? Stay calm. Deng Xiaoping would have advised that. Where India can stand up to bullying, it should, on NPT, CTBT, FMCT, etc, on Tibet (the Tibet question must be opened; it is inevitable), on Kashmir, and so forth. America and the rest of the West will realize sooner than later (twelve to eighteen months maximum) that China's rise is anything but peaceful, that there will be middle-kingdom hegemony, no less, if it is not reined in, and that counterweights are necessary to it, like democratic unthreatening India. So tomorrow, when the PM meets Kevin Rudd, and later Obama, he should be friendly but not conceal that he is steeled to face adversity. India survived an adverse Cold War so it will be more of the same for a while longer. But in this Dengian calm, India should consolidate on both the economic and military spheres and strive for internal political unity within competitive democratic politics.

N.V.Subramanian is Editor,


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