July 28, 2011


Kapil Sibal

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Our transforming relationship with the United States presents major opportunities as well as snares. The increasing attention we receive from the US recognizes as well as contributes to our growing international stature. If the US re-evaluates the potential of its relationship with India, others are spurred to do so in their own interest. If the allies and friends of the US are influenced to follow the US lead, those wary of a fortified India-US relationship because of their own differences with the US have good reason to engage India more. The US remains the world’s foremost power; the quality of our relationship with it has global significance.

That in courting India the US is pursuing its own national interest should not be a reason for us to recoil from its overtures. Which country, including India, does not give primacy to national interest in formulating its foreign policy? If the national interest of the US impels it now to give depth and breadth to its relationship with India, we need not draw back with doubt and suspicion. We should protect our own national interest, without being too ready to be co-opted into promoting US goals or too cautious in exploring convergences.

Our concern should be the management of an unequal relationship. The US can more easily configure India into its foreign policy jigsaw than we can fit the US advantageously into our diplomatic play. The US is interested in incorporating India into the global political, security and economic arrangements put in place especially since the 2nd World War. India, the victim these arrangements in many ways, has all these years challenged them to affirm the principle of sovereignty, equality and non-discrimination.

Our challenge is to find ways to cooperate with the US even as we continue to demand that the present international system reflect contemporay realities and not those of 1945. US and Indian expectations are misaligned here. The US views continuing Indian resistance to its blandishments either as lack of boldness in decision-making or as the toxin of nonalignment still coursing through our political veins, or, yet again, as unwillingness to accept the responsibilities that accompany great power status. The US puts across that with the nuclear deal liberating India from strategic isolation and its G-20 membership reflecting its rising economic stature, India has already “risen”, whereas india remains conscious of its vulnerabilities, is risk-averse and reluctant to involve itself more than necessary in external distractions, especially if interference in internal affairs, aggressive promotion of human rights and democracy, and the use of force are involved.

The US is most resistant actually to any formal change in global power equations, though it has to accommodate itself to the reality of other power centres emerging and the dilution of its own dominant position. This disposes the US to woo India, especially at a time when India has neither developed the sinews nor the confidence for self-assertion. It therefore offers support to make India a great power, as Condoleeza Rice did, or encourages it to assert itself in its neighborhood, in Central Asia, in West Asia, and, most notably, in the Asia-Pacific region, where China’s phenomenal rise has become menacing, as Hillary Clinton did in her recent “vision for india” speech at Chennai. The US would prefer the rise of the next Asian giant to occur within the orbit of its influence.

This new found US enthusiasm for an expanded Indian geopolitical role contrasts with its strategic containing of India through China and Pakistan until now. If the bonds of democracy and shared human values are arguments today for a mutually reinforcing India-US relationship to manage global issues, they mattered little in the past in shaping US policies towards India. It is not easy to comprehend why the US kept a democratic country like India strategically trussed up as much as possible, while shoring up a powerful authoritarian behemoth like China and ignoring its nuclear and missile misconduct at India’s strategic expense. Similarly, encouraging an increasingly Islamicized Pakistan to contain a secular, pluralist India and subvert its territorial integrity is not fully explicable even in the Cold War context.

The legacy of these policies remains alive in the US political system. The Indo-US nuclear deal was accompanied by several galling non-proliferation related restrictions that India chose to swallow. If at the non-governmental level powerful lobbies keep pursuing their malign efforts to impose more NPT related constraints on India, at the governmental level the US continues to tolerate Sino-Pakistan nuclear commerce outside the NSG framework while imposing, simultaneously, further disabilities on India in the NSG by tightening restrictions on transfer of enrichment and reprocessing technologies to non-NPT countries.

US hectoring of India on our nuclear liability bill, with the commercial interest of US nuclear suppliers in mind, as was the case during Secretary Clinton’s visit, makes the Indo-US nuclear deal appear less a strategic choice than a commercial one.

The Clinton vision of an economically integrated South Asia-Central Asia region, which could also help resolve the Afghan tangle, takes insufficient cognizance of Pakistan’s truculence and the need for tougher policy options to discipline this quasi-rogue state. The US wants to “manage” its divergent India-Pakistan interests by wanting to be a strategic partner of both countries. Its balancing act between India and Pakistan continues. Exposing the ISI links of the head of the Kashmiri American Council in Washington DC should, beyond tit for tat jousting between the CIA and the ISI, lead to a re-working of US’s “even-handed” Kashmir policy.

While India should not have illusions about the extent of US strategic munificence towards it, there is much to be gained from engaging it comprehensively. Even if the US is not as yet a trusted friend, it is by no means an adversary. The US itself recognizes that India will not be an ally of the US and that policy differences will remain. But it believes there are sufficient common interests to build upon- an approach that we should find congenial. If US interference in our Iran policy is a problem, its renewed Asia thrust to thwart China’s hegemonic ambitions is not. Enhanced India-US cooperation in Asean, the East Asia Summit, in protecting the Indian Ocean sea lanes, in developing a new security architecture in Asia, etc is to our advantage, and so is the planned trilateral India-US-Japan dialogue.

India’s relationship with the US is uniquely broad-based, covering trade, high technology, innovation, clean energy, agriculture, food security, education, health, counter-terrorism, homeland security, intensive people to people ties etc. The high-powered economic team accompanying Hillary Clinton signalled a desire to move ahead meaningfully. The US, always eager for for quick results, will push for economic reforms that give it more market access in India. We have our own priorities and demands. This normal cut and thrust of building mutualities in relationships should not make us defensive.

We may be overplaying the word “strategic” to describe even the banalities of our bilateral agenda, but that our relations with the US have strategic implications for us and the rest of the world is indisputable.

The writer is a former Foreign Secretary(sibalkanwal@gmail.com)

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