India: U.S. ally or independent power?

by Brahma Chellaney

NEW DELHI — The courtship between the world’s most powerful and most populous democracies is in full swing, with a new international poll showing that at a time when anti-Americanism has spread across the globe more people in India have a positive view of the United States than in any other nation surveyed.

The poll by the Pew Global Attitudes Project underscores the popular good will the U.S. enjoys in India, the only established democracy in a vast region stretching from Jordan to China. It also spurs a larger question: How long will it be before the courtship between India and the U.S. leads to a strategic partnership?

Despite a congruence of vital national interests and a shared political goal to build a long-term strategic relationship, the U.S. has yet to forge a true partnership with India.

To be sure, there have been important shifts in U.S. thinking, largely on account of India’s rising geopolitical importance, its abundant market opportunities and its role in ensuring power equilibrium in Asia. The U.S. is now discussing with India cooperation on missile defense, nuclear energy, civilian space and high technology. The two have also opened a quiet dialogue on India’s largest neighbor, China, whose rise is likely to pose the single biggest challenge to world security in the years to come.

The U.S. public pronouncements on India, however, have yet to progress from statements of good intent to tangible and enduring policy changes.

In his second term, the U.S. president usually has only the first year or so to shape his agenda before he becomes a lame duck in the eyes of the system. The next few months will determine whether the U.S. thinking on India translates into concrete policy, with the aim to fundamentally and lastingly transform the relationship.

This can occur only top down. It is not clear, however, whether U.S. President George W. Bush — weighed down by Iraq and domestic policy discords — can give sufficient priority to India to help mold a dramatic new turn in bilateral relations. The upset presidential victory of Iranian hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and North Korea’s continued intransigence may confront Bush with two new crises in the coming months.

If the U.S. really wants to “help India become a major world power in the 21st century,” as Washington stated in a background briefing the very day Bush made public his controversial decision to sell F-16 fighter-jets to Islamabad, it should be willing to demonstrate that this is not just nice-sounding rhetoric or an ingenious way to mollify India over its rearming of Pakistan.

At the global level, the U.S. can easily translate such commitment into action by bringing India into the Group of Eight (along with China) and by supporting both the early enlargement of the U.N. Security Council and India’s inclusion as a permanent member. If the U.S. insists on linking the council enlargement to the larger, infinite U.N. reform process, any support it extends to India’s candidacy would become of academic value.

For a strategic partnership to emerge, Washington and New Delhi need to resolve their differences on two key issues — stringent technology controls against India, many dating back to the 1970s when India conducted its first nuclear test, and Bush’s coddling of the one-man junta in Pakistan.

Not only are U.S. actions bolstering the military-mullah complex that runs Pakistan, the supply of major combat systems and multibillion-dollar aid also encourages Pakistani dictator President Gen. Pervez Musharraf not to dismantle the terror infrastructure that his military maintains against India. The F-16 decision comes on top of the action to arm Islamabad with P-3C Orion maritime reconnaissance aircraft, TOW anti-tank missiles and Phalanx defense systems — all hardware that will be aimed not against al-Qaeda but against India.

Although the U.S. has come to accept India as a de facto nuclear-weapons state, the bilateral process to find ways to ease the U.S. technology-export restrictions has become a slow, drawn-out affair involving bureaucratic haggle.

If the White House were to order a liberal interpretation of existing U.S. laws and guidelines, it would throw open for export to India many high-tech items currently barred. During the Cold War, the U.S. relaxed tough national laws when it suited its strategic interests. Even today, it applies a liberal standard in relation to Israel, which like India remains outside the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

A number of influential Americans have suggested important policy changes relating to India, including an end to technology controls, broad, long-term space collaboration, the sale of commercial nuclear-power reactors, and India’s assimilation into the nonproliferation regime as a friendly nuclear-weapons state. Given India’s importance to U.S. nonproliferation and strategic goals, the regime could be enforced in a way to exempt a cooperative India from its rigors.

The next three weeks of senior-level bilateral meetings leading up to the Indian prime minister’s meeting with Bush at the White House on July 18 may determine whether the U.S.-Indian relationship will continue to progress incrementally or be dramatically transformed as a durable strategic partnership. The Indian defense minister’s talks in Washington this week, for example, could decide whether the U.S. will become a reliable long-term supplier of advanced weaponry to one of the world’s largest buyers of arms.

At issue is whether India will emerge as an independent power or as a U.S. strategic ally. Either scenario will profoundly shape Asian and international geopolitics.