LONDON — Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s response made perfectly good sense. If his allies in Parliament were willing to bring the government down to block the nuclear deal with the United States that he had spent two years negotiating, he would drop the deal. “One has to live with certain disappointments,” he said last week. “We are not a one-issue government. The deal not coming through is not the end of life.”
Much odder was the response in Washington. State Department spokesperson Tom Casey was the very soul of discretion, saying that while the U.S. would like the agreement to be ratified as soon as possible, he would not tell Indians how to manage their own internal affairs.
But others with strong links to the strategic and foreign policy community in Washington were more outspoken.
Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger warned that India’s failure to implement the nuclear deal with the U.S. could raise questions over its trustworthiness, and might sabotage New Delhi’s campaign for a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council. He added that an Indian rejection of the deal “would certainly be a disappointment” for the Bush administration, which “has put a lot of effort behind it.”
Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, on a visit to India, called it “a very important deal” and urged India to expedite it. Nicholas Burns, undersecretary of state for political affairs, warned that it needed to be ratified by year’s end to avoid “damage” to the relationship between the countries.
Lisa Curtis, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation (which is close to the Bush administration), said that rejecting the deal would undermine India’s goal of increasing its global stature and influence: Not only would New Delhi be perceived to have shot itself in the foot, (but) it would be highly unlikely for any future U.S. administration to contemplate major initiatives with India.”
Who would have dreamed that so many important Americans want to help India take its rightful place as one of the 21st century’s superpowers? The chorus of concern for India’s future status was heartwarming, but the reality is that the U.S. has its own strategies, in which India is just a pawn. All the more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger lamentation in Washington about India’s lost opportunity covers a deep frustration that the Indians are finally balking at Washington’s plans for them.
Since the late 1990s, strategists of all political stripes in Washington have identified China as America’s emerging strategic rival, and have fixed on an alliance with India, the other rising Asian economic giant, as the solution to the problem. The Bush administration has invested huge diplomatic resources in luring India into a de facto military alliance with the U.S., and its efforts seemed to be rewarded in 2005 when the two countries signed a “10-year military cooperation agreement.” But India’s main reward for signing up was the nuclear deal.
Ever since India’s first test of a “peaceful nuclear explosive” in 1974, its civil nuclear industry has faced an international trade embargo on nuclear technology and fuel that was initiated and largely enforced by the U.S. India’s string of nuclear weapons tests in 1998 led to an even harsher embargo — and killing the embargo was Washington’s quid pro quo for India’s membership in what amounts to an anti-Chinese alliance.
The negotiations took five years, and getting the necessary legal changes on the hyper-sensitive issue of selling nuclear technology and fuel to India through the U.S. Congress has already taken two more. Now, at the final stage, and for entirely discreditable reasons, various Indian political parties have decided to block the legislation. The ensuing controversy has filled the country’s media since August, and even threatens to bring down the government.
Everybody in Indian politics who opposes the deal pretends that it restricts India’s freedom of action, but that’s nonsense. If India tested nuclear weapons again, it might forfeit certain advantages that the deal with Washington confers on it, but at worst it would be no more isolated than it is now.
The main opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which began the negotiations with the U.S., now opposes the deal because it is the opposition. And the small communist parties that keep the Congress-led government in power with their votes (though they refuse seats in the Cabinet) are mainly motivated by their traditional anti-Americanism and their reflex loyalty to communist China.
Never mind. It doesn’t matter what the motives of the Indian communists and the BJP are. The point is that they are crippling an alliance that threatens to drag Asia into a new cold war.
Without the nuclear deal at its heart, the emerging military alliance between the U.S. and India will be vulnerable to any change of the political wind in Washington or New Delhi. Neither the Bush administration nor Singh’s government will give up on trying to develop a closer military relationship, but this is good news for anyone who thinks that surrounding China militarily and feeding Beijing’s fears is a really stupid idea.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.