Today America has few friends and just about none in India's neighbourhood. The defence agreement runs the risk of stalling the move towards peace with Pakistan, of hardening China's attitude to the demarcation of the northern boundary, and above all, losing the most steadfast ally it has had in the last five decades. In exchange it will have as an ally a country that does not really need its support beyond the immediate crisis in Iraq.
However, so great is the flux in the post-9 / 11 world, that despite these misgivings, I cannot rule out the possibility that if India appreciates its own importance and plays its cards well, the treaty could open the gates for it to play a constructive role in international affairs.
Ever since Mr. Pranab Mukherjee signed a 10-year defence pact with the US in Washington, Indian spokesmen have taken pains to reassure the Indian media and the rest of the world that this does not reflect any change in India's foreign policy. "We have only built upon the 1995 agreement" they point out, referring to the 'Agreed minute on defence proposals' signed with the Clinton administration.
Technically this is true, but it is not the whole truth. For between 1995 and today two seminal events occurred that have changed the context within which enhanced defence cooperation is being planned, almost beyond recognition, and therefore its significance. The first was the Pokharan nuclear weapons test in 1998. The second was 9 / 11.
India's motives for entering into the defence agreement stem from the first event. The US' motives, and much of the world's uneasiness over the agreement, stem from the second. Pokharan brought down a head-load of sanctions against the transfer of cutting edge technologies to India (and Pakistan). Ever since then India's goal has been to level the playing field with regard to technology once again and put Indo-US relations back at least where they used to be before May 1998.
In this it has more than succeeded. For, while little has changed in concrete terms, the Bush administration is clearly far more disposed to accepting India's claim to being a responsible nuclear state than the Clinton administration was. This is reflected in the sharp rise in technology transfers from the US to India during the past 18 months.
What is more important is the intangible change that has taken place in the tenor of India-US relations. This was captured succinctly by Nicholas Burns, under-secretary of state for political affairs, when he wrote in a brochure describing the state of Indo-US relations that "The United States and India are implementing habits of cooperation that characterise US relations with our closest friends and allies."
But what does the US expect to gain from the agreement? That is the question to which most nations in the world would like an answer. For in conventional terms the agreement makes no sense whatever. What can India contribute to the defence of a country that has no significant enemies, that accounts, singly, for more than half the defence spending of the world, and has a technological edge in its military hardware that no nation on earth can erode?
Five years ago the question would have reflected curiosity. Today it is being asked with apprehension. One frequently voiced belief is that the US wants India to act as a counterpoise to China. This is the global architecture favoured by the neo-conservatives who dominate the White House and are eternally looking for potential challengers to American global supremacy. But the threat from China is too distant, and too ephemeral, to provide a convincing answer. American politics is like a steam engine that puffs once every four years. It simply does not permit planning for events that are more than one or two puffs away.
The real cause for apprehension is that India may have been seduced by visions of weapons and hi-tech transfers into endorsing the American quest for a global empire. The American far Right has been touting the virtues of a unipolar world since 1990, but till 9 / 11 most people, even in the US, dismissed this as a form of megalomania.
But all that has changed. In the past 45 months, the US has declared war against an abstract noun – terrorism. It has announced a new security doctrine that declares that it no longer respects national boundaries and will attack terrorists wherever they are to be found. More ominously, it has declared that it will attack states that it suspects of harbouring terrorists. It has already acted upon its new doctrine and launched two wars, more or less unilaterally, in Afghanistan and Iraq. It has thus formally reneged upon the treaty obligations to which it bound itself when it signed the United Nations charter.
A preemptive war against an abstraction is a war without end.. Add to this the fact that the US concedes the right to wage such a war to no one else, not even the European Union, and what one confronts is the end of a world order based upon the principles of Westphalia and the uncertain beginnings of one shaped as an American empire.
The Indo-US defence agreement has legitimately raised the question, "where does India stand in relation to this new USA?". Newspaper reports that the agreement will allow American warships free use of Indian ports, and that India allow the peremptory search of ships suspected of carrying proscribed weapons even within its exclusive economic zone, have reinforced the suspicion that it has.
The world in which India has completed its quest for rehabilitation is therefore very different from the one in which it began it, after Pokharan. That is why the plea of continuity falls flat on skeptical ears. In the coming months India must weigh what it does with the defence agreement with the utmost of care. A minimal use would be to purchase American weaponry to replace its aging weapons systems. A slightly more ambitious use would be to obtain state-of- the-art anti-missile batteries to lessen the threat from Pakistan's missiles.
A still more ambitious one would be aim for a transfer of military technology and to enter into joint production programs. But it will do well to remember that with each step up the ladder the price it will have to pay in concessions to the US will be correspondingly higher. And the only coin in which India can pay it is to support the American grand design for the 21st century. In the immediate future that would mean becoming a part of the American plan for extricating itself from Iraq.
Even this would be only a part of the cost. Today America has few friends and just about none in India's neighbourhood. The defence agreement has already aroused great misgiving in Pakistan, in China and in Russia. India runs the risk therefore of stalling the move towards peace with Pakistan, of hardening China's attitude to the demarcation of the northern boundary, and above all, losing the most steadfast ally it has had in the last five decades. In exchange it will have as an ally a country that does not really need its support beyond the immediate crisis in Iraq, which has consistently maintained that its domestic law supercedes all international treaty obligations and which, as the Pakistanis could tell us, has no hesitation in reneging on its treaty commitments just when they are invoked.
However so great is the flux in the post-9 / 11 world, that despite these misgivings I cannot rule out the possibility that if India appreciates its own importance and plays its cards well, the treaty could open the gates for it to play a constructive role in international affairs. For instance, if India agrees to send troops to Iraq but only on condition that it is asked by a transitional government that contains genuine nationalist leaders from among the Sunnis, with the purpose of replacing US and UK troops as rapidly as possible, then it could well make the difference between worsening chaos and a gradual return to peace and order in Iraq. If it makes this offer jointly with Pakistan , it could simultaneously build bridges between the two armed forces that would make the task of peace-building in Kashmir much easier.
Finally India could join the EU in quietly persuading the US to abandon the hard unilateralism that has landed it in such a mess in Iraq, and return to multilateral, UN-endorsed initiatives that rely more on the carrot than the stick to create an orderly world. Behind the rhetoric of empire Bush's second team has already moved a short way in this direction. India could hasten the process by putting the US on notice, as the EU has done, that it will only support military interventions that are backed by a specific Security Council resolution.. Even if it fails , the effort will have been worth making for there is one certainty about American , as indeed any democratic politics: no government lasts forever.
* The author, a noted analyst and commentator, is a former editor of the Hindustan Times, The Economic Times and The Financial Express, and a former information adviser to the prime minister of India. He is the author of several books including, The Perilous Road to the Market: The Political Economy of Reform in Russia, India and China, and Kashmir 1947: The Origins of a Dispute, and a regular columnist with several leading publications.
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articles by Prem Shankar Jha