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Bush's Indian gambit
ITS logic is inescapable yet the idea has been inconceivable: a strategic partnership between the two great democracies, the US and India, long divided by distrust and the Cold War.

Yet it is happening. George W. Bush has reached out to India and one of the coming debates in global politics will be over the manner and meaning of his decision to support India's quest to become a global power.

India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will visit Washington in July, with Bush reportedly saying this will be treated as a "grand event", and at the year's end Bush will visit India.

A round of interviews in New Delhi this week elicited a plethora of views as India's political elite debates how far it should enter the US embrace. But India is being wooed and its pride at this is palpable.

The Bush administration, far more cohesive with Condoleezza Rice as Secretary of State, has launched a diplomatic offensive with India that is stunning in its rhetoric and serious in its content. "India's relations with the US are now the best they have ever been," says Rajiv Sikri, the senior official on East Asia at India's external affairs ministry.

When the two leaders briefly met in Moscow this month at celebrations to honour the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe, Bush introduced his wife Laura to Singh, saying, "This is the Prime Minister of India and I'm going to take you to his country this Christmas-New Year so you can see the most fascinating democracy in the world."

The message in New Delhi is that Bush and Singh can do business. How much business they do remains to be seen but the US has set the bar very high. When Rice visited India in March she said: "This is my first stop as Secretary of State in Asia. The President has personally put a lot of time and energy into the relationship. The US has determined that this is going to be a very important relationship going forward and we're going to put whatever time we need into it." The aim was to take US-India ties "to another level."

In a calculated State Department briefing in Washington on March 25 (now famous in New Delhi), the real US purpose was made explicit. The spokesman said that Bush and Rice earlier this year "developed the outline for a decisively broader strategic relationship" between the US and India. When Rice went to New Delhi she presented this outline to Singh, its purpose being "to help India become a major world power in the 21st century", the abiding dream of the Indian elite.

The spokesman continued: "We [the US] understand fully the implications, including military implications, of that statement."

It is rare in the past 100 years that a US president has sent a signal of this dimension. It means the US will help India realise the global aspiration that its size, geography and its post-1991 economic reform agenda has made into a national obsession.

Events are moving fast. The US is offering India a top-of-the-line version of the F-16, hi-tech defence and space co-operation in terms of satellites and launch vehicles, Patriot and Arrow missiles, and access to civilian nuclear technology. (India's aim is to generate 25 per cent to 30 per cent of its huge energy needs from nuclear.)

"The strategic dialogue will include global issues, the kinds of issues you would discuss with a world power," the State Department spokesman said. The US was prepared to "discuss even more fundamental issues of defence transformation with India, including transformative systems in areas such as command and control, early warning and missile defence."

After Rice's visit, US ambassador to India David Mulford said the US and India "are poised for a partnership that will be crucial in shaping the international order in the 21st century".

While Bill Clinton's 2000 visit to India symbolised a new outlook, the conceptual change has come under Bush. Ashley Tellis, from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says it has been shaped by Rice, her new deputy Bob Zoellick and counsellor Philip Zelikow.

Bush initially appointed Bob Blackwill as US ambassador to India to upgrade the relationship and the 2002 National Security Strategy, which said the US sought a "transformation in its bilateral relationship with India".

Now it is going further – the US has recast decisively its policy towards India and South Asia. The core judgment is that a strong, democratic and influential India is an asset for the US in the region and the world. The US no longer narrowly defines India within the terms of its rivalry with Pakistan and Bush accepts the reality of India as a nuclear power.

Bush's thinking is shaped by India's democratic values in contrast with China's authoritarianism. Its strategic essence is the US view that India as a second Asian giant, capitalist, multicultural and democratic, will exert a gravitational pull that must limit China's aspiration as a future hegemon and help to balance its rise. This is a new long-run US position (and it doesn't assume that India can overtake China).

It should test how far India's elite has transcended the Nehruian diplomatic legacy. It seems, however, that Singh will accept the US overtures and India will negotiate to get the best deals possible. By saying yes to the US, India is hardly selling its soul. It is not being asked to become an ally similar to Japan or Australia since that would be impossible anyway.

India thinks it can manage this US embrace on its own terms. It knows that China and the world will have to take India more seriously and India will have to give China assurances it is not joining any US "containment of China" strategy. All this is already under way.

Singh's media aide Sanjaya Baru says: "India is an ancient civilisation and has a mind of its own on each issue. But our views are moving in parallel with the US and Anglo-Saxon world." Baru sees a new realism in India's policy that dates from the 1991 economic reform era with growth now running at 6 per cent to 7 per cent each year.

Singh, an economic technocrat, has declared that India's new role in the world will be defined by how it manages globalisation. That is a long advance from Nehru. And it dictates a diplomacy to underwrite entrepreneurship, markets and technology, with all that implies for a more positive view of the US.


Posted by Jehangir Unwalla @ 6:18 AM


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This blog focuses on current issues concerning defense and national security for the world's largest democracy - India. It is updated regularly providing readers with in-depth information on technology transfer, acquisitions, counter-terrorism, security and military collaboration and strategic dialogue between India and the United States. The site includes links to top defense policy & research institutes, think-tanks, military sites and research organizations.
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