Ten answers to ten questions

Neither paranoia nor confidence should deter India from pursuing a closer relationship with the United States

India-US relations are being transformed — and critics of this tectonic transformation fall into two broad camps. First, dogmatic sorts from the Left and holdovers from the Cold War days; and second, pragmatic sorts who advocate an ‘independent’ foreign policy for its own sake. Invariably, feathers in both camps were ruffled in recent weeks — when a defence partnership was signed a few weeks ago, and when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Bush shook hands on a whole lot more.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta, who professes to belong to the pragmatic camp, asks ten questions about the India-US relationship. Those questions are not at all hard to answer.

India and the US allegedly converge on combating terrorism and promoting democracy. But this shared objective is, at best, an abstraction; at worst, misleading. What is the US track record of building democracies outside of Europe and Japan? Not moralistic qualms about intervention, but prudence demands that we recognise that America will exacerbate the challenge of building democracy, not solve it.

And is it feasible to think that democracy will take root in the Asian region spontaneously, without external encouragement, inducement or support? If it is agreed that the spread of democracy is in India’s interests, it then is imperative on India to help bring this about. By themselves, both the United States and India may be inadequate to the challenge — together they have a better chance. Even in its immediate neighbourhood, India will find it near impossible to bring the Nepal imbroglio to a democratic conclusion without American support.

Much of our terrorism problem is rooted in the histories and geo-politics of our region. The anti-western, apocalyptic strain of terrorism has at best been a marginal phenomenon on the sub-continent. Is it in our interest to align with the US and give terrorism ideological and political succour?

In other words, Mehta suggests that India avoid a closer relationship with the United States because that will infuriate the terrorists. Even if pragmatism can be used to explain moral chickening out, Mehta needs to ask why the United States must be sympathetic to India’s own fight against Pakistan-sponsored jihadi terrorists if India, on its part, does not reciprocate. While most Indian commentators are quick to lament that the United States is not helping India (by squeezing Pakistan) as much as it should, very few bother to ask what India is doing to assist the Americans.

Three, India wants to help shape a new nuclear non-proliferation order but isn’t it astonishing that we want to sign on to cooperation in this area without clearly ascertaining what kind of non-proliferation regime the US wants?

The way to shape a new non-proliferation order is through engagement — co-operating with the United States, and for that matter with France, Britain, Russia and even China. A new non-proliferation game is emerging. It is always better to sign on as an early investor in a new non-proliferation system and influence its agenda, than sign on later when the big boys have set the rules.

Doesn’t focusing on civilian nuclear cooperation with the US deflect us from pursuing a path that makes us more self-reliant?

Building self-reliance in technology, if it were ever possible, is not a bad idea. But what about nuclear fuel? To ensure an uninterrupted supply of fuel for its nuclear reactors, India needs the support members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group; without American approval this support will not be forthcoming.

Isn’t it in our best interests to keep out of the emerging Sino-American rivalry, so that India does not become a frontline state in this power game?

Well, it may be, if it were possible. While India should try to stay out of the Sino-American rivalry, it must be prepared to take sides if it comes to that.

Six, in one profound sense, the India-Pakistan hyphen has been broken…(but) the US’s choice of allegiances has not been tested. It would be great if the circumstances under which they would be tested do not arise; but it is still too premature to conclude that the US will make the right choice.

And the US is more likely to ‘make the right choice’ if India-US relations remain in their Cold War state?

Seven, the interests of the US and India do not converge on the shape of international institutions ranging from the UN to an Asian Monetary Union.

They don’t converge on a whole lot more than that. But why is this important?

Eight, they do not converge in the approach we have to our region. There is talk in Washington of imposing sanctions on companies doing business with Iran. The US consistently wants to subvert the natural geography of Asia and deny us the power of creating the links we need. Does this fit in with our strategic objectives?

American foreign policy is based on its interpretation of its own interests. India’s key goal in its partnership with the United States must be to shape this into something that is favourable to India’s own interests. This will not be achieved the day after the partnership is signed, and surely will not be achieved without immense effort on the part of the Indian government.

Nine, every single power that the US has helped to build up, from Germany to Japan, lost its capacity for independent political and military action. China engaged with the US, but entirely on its own terms.

After being defeated in the Second World War, Germany and Japan relied on America for their subsequent redevelopment. India owes no such favours to the United States. Like China, India can engage with the US on its own terms. But those terms need not be antagonistic or confrontationist.

By embracing the US as ardently as we are, we are giving up our bargaining chips too soon. We are letting the US set the terms of this relationship more than is warranted. India should become a different kind of great power, not one that orients itself to endorsement by the United States.

Mehta contends that this question comes from a point of confidence, not paranoia. But everything about these contentions are paranoid. It ignores a simple fact — India is no pushover. Not even for the United States. Ask the Americans.

22 thoughts on “Ten answers to ten questions”

  1. The bottom line is this. Do we want to confront the current strongest, richest country, or do we want to work with it? Is there really anything to be gained by cutting America off? Just as you state, the answer to the second question is an emphatic NO! Simply by being more friendly with the US of A does not make our foreign policy any less independent anyway- and that’s the beauty of it. India and USA actually disagree more than they agree – but we can do it without being considered hostile. What could be better – and at the same time, we make progress on the more crucial economic fronts, like Nuclear energy and more FDI.

  2. Nitin,

    Theoretically, I agree with you. However, as the famous saying has it, even paranoids have enemies.* And Mehta’s paranoia might just gain traction over the terms of the first tangible deal with the Americans. Specifically, the agreement struck over cooperation in the civilian nuclear reactor sector has left me somewhat worried.

    The proposal calls for India to put in writing its previous pledge to halt nuclear weapons testing. Moreover, India must classify its reactors as civilian or military, with the former under int’l safeguards.

    In no particular order, here are my worries:

    1) Brajesh Mishra claims that, in effect, the GOI has agreed to a ceiling on the Indian nuclear arsenal. I think he may have a point: Given how thoroughly intertwined the civilian and military aspects of the Indian program are, any untwining of the two is bound to be very expensive (as Stephen Cohen argued in a WaPo online chat) and may well leave India with an inadequate supply of nuclear materiel for its military needs.

    The point which is most important is that untwining isn’t merely allocating reactors to one or another column. Rather, it amounts to setting up two parallel and independent nuclear reactor ‘systems’. I’m not sure this can be done without crippling the Indian military arsenal. C. Raja Mohan’s assurances, contra Mishra, rest on the rather simplistic notion that all India has to do is allocate reactors to the civilian or military column–I find his argument rather hollow.

    2) Cohen, again in that same WaPo chat, mentioned that this deal wouldn’t strike the Chinese as ‘anti-China’ if India stuck to its no-testing pledge. In effect, this pledge amounts to shying away from any further, 2nd-generation, development of nuclear weapons against China as Cohen also points out. That is bad enough, I think. But worse, Pakistan may well have full access to the latest Chinese nuke weapons design. And Pakistan is already ahead of India in its ability to mate warheads to missiles, thanks to China!

    Granted, the pledge is nothing new. But writing it down is to commit India to this pledge even more strongly. If India ever needs to test again, this just makes it all the more difficult.

    While the first worry may be avoidable, the second isn’t. So, unexpectedly, at least on this agreement, Mehta may have stumbled onto the truth! I do hope I’m proved wrong.

    *The poet Delmore Schwartz–I think–said it, but I’m not sure if he ivented the phrase.


  3. Kumar,

    The nuclear nut is no doubt hard to crack; and there certainly has been a compromise on this front.

    But it is the overall effect of this compromise that needs to be evaluated. Here’s an even if argument:

    If Brajesh Mishra’s assessment is on the ball, then India’s nuclear weaponisation has been constrained. But nuclear weapons, after all, serve as strategic deterrents. I would not immediately conclude that the India-US partnership would weaken strategic deterrence.

  4. …the India-Pakistan hyphen has been broken…

    Has it really? Doesn’t the fact that the Pakistani Prime Minister was invited and scheduled to visit the White House just 10 days after the Indian PM tell otherwise? (That the Pakistani PM cancelled his trip is of course another matter)

  5. Quoting Mehta

    Much of our terrorism problem is rooted in the histories and geo-politics of our region. The anti-western, apocalyptic strain of terrorism has at best been a marginal phenomenon on the sub-continent. Is it in our interest to align with the US and give terrorism ideological and political succour?

    Whilst anti-western terror has not been an issue in India, this is misleading. It is obviously true, yet also meaningless. India is not the west, therefore there can be no anti-western terror in it, unless there are large indigenous groups engaging in it. Pakistan, on the other hand, is chock-full of anti-western terror. And the important piece of the puzzle is that the same people who are terrorizing Indian Kashmir are sponsoring terror against the west. They see themselves as the descendants of the Mughals and others who terrorized Hindus for a thousand plus years. So in reality, the evil forces of oppression and terror that have bedeviled India for over a thousand years still exist. They terrorize Kashmir now and are the same groups that terrorize the west.

    India and Israel are the two nations that have been suffering the most from Jihadist terrorism in the last century. Finally, the top levels of the US government have seen that in the war of defense against Jihadism it behoves us to ally with the most populous democratic country in the world in a war that we are both already engaged in. That country is India. And the alliance scares China and Russia, so expect plenty of static about it.

    The US has taken the flag of democracy and is trying to plant it throughout the failed states of the middle east. The US is the most well-known democratic state. But India is the biggest democratic state. We are natural allies, much more than India and Russia or India and China.

    “What about Pakistan?” you may ask. There is a well-known saying, “keep your friends close and your enemies closer,” that applies. Pakistan is not friendly to the US. The US is as friendly as it can be to Pakistan, but realizes that keeping Pakistan close is like putting a cobra in a pillowcase and carrying it around. Still, that’s better than letting the cobra roam as it wants, only to rediscover it when it sinks its fangs into one’s ankle. India should not be deterred from closer ties with the US because of the US’s involvement with Pakistan, any more than Indians believe that the trans-Kashmir bus line shows that everything is hunky-dory between India and Pakistan.

  6. “Doesn’t the fact that the Pakistani Prime Minister was invited and scheduled
    to visit the White House just 10 days after the Indian PM tell otherwise?”

    Not really, since Aziz is just a figurehead He has no real power, all of which rests with Musharaff.

  7. “Not really, since Aziz is just a figurehead He has no real power, all of which rests with Musharaff.”

    So is Manmohan Singh (figurehead i.e).
    But seriously speaking I think we are obsessed with this hyphenation business.
    US regarded Pakistan as equal to India mostly due to strategic reason.
    In the present scenario, the increasing clout of India is due to Economic growth, and not due to its political and strategic shrewedness.
    Therefore, credit should go to NarainMurthys and Aziz Premijis and not our leadership

  8. Nitin,

    Good post. To throw in my own two cents on Mehta’s article:

    Regarding question #2, it’s worth noting that there’s a difference between anti-terrorism cooperation and fully endorsing US foreign policy. For example, it’s widely felt that France is a greater partner to the US than the UK on anti-terrorism matters, even as the two nations disagree strongly on Iraq.

    Regarding question #5, I think India really needs to keep in mind that, whether or not it wants to get involved in an American “containment” strategy towards China, China has long been pursuing a “containment” strategy towards India by means of its alliances with Pakistan and Myanmaar (and more recently, Bangladesh). Regardless of how India views China, China still views India as a long-term geopolitical rival. And given the gaps in GDP and defense spending between China and India, creating a defense partnership with the US that doesn’t keep the country from acting independently on critical matters seems like a no-brainer to me.

    Regarding question #7, differences over UN reform do have to be taken into account. But for at least the next 30-40 years, the Asian Monetary Union is nothing more than a pipe dream, given the geopolitical rivalries and differences in economic development levels that exist between major countries in the region.

    Regarding question #8, it’s worth remembering that many American allies, including Japan and various EU states, do a lot of business with Iran. I suspect that the US treats its opposition to the pipeline as something of a fishing expedition – good if it’s successful, but not a big deal if it isn’t. Significant military cooperation with Iran, however, would probably be a red line.


    I hope that after everything that’s happened since 1950, and everything that continues to happen at this moment, the Indian foreign policy establishment doesn’t let fears of being seen as “anti-China” significantly affect its decision-making. If it does, then I think my contention that the country remains traumatized by the events of 1962 still holds.

    Btw, I think the quote you’re thinking of is “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.” Can’t remember who said it.

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  10. Mehta contends that terrorism we have to deal with has its origin in regional geo-politics. However, such terrorism has been the bane of many nations (IRA against Britain, terrorism in Punjab, Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka) and it has either been defeated or faded off because of the lack of the popular support. However, in our case the local terrorism is also inspired by Muslim extremism. That makes it possible (and I am sure it is already happening) to fuse this terrorism with the larger Islamofascism. Not to mention the fact that ISI was instrumental in encouraging both these varieties. Therefore, it is imperative that we engage the large anti-terrorism alliance and not stop at treating the problem as a local one.

  11. Nitin:

    Agreed, in principle, an alliance with the U.S. doesn’t mean a dilution of India’s strategic deterrence. But the ‘devil is in the details’, after all.

    It may be possible to untwine India’s nuclear program in a manner that doesn’t cripple its military deterrent. But what is left of strategic deterrence if that isn’t the case?

    Bracketing that concern, what do you make of putting the no-nuke-testing policy on paper? In a decade or so, this will gut the Indian deterrent, since I don’t think Indian nuclear scientists have the sophisticated ability to simulate ‘virtual’ nuclear explosions that the Americans have. And keep in mind, even the American govt. is thinking of ending their restraint and conducting low-yield nuclear explosions. No wonder, at least according to the NYTimes, Pakistani and Chinese reaction has been relatively muted!


    You may be right about the quote, thanks. About China–whatever the motivations of South Block, my worry is that the policy of writing down a pledge to test-no-more amounts to Indian recognition of Chinese nuclear weapons supremacy. And what’s to stop China from again supplying Pakistan with their nuke-weapons designs ?

    All in all, this agreement has brought to the surface my unease with India’s current nuclear posture.


  12. Kumar, I’m not an expert on nuclear weapons development, but are you sure that testing is a prerequisite for developing more advanced nukes? I know that the US stopped carrying out field tests a long time ago, but has invested tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars in obtaining supercomputer systems that can do advanced simulations of nuclear tests. And I remember reading somewhere that China has been investing in supercomputers for the same purpose.

  13. Eric: “…I’m not an expert on nuclear weapons development…”

    For that matter, neither am I. But my reading also leads me to conclude, as you also wrote, that one needs advanced computer systems to do ‘virtual testing’. I’m not sure whether India has that capability.

    However, even if it did, I’m not certain virtual simulations are enough to develop a second generation of nuke weapons for India. It’s useful to keep in mind that sections of the American nuclear establishment are arguing that America ought to resume low-yield tests, at the least.

    And India doesn’t have the experience of the more mature nuclear powers in developing several generations of nuclear weapons. At best, I suspect that such simulations will allow India to extend the life of its current generation of weapons. And I’m afraid that won’t be enough to constitute a credible deterrent against China & Pakistan in, say, a generation.


  14. Kumar, I remember reading that the US lifted sanctions related to the sale of supercomputer systems to India early last year. Also, while many new supercomputers still rely on expensive proprietary hardware that’s difficult to design, a growing number of them are built using large clusters of low-cost servers that rely on off-the-shelf components. This is the route that China’s been using for its supercomputer development in order to circumvent US and EU export controls.

    You might be right about India’s nuclear weapons not being as advanced as those of certain other nuclear powers. To be honest, this isn’t a subject that I have detailed knowledge about. But I have to think that as long as the military has missiles capable of delivering a nuclear payload to a target, the question of the weapon’s sophistication becomes one of splitting hairs.

  15. Eric,

    But I have to think that as long as the military has missiles capable of delivering a nuclear payload to a target, the question of the weapon’s sophistication becomes one of splitting hairs.

    I agree with that. As long as India has missiles that are capable of delivering a nuclear payload, with reasonable accuracy, the necessary deterrent is in place. The range, accuracy and the number of such missiles must reflect the strategic threat perceptions.

    Anything over this is a question of marginal returns. In this regard, does a grand strategic partnership with the United States outweigh more, and more lethal nuclear weapons? I would think so.

  16. Nitin & Eric:

    Eric “…as long as the military has missiles capable of delivering a nuclear payload to a target, the question of the weapon’s sophistication becomes one of splitting hairs…”

    Nitin “…Anything over this is a question of marginal returns. In this regard, does a grand strategic partnership with the United States outweigh more, and more lethal nuclear weapons? I would think so…”

    Yes, I quite agree with your ‘If…Then…’ framing of the issue. But I’m not sure India is at that stage now–that’s what’s worrisome. Has India actually been able to develop reliable nuclear warheads for missiles ? Last I read, the answer was no.

    Will India be able to do so through virtual simulation? Maybe. But Pakistan, courtesy of China, is well ahead in its ability to mate reliable warheads to various classes of ballistic missiles.

    Is this a gamble India should take ? Perhaps. At this stage, I’d be happy if the agreement gives India a national-security ‘out’ on the no-testing pledge.


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  18. I think we should pursue the time tested policy (so favoured by USA) of ‘permanent interests’. India need not get misty-eyed by the democracy-natural-allies blah blah talk – when has America cared about democracy other than within its own borders? Signing any kind of agreement that caps testing is a serious threat to our future deterrence capabilities. We should never make such commitments. What is stopping India from pursuing indigenous development of reactors? Let’s get whatever we can get from the US, but let’s not give away anything concrete except empty promises. Not when our national security is concerned.

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