The Magazine

Currying Favor with Washington

Is this the beginning of a beautiful U.S. India friendship?

Sep 30, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 03 • By MELANA ZYLA VICKERS
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While President Bush was meeting with Indian prime minister A.B. Vajpayee at the United Nations recently, back in New Delhi a Sikh pilot of Soviet-made fighter aircraft, sporting a turban, beard, and substantial handlebar mustache, was regaling American cocktail party guests with an account of his most recent U.S. trip. The senior officer had gone gambling in Las Vegas, netting a steady $200 per night and attracting a gaggle of followers fascinated by the winning streak he credited to his crafty "Indian mind." But a few nights of American glitz was all the pilot could afford on his rupee-denominated salary, and he'd soon quit the high-rollers for the safety of his native shores.

The pilot's cautious American fling may be an apt analogy for current U.S.-India relations: The new partnership seems to be a winning combination, so long as the powerful United States can stay alert to India's fear of getting burned.

In the aftermath of last September11, the Bush administration moved firmly to strengthen relations with the democracy of one billion people that neighbors such hotspots as Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, and the Arabian Sea. Within weeks of the terrorist attacks, President Bush had waived sanctions that the Clinton administration and Congress had imposed after India and Pakistan detonated nuclear devices in 1998. Bush's lifting of the sanctions immediately freed Delhi from what had become Washington's single-issue obsession with India's nuclear-power status, a myopic stance that had earned the Clintonites the moniker, among Indians, of "non-proliferation ayatollahs." India, for its part, rallied to Washington's side after the terrorist attacks. Prime Minister Vajpayee even offered to lead some efforts to stamp out terrorism. The show of friendship served to burnish an image already improved by India's moves, in the 1990s, to dump its 50-year attachment to Moscow and to socialist economics. By February of this year, U.S. ambassador to India Robert Blackwill was saying that President Bush seeks "to intensify collaboration with India" in a way that's "consistent with the rise of India as a great power."

In the ensuing year, military-to-military ties in particular have flourished. What's more, they go beyond joint defense exercises and training, to substantive cooperation on policy. Consider that India's navy has taken on a partnership with the Americans that is unique in the world: Since the spring of 2002, it has patrolled jointly with the U.S. Navy the waters from its shores all the way up through the Strait of Malacca--ensuring safe passage for commercial vessels that carry the bulk of world trade. Indian and American boosters of the new partnership posit that in the future, Indian vessels may accompany American ones on patrols of the Persian Gulf as well, to protect their oil interests.

The two countries' defense establishments seem to recognize their extensive common interests. Wherever one casts an eye--warily, to nuclear- armed China, where the regime is actively seeking to extend the reach of the People's Liberation Army into the shipping lanes of southeast and southwest Asia; uneasily, to Afghanistan and nuclear-armed Pakistan, where leaders friendly to the United States are at constant risk of being violently deposed; or to the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf, where fuel tankers need strong protection--the American and Indian militaries have missions that converge, and that are now the subject of regular discussions between them.

The trouble is that this newfound military closeness is not matched by commensurate political warmth. Indian officials see the State Department as being so preoccupied with stroking Pakistan's Pervez Musharraf--who truly is vital to the war on al Qaeda--that it won't risk any dealings with India that could offend Islamabad. A case in point: Earlier this year, a high-level Indian military delegation proposed to Washington that India, having pulled off the rare feat of building a united, multi-ethnic armed force, advise the Afghans on how to build their own multi-ethnic military. The idea went nowhere, even though India has the world's second biggest Muslim population and has had good relations with Afghanistan for decades. Pakistan would go ballistic if India had a large presence in Afghanistan.

The State Department's skittishness may be somewhat unwarranted, but it will continue until India and Pakistan can improve their relations, poisoned by the violent politics of disputed Kashmir. It's encouraging, therefore, that India has responded to pressure from Washington by holding elections in the territory, due to be completed in early October. If the elections are relatively calm and turnout is fair, Washington will be able to nudge the two countries toward talks. If instead the South Asian enmity continues, or the State Department remains overly cautious, the emergent United States-India relationship will be prevented from deepening. If ever there were a love triangle in foreign policy, Washington-Delhi-Islamabad is it.

India has more to lose than the United States should their new ties weaken. Indian officials are forever reminding their American interlocutors that they're new at this, and they don't want to get burned. Already, Prime Minister Vajpayee faces domestic criticism for abandoning leftist India's precious policy of "nonalignment." If India can't point to clear benefits from its U.S. relationship--an increase in international prestige, or growing trade, or assistance in acquiring high-tech military equipment--the critics will howl more loudly, putting the ruling party at risk in the next elections.

Tangible benefits are beginning to flow: The United States sold India advanced weapon-locating radars this year, and the Bush-Vajpayee talks last week cleared the way for more cooperation in space, civil nuclear energy, and advanced technology, according to a U.S. Embassy spokesman. Nevertheless, some observers have concluded that Washington already shows signs of loosening the embrace it tendered in the fall of 2001.

"The sense that U.S. policies are unpredictable is a very strong one in Delhi," says Lt. Gen. (Ret.) V.R. Raghavan, a former director-general of military operations who now heads a think tank called the Delhi Policy Group. Rather than a lasting partnership, India's relationship with the United States "can only be a patron-client relationship," he says, adding, "They will dump you like they have so many others."

It's up to a jumpy State Department to prove that isn't so.

Melana Zyla Vickers is a senior fellow at the Independent Women's Forum and a defense columnist for