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Bush's Legacy in India By: William R. Hawkins
FrontPageMagazine.com | Monday, November 24, 2008


President George W. Bush will leave several foreign policy legacies. The one that has gotten the most attention is the change of regimes in Iraq, which after a rough patch at the end of his first term, has gotten back on track due to the troop surge directed by Gen. David Petraeus. But in the long run, President Bush may be remembered even more for the improvement of U.S.-Indian relations. If South Asia is defined as running from the Persian Gulf to the Malacca Straits, then closer ties between Washington and New Delhi are not unrelated to American objectives in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, while also furthering larger interests across Asia.

When President Bush entered office, relations with India were at low ebb. In 1998, India and Pakistan conducted rival nuclear tests, bringing new U.S. sanctions against both countries. President Bill Clinton considered Pakistan, with its support for Islamic terrorists in Afghanistan and Kashmir, to be more dangerous than India, but felt compelled to be even-handed in the cause of non-proliferation. The same requirement to appear even-handed came into play again after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks when the sanctions were lifted on both countries. There was a need to pull the Pakistani regime into the anti-terrorist campaign in Afghanistan. Pakistan had played a major role in creating the Taliban, who were giving sanctuary to al-Qaeda. The U.S. approach to Islamabad used carrots and sticks. In the latter category were improved relations with India, including a role for India in Afghan reconstruction and an occasional mention of a possible request for Indian troops.

The Bush administration was already warming to India for other strategic reasons prior to 9/11. In May 2001, the Indian government had issued a carefully worded endorsement of U.S. plans for a national missile defense (NMD) system after Washington’s termination of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia.

Though the NMD is called a limited system against rogue threats like that presented by North Korea, China has feared it could counter its small nuclear force as well and has loudly denounced the U.S. program. If America can blunt Beijing’s nuclear ambitions, India would also benefit, as China poses the greatest security threat to New Delhi. The threat India worries about from Pakistan is derived mainly from the aid Beijing has given Islamabad’s nuclear and missile programs. The Chinese alignment with Pakistan presents India with a risk of a two front war, countering India’s greater inherent strength against Pakistan. The Taliban conquest of most of Afghanistan was supported by Beijing as well as by Islamabad. The Taliban sent parts of two U.S. cruise missiles fired in 1998 at al-Qaeda camps to China for study. Chinese firms set up the Taliban’s telecommunications system prior to the U.S. invasion. Beijing continues to ship weapons through Pakistan that end up in the hands of Taliban and al-Qaeda insurgents. 

From Beijing’s perspective, aiding Pakistan keeps India focused to the west, allowing the Chinese more freedom of action in Southeast Asia, where it is the main source of support for the military dictatorship in Myanmar (Burma). Beijing has built naval bases along Burma's coastline in the Bay of Bengal, better designed to service Chinese warships than the non-existent Myanmarese fleet.

In Tibet, Beijing has built all-weather military roads linking army bases, major airfields and ballistic missile sites. China is increasing its ability to launch strikes deep into India, by both aircraft and missiles, in the wake of growing unrest by the Tibetan people against Chinese oppression.

While the United States and India have a common enemy in radical Islam, whose terrorists were waging a campaign in the Indian province of Kashmir long before 9/11, the larger common threat is from China. Beijing’s rapid economic rise is giving the Communist regime the means to project its power across a wide arc. The 2008 annual report to Congress from the Office of the Secretary of Defense on the Military Power of the People’s Republic of China had as its key finding, “China’s expanding and improving military capabilities are changing East Asian military balances; improvements in China’s strategic capabilities have implications beyond the Asia-Pacific region.”

From the U.S. perspective, India is the only country on the Asian mainland that has the heft to counter China. From the Indian perspective, the U.S. is a vital source for technology to speed its economic development, and to improve its military capabilities. For example, India needs to match the ability of Chinese nuclear submarines to remain submerged while launching nuclear missiles, a senior Indian Navy planner recently told Defense News. New Delhi also needs to improve its general naval capabilities. Zachariah Mathews, a retired Indian Navy commodore, has identified three littoral regions — the Arabian Sea, the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal — that India needs to dominate. India will have to obtain the technology and weapons systems from foreign sources to do so. For example, the Indian frigate Tabar, which sank a pirate ship off the African coast Nov. 19, is a Russian design built in St. Petersburg. It also incorporates components from several other countries including Britain, Denmark, Germany, Ukraine, and India itself.  

Russia, particularly during the Soviet period, has been India’s primary source for military equipment. But since the collapse of the USSR, India has found this relationship less appealing. Russia is not the super power it once was, its equipment is second rate, and it is no longer an ally against China. Rather, Russia under Vladimir Putin has aligned Russia with China to counter American “hegemony.” India has turned to France, Germany, Israel, and Britain for arms, and is now looking for increased access to the American defense industry. Indian naval officers now speak in the Pentagon’s language of “net centric warfare.”

In the air, Lockheed Martin's F-16 Fighting Falcon and Boeing's F-18 Super Hornet have already emerged as the front-runners in the competition to sell 126 fighter jets to India worth $12 billion. Russia, Sweden and France are also in the hunt for one of the world’s richest export opportunities. Money, however, is not the only reason Washington wants an American firm to win the Indian bid. An arms deal will pull the military of the two countries together and foster interoperability.

The way for closer ties was opened with the ratification of the U.S.-India Agreement for Cooperation on Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy. The implementing legislation was signed by President Bush on Oct. 8, a week after it was passed by both houses of Congress. The Senate vote was 86-13, with both Barack Obama and Joe Biden voting with the majority (along with John McCain and Hillary Clinton). The immediate benefit is that it boosts America’s chances in competition with Russia and France when bidding on the eight nuclear reactors India plans to import by 2012. The larger gains go beyond the nuclear pact itself. The diplomacy behind the agreement will expand a relationship that was started by President Ronald Reagan in 1984 when he signed a memorandum of understanding on high-tech sales to India. Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns said when the nuclear deal was signed that it was, “positive for United States national security interest because it will help us cement our strategic partnership with India, which is very important for our global interests.”

President-elect Obama needs to understand the value of what President Bush has left him. During his presidential campaign, Obama raised fears in India regarding a potential U.S. tilt towards Pakistan in the Kashmir dispute. Obama’s thinking seems to be that to win greater Pakistani cooperation against militants in its border provinces with Afghanistan; the U.S. should help Islamabad advance its militant demands on India. Such a policy would only embolden jihadists and reward radical elements in Pakistan’s army and intelligence services who are the political enemies of the country’s new democratic government. Afghanistan and Kashmir are not separate issues, but a common cause for the Islamic terrorist movement. Alienating India in order to give the militants a partial victory would be a strategic disaster for the United States. Instead, Washington, in concert with NATO and India, need to make clear to Islamabad that the legitimacy of its claim to sovereignty over its border areas depends on preventing its territory from being used for attacks against its neighbors.

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari understands that the threat to the survival of his democratic government is internal, not external. Pakistan now wants to normalize relations with India, a country that poses no danger to Islamabad unless provoked. There is already an ongoing and productive peace process, which has included important back-channel negotiations over Kashmir. Rather than interfere with these discussions, Obama needs to keep focused on the larger strategic importance of closer ties with New Delhi. India is an emerging great power in Asia whose alignment with the United States is vital to the maintenance of a balance of power favorable to American security interests.


William Hawkins is a consultant on international economics and national security issues.


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