President Bush’s early March visit to India will turn out to be an historic event. While the agreement for the United States to provide India with advanced civilian nuclear materials and technology has been the focus of concentrated scrutiny, the geopolitical significance of this emerging partnership will help shape events in Asia for the century ahead. With India forecasted to emerge as the world’s most populous nation and an economy that is developing at a rate of over seven percent a year, New Delhi is poised to become an essential ally to the United States for the foreseeable future. When one weighs the potential gains against the prospective dangers, it is clear that America’s newest relationship will be durable and effective.
Initially conceived with a January 12, 2004 announcement by President Bush and further clarified with the January 18, 2005 “Joint Statement” during Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to the United States, the Next Step in Strategic Partnership (NSSP) has laid the groundwork for an advancing alliance that will witness reciprocated benefits for Washington and New Delhi. NSSP permits American companies to construct civilian nuclear reactors in India and provides Delhi with the raw materials necessary to run the reactors. The Bush administration has also agreed to provide India with advanced civil nuclear technology, unavailable but to only a few.
In turn, India will now separate its civilian nuclear power facilities from those which are military related. The civilian locations will be registered with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and be opened to their inspection. India has also pledged to observe the Non-Proliferation Treaty guidelines and maintain export controls compliant with the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the Missile Technology Control Regime. As National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley noted on March 2: “What this means is that India, which has a good record in safeguarding technology, but has largely stood out from outside non-proliferation arrangements, is moving inside those arrangements.”
Thus providing India – already a nuclear power with little transparency in its programs – with monitored civil nuclear assistance poses little danger to the United States or the international non-proliferation regime. In fact, the deal essentially helps non-proliferation efforts and brings a responsible state into the mainstream. This is not Iran, it is not North Korea, nor is it any other aspiring nuclear state. India has maintained a flawless record with its nuclear endeavors and its partnership with the United States will be instrumental in preserving stability in Asia.
Nonetheless, India has long been reluctant to become the junior partner – much less acquiescent – to a western power. This helps elucidate Delhi’s “non-alignment” status and close relations with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Their long experience as a colony of the British Empire attracted India to the Soviet rhetorical pronouncements on anti-colonialism, and Prime Minister Singh continues to draw on this theme today as he strengthens relations with another English speaking power. Prior to his visit to the United States in July 2005, Singh noted, “We are an independent power; we are not a client state; we are not a supplicant. As two equal societies, we should explore together where there is a convergence of interests and work together.” In other words, the Indian prime minister has sought to make it clear from the beginning that he will continue to pursue an independent foreign policy.
The Indian populace also maintains its reservations about aligning too close with America. One such concern arises from the perceived contradictions in Washington’s cultivation of strong relations with both New Delhi and Islamabad. The Bush administration has made an effort to “dehyphenate” their dealings with India and Pakistan, but the reality of the geopolitical situation between the South Asian neighbors makes any effort virtually unfeasible. This situation also leads to skepticism in these neighboring countries as to the actual motivations of the United States. In an article entitled “Two-timing George” in the Hindustan Times, this manifested in the quip that “[i]t took George W. Bush more than five years as US president to visit India. He came when he is struggling to repair his troubled presidency and avoid being labeled a lame duck.”
The United States president is indeed struggling. The fallout from Hurricane Katrina, the increase in violence in Iraq, and the issue of the United Arab Emirates firm DP World purchasing control of U.S. ports has kept George W. Bush against the ropes. However, this had no bearing whatsoever on the President’s trip and subsequent formal agreements with India. As noted above, NSSP was tentatively agreed to over two years ago and has far more to do with trade and security issues than domestic politics.
As was accurately summarized by Parag Khanna and C. Raja Mohan in The Hoover Institution’s Policy Review, “Asia, where two-thirds of the world’s population resides, is the new geopolitical stage.” There is no doubt that the Bush administration factors this strongly into the new equation. China and India each possess populations upwards of one billion people and are economically developing to one day outpace most of our European allies. Each of these emerging powers possesses nuclear weapons and is increasing their military capacity. However, with China’s deficiency of fundamental freedoms and democratic institutions and the propensity of the leadership in Beijing to actively counter American interests, Washington is beginning to view India as a valuable asset for the containment of China.
While it is a widely held belief that Prime Minister Singh has minimal interest in helping the United States balance China, recent Chinese strategic advances in the Indian Ocean have the potential of encircling his country. Beijing has been strengthening its long-held alliance with Pakistan and is in the process of developing the Port of Gwadar, providing China with access to the Arabian Sea to India’s west. To the East, Beijing hopes to establish a semi-client state in Burma and currently exerts more influence with the military regime than any other external actor. These developments, coupled with disputed border lines and Chinese military advances, leave India as a natural ally of the United States and undoubtedly have factored into Singh’s assessments.
The strengthening of relations between Washington and Delhi has already had an effect on trade between the two countries. This is essential for the United States because as trade continues to grow, so too does America’s trade deficit with India. The imbalance reached over $1.2 billion in favor of New Delhi in the month of January alone. The Bush administration – in particular, U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman, who also made the trip – is actively seeking Indian measures to lower its trade barriers to allow more American products to enter India’s vast and expanding market. Efforts to increase American capital into India were made during the early March trip as business leaders from both countries discussed ways to encourage investment in physical infrastructure, such as turning Bombay into a regional financial center.
Additional economic benefits which will inevitably arise from NSSP will be Delhi’s decreased reliance on oil as their expanding energy needs are assisted by nuclear power. This will result in environmental and energy price benefits. Currently India relies on imported oil for 40 percent of its energy consumption and has recently signed a natural a gas deal worth $22 billion with Iran. The Bush administration rightfully is not thrilled with this agreement as it seeks to isolate the Iranian regime and possibly impose United Nations mandated sanctions. As the United States improves its relationship with India, it should also have increased influence to dissuade New Delhi from pursuing such deals in the future.
Militarily advantages to the United States from this partnership are clear. India’s potential for manpower alone could be significant in any future conflict and New Delhi has been offered both F-16 and F-18 fighter aircraft from the Pentagon. Since 2002, India and the United States have conducted thirty joint military operations. According to Defense Minister Pranab Mukherjee, the Indians are also building three carrier fleets and have stepped up regional cooperation with neighbors such as Singapore and Sri Lanka to counter China’s quest for influence on India’s periphery.
Of equal importance, the growing alliance with New Delhi will produce concrete geopolitical gains for the United States. India has traditionally been rather hostile to American interests in international forums, such as the United Nations. However, New Delhi decided to join the United States at the IAEA on Iran, and increased congruency will continue to arise as the partnership strengthens and the Washington expands its influence with India.
As President Bush noted as he concluded his trip to India, “the United States and India, separated by half the globe, are closer than ever before and the partnership between our free nations has the power to transform the world.” Washington and New Delhi are united by a relatively parallel set of interests and values. While there will inevitably be situations that arise where our interests may vary, it is likely that India will emerge with Japan – and perhaps South Korea – as the principal American allies in Asia. The ramifications of such a development are large, and the United States, as well as the president’s legacy, will be rewarded immeasurably.
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