South Asia in the Eyes of the World

South Asia in the Eyes of the World
May 2001

Of late few events in South Asia have brought the region into focus in the eyes of the world, especially the major international players, US included. These events were to justify President Clinton’s predictions that South Asia shall remain the hot spot of post cold war era in international politics. When Junior Bush took over the mantles of administration of the world’s most powerful nation from President Clinton, policy analysts in South Asia and India in particular was agog with loads of skepticism. Republican administration did never have a favorable disposition for New Delhi. It was therefore expected that India’s brief honeymoon with Clinton was almost over and it’s back to the old days hectic lobbying against Islamabad’s almost taken for granted status as a favored nation. Contrarily however, the new administration held on to Clinton’s perceptions of changing power balances in South Asia and there has been an overwhelming indication that India is to continue to be in the US’s list of hot favorites. The major determinants have been new concerns around China and international terrorism in which Islamabad’s role have been too obvious much to the dislike of Washington. At the same time within India, some analysts see emerging closer ties between New Delhi and Washington as a potential counter to the growth of Chinese power. Though the U.S. does not officially view China as a threat, there are several serious problems in Sino-U.S. relations, especially concerning non-proliferation, U.S. National and Theatre Missile Defense Systems, the theft of American nuclear secrets, issues concerning Sino-U.S. trade and Taiwan1. In the wake of the diplomatic impasse over the spy plane issue, President Bush’s breaking away the official protocol and joining discussions of the visiting Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh with American National Security Advisor, Condolleezza Rice has been interpreted by policy analysts as a “message to China” as also being an indication of Washington’s perception and acceptance of India’s growing importance at a global level. At a micro level this is also acceptance of New Delhi emerging role as a balancer in the regional power politics of Asia. US President’s talks on global security issues with the Indian Minister for External Affairs has raised the possibility of New Delhi being taken in as an ally in the new administration’s evolving strategic calculus2. President Bush, and his advisers are pleased with the Indian Government’s apparent willingness to listen with an open mind to Washington proposals on a new strategic framework for international security, a response that contrasts with the skepticism and uncertainty that marks a good part of the European reaction. ” My impression is that India is one of the countries in the world prepared to think differently about the strategic environment and the role of defences in nuclear deterrence…. it’s a very welcome development,”3 Add this up with what President Bush himself said: ” After years of estrangement, India and the United States together surrendered to reality. They recognized an unavoidable fact – they are destined to have a qualitatively different and better relationship than in the past.”4 The composition of the team of Presidential Advisors also endorses this perception as most of them whether professionals or ideologues, understand India’s security compulsions vis-à-vis China, which contributed to militarization of its nuclear options5. The rapprochement in Indo-American relations serves as a warning to China, which seems to have adopted a “wait and watch” policy before proceeding further with the development of Sino-Indian relations. Thus given the amount of attention that India got from Washington’s new administration in first 100 days in office, a situation which happened never before, there is an obvious move towards convergence of New Delhi’s and Washington’s interests on a variety of issues and this could, which imagination and initiative, position Indo-U.S. relations on firmer ground6.

The warmth between the world’s two most prominent democracies is on the increase with the unfolding of areas of common interest. Both the countries have been victims of terrorism more particularly the growing clout of nacro-terrorism in the region. South Asia is also becoming host to new alliances and fast changing equations. The Chinese influence in Pakistan is as much disturbing to New Delhi as the Sino-Russian relationship been to Washington. The changing maritime strategic equation in the Indian Ocean is equally disturbing for both. A mutually beneficial alliance would benefit not only both the nations, but also ensure better chances of peace and stability in a region considered the next flash-point of a world conflict.

However, there are a few remnants of the past that could still throw relationship out of gear, especially if constraints are allowed space. It appears at the hindsight that the diplomatic agendas of India and the US of building a mutually beneficial strategic bond are not equally matched at this stage of development. U.S. has only indicated its desire to explore how far it could count on India as also other ” friends and allies” for support in its new security framework. But New Delhi may be misreading the signal by scrambling to tune to the US’s strategic wavelengths without appearing to probe its game plan. This is becoming evident as economic considerations helped end the discontent between Washington and Beijing with pressure from corporates forcing Bush administration to tone down an almost belligerent attitude towards China much as it may appear to the dislike of those for whom US’s China containment with India was almost a foregone conclusion. If India is looking for geopolitical clarity to define its national security strategy, it may not find it any time soon7.

Thus the expectations that power equations in the region at least involving India and Pakistan would be reconfigured along traditional lines of United States’ Islamabad appeasement were largely belied. What then is for New Delhi to do? The analyst say that it should strive for an open-ended engagement with all the big powers with economic cooperation as the focus and try to consolidate its traditional ties with Moscow, resolve bilateral problems with China and build trust. “Such a multi-directional engagement would stand and prepare it for any radical shifts in great power relations.” Re-defining ties with Russia is of particular significance as the power equations changed. ‘‘During the cold war period, India was largely viewed by outsiders as the junior partner… The relationship is no longer one of equals, that India is pre-eminent because it is rising while Russia is declining,8’’ As New Delhi’s outgoing Ambassador to Moscow put it, the relations between the two countries have stabilized and moved into constructive overdrive, branching out from traditional areas such as tea and pharmaceuticals to computer software and infrastructure projects9.

Washington’s need to have a strong military presence in Asia has become more pronounced than ever before with China facing an uncertain, and perhaps unstable, future as it tries to balance economic reform with its “political dictatorship.” (US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld). Besides, Washington has been using the peculiarities of South Asian power equations to its advantage, keeping the region’s two of the frequent warring nations at lease. It has been issuing regular statements indicating its desire to lift all sanctions imposed after the nuclear explosions in the sub-continent. It has kept its pressures on with Musharraf to return the country to democratic rule and help Washington fight international terrorism and drug war. It has leaned on New Delhi to chalk out a process of dialogue with all the groups involved in Kashmir imbroglio including Pakistan. There was no surprise, therefore in allegations of India giving in to US pressures on Kashmir issue that the opposition parties have leveled against the government in India. Washington, however was prompt to deny any involvement. “This was not a U.S.-initiated process; this was a process between the parties. This is what we have always said: that there needs to be a dialogue in which they can address these issues. These are issues that have been dividing the two countries for over 50 years, so we welcomed the dialogue.” The State Department asserted that neither India nor Pakistan has asked the United States for any help or guidance; and that Washington on its own has not initiated anything with either side10. But there was a reiteration of the American position that it will confine itself to encouraging a “sustained engagement” between India and Pakistan though it will neither seek to set the agenda for Indo-Pak dialogue nor make any bid for mediation. (Christina Rocca Assistant Secretary of State).

The fact however remains that the US will keep itself deeply engaged in South Asia “trying to have balanced and strong relations” with India and Pakistan; and that it will do everything it can “to the improvement of relations between the two countries and the difficult outstanding issues, whether it is Kashmir or nuclear issues.” (US Secretary of State, Gen. Colin Powell). This effectively means US warmth for India will not be at cost to Pakistan contrary to what most in India expected.

This may have been the reason that prompted the Bush administration to play down the perceived failure at Agra. Vajpayee-Musharraf summit was not a failure. For the very reason that the meeting took place, the summit was a “success,” was what the Assistant Secretary of State to say about the summit11. To the State Department the Agra summit between has shown the path to be taken for the eventual settlement of the differences between India and Pakistan. “While India and Pakistan did not reach agreement on a final joint statement, it is important to keep this meeting in perspective. “We strongly support sustained engagement at a senior level between India and Pakistan as a best way to address long-term bilateral disputes and make real progress toward reduction of tension and resolution of differences through peaceful means,” a State Department official told The Hindu and that it has reason to hope that the Agra summit will be the start of such a continuing process12. For a start, there was not much expectation about the outcome of the Summit in the States but a balanced view that the outcome of the meeting is neither going to be a dramatic breakthrough nor a disaster. In what can be termed as an endorsement of New Delhi’s official position, there was the feeling in some quarters that if Pakistan sticks to its traditional approach and insists on talking only about Kashmir, the summit will fail. Dr. Steven Cohen, of the Brooking Institutions, argued that with the Bush administration still groping for a policy on South Asia, New Delhi wanted to preempt a more active US role and thus handed out the surprise invitation for summit talks. Moreover, India now enjoys “more strategic freedom” what with its ties with US closer than ever before. By engaging with Pakistan India hoped to gain both in the short and the long term. Besides consolidating its ties with Washington with display of openness and diplomatic maturity, New Delhi hoped to get out of the “Pakistan trap” which, in many ways, is constraining it from being able to play its aspired role globally13.

The US looks at India for a strategic relationship in both economic and security terms. “The relationship obviously ….reflects a number of shifts; the shifts in Europe and Asia at the end of the Cold War as well as some of the changes that have been taking place in India over the course of the decade14. The Assistant Secretary of State thought on similar lines while taking note of India’s emerging economic profile as an object of Washington’s new thinking about South Asia. But there is nothing to suggest that Washington will be sighing away from nuclear non- proliferation issues in which it finds India as also Pakistan proven offenders and potential threats. There is a perception that while India’s nuclear policy is mainly a deterrent against China and Pakistan, it may be “aimed” at the United States due to concerns over Washington’s alleged “global hegemony” and “interventionism”15. Does that lead to the position that prompts Washington to treat India as a “potential foe” and making sense in placating Beijing by promoting a Confederation of Taiwan and China?

The bottom line is now that US intends to continue on the path set by the Clinton administration with small but significant changes in the bilateral relationships both with India and Pakistan including review of the sanctions and a broader engagement on security issues. This explained US reluctance to be drawn out on India’s concerns about cross sponsored terrorism vis-à-vis Pakistan.

Though a military government in Pakistan was making things difficult for the US administration, the old ties remained to extent that Washington helped Pakistan tide over a major financial crisis and was expecting Islamabad’s support in its fight against terrorism involving Bin Laden and Afghanistan’s Taliban militia. The influential pro-Pakistan lobby in the States saw to it that Islamabad bashing remained at a harmless length even with a plethora of indiscretions. Thus though New Delhi’s Clinton honeymoon was not put into the ice as was largely anticipated, its expectation of a dominant relationship with the sole super power was somewhat thwarted.

The China-Russia summit held in Moscow in July held significance for the region both in strategic and ideological perspectives, more so in the context of the attempts being initiated to form a forum for trilateral cooperation involving India, China and Russia in the post Cold War era. The idea of a ‘‘strategic triangle’’ first mooted by former Russian premier Yevgeny Primakov during his visit to New Delhi in 1999, is based on broad agreements on the need for a multi-polar world, establishment of a fair international economic order and resolving of local and regional conflicts through the United Nations. Besides championing the cause of the developing countries, cooperation between China, India and Russia is expected to make the international situation more stable and balanced16. It will however be quite a balancing act for India to reconcile to international real politics if ever stakes are raised at the alter of Washington-Beijing relations.

Both India and Germany have made known their interest in permanent membership of an expanded UN Security Council and although they have not openly backed each other’s candidature, pointers of indirect support have not been lacking. Mr. Fischer made some significant points during his visit here last year – that India was on its way to becoming “one of the most important powers of the 21st century” or that it was a “force for regional stability” and praised New Delhi’s restraint during the Kargil conflict. On his part, the External Affairs Minister, Mr. Jaswant Singh, spoke of “natural partnership” between the two countries. Among the current global issues, both India and Germany are against the scraping of the Kyoto package on global warming. They have identical views on the importance of a multi- polar world. However, the proposal to establish an International Criminal Court finds them on different sides of the fence – with Germany not sharing India’s fears on sovereignty abridgement. In the present setting, the two sides could take disagreements in their stride, while focussing on steps to enhance cooperation17.

With the sensitive issue of sanctions out, Canada now has focussed its attention on improving its ties with India in a big way. “India is an important country and it is going to be a more important country in the years to come.” The thrust of bilateral relations are on economic cooperation based on the belief that if good economic relations are established, it would help resolve political and other contentious issues of the relationship. For long the Liberal Government of Mr. Jean Chretien has been making some important adjustments to its India policy, the main one being the realization that by pursuing the sanctions route, Ottawa had not achieved much and that the engaging India was in the interest of Ottawa and bilateral relations18.

And as India and Australia concluded the inaugural round of their strategic dialogue, focusing on maritime security and threats to stability in the Indian Ocean and the South China sea, export controls and nuclear and missile non-proliferation the region’s importance in contributing to international security and maintaining regional and strategic stability was re-emphasized.

However, even as the region grows in importance, intra-regional skirmishes continue to keep the area divided and consequently weak. Developments in Nepal following the Regicide were not to the liking of most of the neighboring countries. Three events — the mutilation of Indian troops by Pakistan’s Northern Light Infantry in Kargil, the murder of an Indian passenger during the hijacking of IC-814 at Kandahar in Afghanistan, and the recent torture and murder of Border Security Force personnel by the Bangladesh Rifles — have left deep scars on the regional psyche. There is something about India that inspires mistrust, awe, jealously, belligerence and contemptuous indifference amongst her smaller neighbors. Nepal, Myanmar, Bhutan and Bangladesh have been exploiting their enormous mischief-making potential at will and with alarming regularity. Pakistan will continue to follow the path of confrontation for its own survival, and possibly to serve certain international interests. China has an unambiguous agenda, which is to emerge as a superpower and take on the US. It has understandably, therefore, been concentrating on building its economy and modernizing its armed forces, while at the same time ensuring that India does not presume to compete with it. India continues to have unresolved border disputes with Pakistan, China, Nepal and Bangladesh. Though it appears that India has jettisoned its global nanny role, the prescription for the day is that New Delhi resolve those among them. India should ratify the 1974 Agreement on exchange of enclaves with Bangladesh and resolve its border disputes with that country. It must strengthen and intensify its border security management arrangements to counter illegal migration, smuggling, and so on, but also rein in the impulses of anti-Indian political attitudes entertained by some political segments, encouraged and abetted by extremist religious forces and Pakistani intelligence agencies.

In South Asia, the destiny of India is linked to that of the region. Domestic compulsions can not wish away the realities of international geo politics. South Asia will gain if it stands out as a unit. As a region home to congenital hostilities having potential to trigger a conflagration of world standards it has already earned its notoriety. It’s time it en-cashes on its unique advantages of having the world’s largest democracy and the market.

1This has assumed signficance in veiw of US’s open assertions of commitment to defend the island if it is attacked by China, while approving the biggest arms package to Taiwan in a decade. President Bush’s comments- “Yes we do (have an obligation to defend Taiwan) and the Chinese must understand that” are sure to alarm China, which has been anticipating a drift in washington’s policy towards a defacto military alliance “with an island Beijing regards as a wayward province to be reunified by force if necessary.” Andrew Brown in The Telegraph 26 April 2001, p4.

2It however betrays an acute optimism that at this stage India is capable and equipped either to be a strategic counterpoise to China or be an influential factor in US- Soviet equations. Edit; The Hindu, 10 April 2001

3US National Security Adviser, Dr. Condoleeza Rice ‘We welcome India’s thinking differently’ cited in The Hindu pg.10,Wednesday JUNE 20,2001

4The Hindu pg.1, Friday JUNE 22,01

5There is no acceptance however, of India’s perceived need for a nuclear deterrent for further up-gradation of its nuclear and missile capability. B.Raman; The Business Line 4 April 2001

6Amitabh Matoo The Hindu pg.12, Saturday, MAY 5,01

7C. Raja Mohan in The Hindu 2 August 2001

8The report of the CIA cited in The Indian Expresss 2 August 2001.

9S.K. Lambah reported in Hindustan Times 26 July 2001.

10The Hindu 20 July 2001.

11Cited in The Hindustan Times 20 July 2001.

12The Hindu 18 July 2001

13Ms. Teresita Schaffer of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, The Hindu 13 July 2001

14“U.S. Trade Representative (USTR), Mr. Robert Zoellick, The Hindu 22 July 2001.

15Prof. Donald Lane Berlin the Asia Pacific Centre for Securities’ Studies “The Growing Nuclear Weapons Threat: An Assessment of US Strategic Options”, in Strategic Review, July 2001.

16The Indian Express 10 August 2001.

17K. K. Katyal The Hindu 27 August 2001

18Sridhar Krishnaswami; The Hindu 12 May 2001

Compiled from media sources


Arabinda Acharya