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August 30, 2000


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E-Mail this column to a friend Major General Ashok K Mehta (retd)

Vajpayee's US visit: Concretising Indo-US ties

The BJP national executive meeting at Nagpur debated everything under the sun, from corporate farming to the government's economic policy. But there was not even one mention of foreign policy anywhere during the meeting, indicating the total harmonisation of the views between the government and the party.

This is the single biggest achievement for the Vajpayee government, next to staying in office -- its forward march in foreign policy. Although history now, it is ironical that India appeared on the US radar screen only after its nuclear tests. At that time, leading American interlocutors had the gall to tell India it had betrayed the US. They flagged Pokhran as the lowest point in the history of Indo-US relations. This was not all. They had the temerity to demand that India cap and roll back its nuclear capability.

It was India's nuclear diplomacy charted single-handedly by Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh that got India out of the hole it had allegedly dug itself into. The fallout of the nuclear tests was contained through a marathon engagement of the US that led to the original 12 non-proliferation demands being pruned down to four. It also triggered off a series of strategic dialogues with big league countries including China.

In less than two years after the tests, Bill Clinton was in Delhi affirming that a new place and priority was evolving in the US for India through a convergence of interests based on sovereign equality and mutual respect. There were differences too: on non-proliferation and security concerns. Hence the bottomline of Indo-US nuclear dialogue was the reconciliation of the US non-proliferation programme with India's security concerns.

Vajpayee's visit to Washington next week is designed to concretise the growing Indo-US ties despite the imminent change of guard there. To begin with, the relations are characterised by a feel-good factor generated by the much greater sensitivity both inside and outside the US administration about India's concerns, not just about security but also on other issues like globalisation and trade. Indian officials feel it is much easier to do business with the US now. But the picture is not all that rosy since the future of these relations is threatened by the immediate issue of India signing the CTBT.

No administration in the US, it is believed, will let India off the hook on the CTBT. Equally, it will insist on a resumption of dialogue with Pakistan, at the very least, on nuclear risk reduction. Remember, Bill Clinton's speech writers had called J&K the most dangerous place on earth. Therefore, prevention of conflict has become the paramount US concern in the region. The US policy of denial -- sanctions on dual use technology, the entities list and military cooperation -- has become hostage to the CTBT. That seems pretty clear of the present and future US policy. The CTBT is a tricky card in Vajpayee's hand. It has to be played carefully to see if it can be used to get the US off India's back on the nuclear issue.

In the US itself, the CTBT has become a non-issue, especially after its non-ratification by the senate and the advocacy of National Missile Defence. Similarly, the Russian and Chinese stance too on the CTBT has been diluted due to their security concerns. Yet, the US has not demurred from telling India that it must sign the CTBT because it is in its interests to do so. The recent disclosures by the scientific community about the technical deficiencies in India's nuclear capability and therefore the need for further testing will make it extremely difficult for Vajpayee to make any specific commitment on the CTBT. One can be sure Clinton will not derive the satisfaction of an Indian signature on the CTBT that would put further strain on the credibility of India's nuclear deterrence.

But on Kashmir, Vajpayee can move halfway to satisfy Clinton. He can repeat the offer of resuming a dialogue provided Pakistan stopped its sponsorship and abetment of jehad. Since this conditionality will not jell with Pervez Musharraf, an early dialogue is unlikely. What is feasible, however, and probable, is India agreeing to start talks on nuclear risk reduction previously envisaged in the Lahore Declaration. The US is desperate to get some kind of agreement on J&K, it doesn't matter what. Similarly, Pervez Musharraf is dying to shake hands with Vajpayee. The handshake is also unlikely.

If there is not much Vajpayee can give, what can he bring back? He could nudge the US into reviving the defence cooperation initiative started in 1992 by General Kickleighter which has been languishing since the Pokhran tests. The Kickleighter Plan and the agreed Minute on Defence related to cooperation at three levels -- military-to-military, between the Pentagon and the MoD and research and development -- was the first ever comprehensive defence initiative between the two countries. The US has been keen to learn from India's rich operational experience at Siachen, about counterinsurgency and peacekeeping. Though training courses under the US international military education scheme have been resumed at US military institutions, joint exercises between the three services remained frozen.

Similarly, there is a clampdown on visits by defence scientists as well as by the institutionalised exchange in technology, vital for India's Light Combat Aircraft Programme. Interaction at the bureaucratic level is also at a standstill.

The Indo-US convergence of interests focuses on terrorism, science and technology, energy and environment and business and trade. India will receive complete support for its global convention on terrorism that has many countries including the G8 already on board. Once this is tabled in the UN and becomes law in the next three to four years, it will restrain countries' behaviour on terrorism, attracting penalties and punitive action for hosting and supporting terrorism. Pakistan and other Islamic countries are bound to fight this convention tooth and nail. The Indo-US working groups on terrorism replicates the ones US has with UK and Israel.

The other joint working groups in place are the Science and Technology Forum and Energy Security and Environment. The two-way trade between India and the US is around $ 12 billion with India enjoying a trade surplus of six billion. US commercial and business interests in China are nearly ten times bigger. The lack of a reliable investment plan, absence of business networking and India's reservations on labour and trade issues have inhibited free flow of trade.

Against this mixed scorecard, does the US regard India as a strategic player in the power game? And will the US, assuming it has leverage over Pakistan and China, lose it to make India's quest for strategic space less arduous? First, whether India likes it or not, US has become a tacit interlocutor on regional stability, especially in J&K. US policymakers are divided on whether India fits the bill as a strategic partner. Most feel that given the weight of India's internal stability problems, it is not yet ready and capable of strategic interplay. Secondly, they do not see India in the same league as China which flaunts its autonomy disproportionately to its capacity and potential and gets away with it. India, for the present, is therefore seen as a rising star. And US-India relations can at best develop on the lines of US and France: as friends not allies.

But things can change. As India achieves internal and economic stability along with its strategic autonomy, and can rid itself of the Pakistan bogey, it will be able to play its natural role as a strategic actor on the Asian scene.

Major General Ashok K Mehta (retd)

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