Monday, November 23, 2009

Anti-terror Ties Bridge US-India Gap

Here's a link to a story on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit to the US by Peter Brown that has quoted me. The story appeared in the Asia Times Online (November 24).

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is in the United States for a state visit as many Indians are finding US President Barack Obama's treatment of India less friendly and perhaps more unpredictable than the approach of former president George W Bush.

"We understand America's tactical compulsions. What we don't understand is what is its big strategy," a senior Indian official told the Times of India.

However, with the first anniversary of the last year's November 26 terrorist attack on Mumbai fast approaching, events over the past few days may reshuffle the deck as far as Manmohan's priorities are concerned. Manmohan, who arrived on Monday morning for a visit that will culminate in dinner at the White House on Tuesday, has accused Pakistan of not doing enough given that the Mumbai conspiracy originated there. He repeated that charge shortly after touching down in the US.

His remarks - along with the arrest in Italy last week of two alleged supporters of the plot, as well as the arrest by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) last month of two men in Chicago allegedly linked to the group blamed for the atrocity - add to the possibility that the Mumbai attack may emerge as the core mission for Manmohan's visit to the US.

US Central Intelligence Agency director Leon Panetta's short visit to India last week highlighted how volatile this situation is becoming. He went there to discuss, among other things, possible ties between the Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan and the two men recently arrested by the FBI in Chicago: David Coleman Headley, a US citizen of Pakistani origin, and Tahawwur Hussain Rana, a Canadian. Any alleged involvement of a US citizen in the Mumbai attack not only broadens the scope of the conspiracy but brings ongoing US domestic counterterrorism activities and FBI surveillance data into focus.

"We have been working hand-to-hand, shoulder-to-shoulder, hour-by-hour in cooperating and sharing information with India's government on a daily, weekly and monthly basis," said US Ambassador to India Timothy Roemer at a news conference at the US embassy in New Delhi. Voice of America reported that Roemer "declined to discuss how Washington would react to any extradition request by [India]".

Manmohan will no doubt seek assurances from the Obama administration that the US "will exert considerable pressure on Islamabad to meet its UN-mandated anti-terror obligations, and, credibly prosecute the ideologues and perpetrators directly tied to the carnage," said Sourabh Gupta, senior research associate at Samuels International Associates in Washington, DC.

"As the US concentrates minds in Islamabad to fight the necessary fight for Pakistan's own survival, a price ought not to be paid in New Delhi," said Gupta.

While India can count on many friends in Washington, Obama's unfortunate omission of India altogether from his recent speech in Tokyo had left many in India wondering about the current US position on India.

"While the Bush administration may have recognized India not only as a regional power but also as a potential global power and as a strong pillar in the new and evolving Asian strategic framework, this view may not hold true under the Obama administration," said Rajeswari Rajagopalan, senior fellow in Security Studies at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi. "Despite the popular perception of the relative decline of US power, the US continues to be the sole superpower, and India believes that it is in its best interests to have a strengthened partnership with the US."

Some analysts blame India for its apparent inability or failure to craft a corresponding comprehensive US strategy of its own.

"No thinking has been ever done in India as to what it expects out of a long-term strategic relationship with the US. It is always the US which decides what it will give to India, and it is New Delhi which accepts," said Bahukutumbi Raman, director of the Institute for Topical Studies in Chennai. "What passes for analysis in India is just wishful thinking."

Since the US does not depend on India in any matter, no actual quid pro quo relationship - let alone a viable strategic partnership - was ever created. Instead, India has been assigned the role of a sub-regional power "whose aspirations of having a status on par with China are unrealistic," according to Raman.

"Nobody in India has realized that, for the first time, the US, Japan and Australia have a leadership which does not rate highly India's potential as an emerging power," said Raman, who has previously stated that Obama is following closely in the footsteps of president Jimmy Carter in terms of presenting the US as confused and soft on important global issues.

The vast majority of Americans are simply unaware of Manmohan, and the importance of his visit escapes them. As the leader of the world's largest democracy, Manmohan has an opportunity to show how India and the US share important geopolitical, economic and environmental objectives. Most of all, Indian and US interests intersect when it comes to dealing with China's rapid economic and military ascent.

"India does not wish to see a hostile relationship between the US and China with destabilizing consequences for the continent," said Rajagopalan. "India needs the US to play a major role in dealing with China and Pakistan, although it is not clear yet whether it will be a positive one."

Although US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spent several days in India in July and left a strong impression in the process, Gupta stresses that the US needs to do far more to convince India that the US is and will remain a reliable partner. If the US fails to deal with this credibility gap effectively, the US risks "leading others in Asia to question the reliability of the US as a balancer against China. These are not trivial considerations," said Gupta.

"The US must ensure that it does not use India and South Asia-related agenda items as a salve to paper over differences in US-China political/strategic relations. US-India relations must not be a derivative of the US-China relationship but accorded bilateral exclusivity at a minimum."

This is one reason Obama's rather unexpected comments during his trip to Asia about possibly expanding China's role in South Asia created an uproar in India .

"The failure of [Obama] to understand the distrust of China in large sections of Indian civil society has landed the US in a situation in which the considerable goodwill between India and the US created during the administration of his predecessor stands in danger of being diluted by his unthinking words and actions," wrote Raman recently, adding that China has consistently tried to isolate India "by keeping alive the old distrusts and animosities and creating new ones".

The US quickly attempted to amend Obama's remarks. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Williams Burns said that "the US is interested in pursuing the best and healthiest possible partnership with China, but that does not come at the expense of other increasingly important partnerships, particularly our relationship with India."

Obama can now set a more positive tone, according to Gupta, by quickly signing off on an agreement that will allow India to reprocess spent nuclear fuel.

"Parties are close to an agreement on this front. There could be no stronger statement of continuity than continued forward movement on this signature Bush administration initiative, which was vigorously opposed by some who are now in the current administration," said Gupta.

Subrata Ghoshroy, senior associate in the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, identifies several other issues on the "nuclear agenda" that will be discussed, besides reprocessing - "which India wants and the US does not". For example, Manmohan will arrive with his administration's approval of the Nuclear Liability Bill, which will allow India to join the international convention on civilian liability in case of nuclear damage.

"Right now, it is not clear when he will introduce it to the [Indian] parliament," said Ghoshroy. "Nonetheless, it is an important step that will make it easier for US companies to build nuclear plants in India."

US companies are refusing to start construction in India until this legislation, which would immunize US companies in the event of a nuclear accident, is signed into law.

"In a way, this puts the entire onus on India and Indian companies alone and not on the US companies, their technologies or materials," said Rajagopalan. "Neither Russia nor France have demanded such a pact. If and when India signs such an agreement, it will inevitably include all the countries that are involved in the nuclear trade with India. It is not certain how India and the US will find a way out of this muddle."

According to Ghoshroy, the US also wants India to begin negotiations on the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT), as well as make positive statements about the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Manmohan is on record as saying that India's deterrent is credible, so no more tests are necessary anyway.

"India may continue to [attach] the CTBT to a timetable for complete disarmament," said Ghoshroy. "But the US has leverage regarding trade - especially on IT [information technology] and a nuclear deal - that could induce India to sign the CTBT."

Another key area involves a further revising of the denial regime of the US when it comes to the transfer of high-technology. In this regard, more measures on the civilian side are important, including a comprehensive commercial space launch agreement (CSLA) in line with the positive improvements made this summer. Without the CSLA, India cannot enter the lucrative commercial satellite market both for US commercial satellites or third-country satellites with US components.

"On the defense/military side, there is also a strong desire to reach an agreement on a 'Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum' so as to ensure the secrecy of bilateral [intelligence and surveillance, or so-called C4ISR] exchanges. This will enable access to strategically sensitive US weapons systems," said Gupta.

C4ISR is a term used by the US military meaning: command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance.

Although the transfer of certain sophisticated technologies from the US to India is easier today, "nothing is going to happen overnight. India is trying to move away from its dependence on Russian equipment, but cost and end-use restrictions are still major challenges in buying American," said Ghoshroy, who added that the biggest near-term purchase for India involves procurement of 126 tactical aircraft worth US$10 billion. US defense giant Lockheed Martin is a strong contender with its F-16s jet fighters.

"There is also accelerated collaboration in missile defense systems. India is seeking 'seeker' technology . It presently has only RF [radio frequency] seekers from Russia, but would like to have infrared technology for longer-range missiles," said Ghoshroy.

India is also increasing its procurement of Israeli defense technology, although the joint Israeli-US Arrow anti-missile system, for example, has not yet been added to the list. Chief of Staff General Deepak Kapoor's recent four-day visit to Israel - now India's top supplier of military hardware - was capped off by completion of the sale of a tactical air defense system to India, among other things.

Other items on the agenda for Manmohan's visit include climate change, Afghanistan, and India's relations with Iran.

Just prior to his departure to Washington, Manmohan met with Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki. Manmohan told the Washington Post that because Iran is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty the development of nuclear weapons by Iran is not a viable option. In addition, according to Manmohan, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) informed Manmohan a few weeks ago that, "he was not so sure that Iran is definitely working towards a nuclear weapon." Earlier this month, India changed its mind, and declared there was no possibility that India might launch an Iranian satellite in the coming months.

"India cannot play a substantive role with Iran. Although Indian business houses like Tata and Reliance are active in Iran, India's recent votes in the IAEA have irked Iran," said Ghoshroy. "India has also pulled out of ... gas pipeline negotiations under US pressure. They continue to maintain friendly relations, but I doubt they have any real cards to play."

In East Asia, India and the US have always enjoyed good relations with Japan. The US has encountered mixed signals lately from Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and his new government. India is also detecting a shift in attitude in Tokyo, as well as a degree of uncertainty. A few days prior to Obama's arrival in Japan, Indian Defense Minister AK Antony held talks with his Japanese counterpart, Toshimi Kitazawa, in Tokyo, the first visit to Japan by an Indian defense minister since 2006.

According to Gupta, while any uncertainty surrounding the US-Japan alliance "doesn't directly feed into the US-India equation", Manmohan should be quite concerned by Hatoyama's "less than forthcoming attitude". It is expected that Hatoyama will travel to India as early as next month.

"[Previous Japanese leaders] were of a remarkably pro-Indian orientation. Shinzo Abe was extended the 'values based' alliance to include India within his notion of a 'broader Asia'. The Japan-India joint statement on defense cooperation was signed during Taro Aso's premiership," said Gupta. "By this high standard, the Hatoyama folk have been something of a let-down."

The US and India may see differently when it comes to China and Pakistan, but they have mutually beneficial outcomes - and basically share the same vision - for countries including Afghanistan, Myanmar and for the Tibet Autonomous Region. Africa is on that roster, too. As for efforts to secure India a permanent seat on the UN Security Council (UNSC) in particular, little progress is expected during Manmohan's visit.

"I do not expect the US will announce support for India to become a member of the UN Security Council but it should. It is long overdue," said Nicholas Burns, professor of the practice of diplomacy and international politics at Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He has been a strong supporter of the need for a larger and more inclusive UNSC.

Burns contends that, above all else, the Obama administration has to demonstrate clearly "that India's rise to power is in the strategic interest of the US".

"Due to the number of short-term foreign policy crises confronting the US, such as Afghanistan/Pakistan, and the Iran and North Korea nuclear challenges, for example, the administration has not given much public emphasis to US-India relations," said Burns. "This week's state visit gives them the opportunity to do so. Obama needs to reverse the impression that he cares more about China than India. He needs to articulate a strong and positive vision for the future of US-India ties as his two predecessors did so well."

Peter J Brown is a freelance writer from the US state of Maine

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