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Why the US must not alienate India

Last updated on: April 01, 2010 17:27 IST
Raymond E Vickery, Jr, a former US Assistant Secretary of Commerce, on why the US must not take its eye off its relationship with India.

After two days of talks in New Delhi at the Indian Council of World Affairs, it is obvious that the Indian foreign policy elite is worried about US-Indian relations. We Americans should be too.

Indians are worried that the United States sees its relationship with authoritarian China as more important than democratic India; that the US is building up its arch-rival Pakistan in a way that strengthens Pakistan's ability to wage war against India while turning away from the fight against terrorism toward India; that the United States is continuing to deny exports to India based on outdated Cold War concepts; and that some US officials still see the Indian nuclear programme as illegitimate.

India should be our most important Asian partner. India and the United States are now 'joined at the hip' through values and people. We both subscribe to democracy, the rule of law, largely market-driven free enterprise, ethnic and racial pluralism, secularism, and basic human rights of freedom of speech, the press and religion.

Today, Indian-American scientists, doctors, entrepreneurs and politicians play vital roles in our nation. Indian Americans on a per family basis have the highest average incomes of any US ethnic group. Indians are the largest foreign student population in US colleges and universities.

Home to some 1.2 billion people, India will soon overtake China as the most populous nation in the world. Unlike the populations of other Asian powerhouses, the population of India is young (55% under the age of 25) and becoming younger on average. India is full of dynamic, resourceful young people now freed from the dead hand of the old 'license raj'.

The relentless force of demographics convinces analysts at Goldman Sachs and elsewhere that India will be the second largest economy by mid-century. By then, India will be the only major world economy continuing to grow rapidly.

Historically, the United States has been India's leading investor and trading partner.

Through the US-India civil nuclear deal, the United States has agreed to share its most awesome civilian technologies with India. Over the past (two) years the Indian defence budget has increased by 30%. India plays an important naval role in the Indian Ocean in fighting piracy, and cooperates with the United States in keeping the Straits of Hormuz and Malacca open.

India has nuclear weapons and missiles capable of conducting missions to the moon -- which it is doing in cooperation with NASA.

With the second largest standing army in the world and as a continual victim of horrendous terrorist attacks, it has common interests with the United States in fighting extremism and restoring peace in Afghanistan -- where it is playing a vital role in civilian reconstruction and development. India has consistently taken the position that Iran should adhere to its obligations and not develop nuclear weapons.

In spite of all this, India is worried that the US sees China as its most important Asian relationship. Talk about a 'G-2' and the US and China combining to solve South Asian problems is particularly worrisome. The facts that China lays claim to virtually a whole Indian state, surreptitiously helped Pakistan with its nuclear programme, has accepted a gift from Pakistan of territory India considers its own, and asserts its rights to take water from rivers that flow into India do not help Indian feelings.

On the other hand, if the US considers China its most important relationship, maybe India should too. China has now overtaken the US as India's leading trade partner.

India has seventeen trade missions in the works to marry Indian information technology services to Chinese manufacturing capabilities. India is in talks with China about border issues and their militaries regularly engage in dialogue.

On Pakistan, the Indians feel that 'they have seen this movie before.' Many wonder how many times will the Americans resort to supplying the Pakistanis with military hardware to be used against US enemies only to have it go into the arsenal for use against India.

During the Cold War, the US enemy was the Soviet Union and tanks were supplied to Pakistan on the condition they not be used against India. This restriction did not keep those American-made tanks from rolling across the Indian border in 1965 after Pakistan initiated hostilities in Kashmir that year.

Will more F-16s be useful in the fight against the terrorists who essentially operate through unconventional warfare or are those weapons most likely to be more useful against India? However, what really bothers the Indians is the failure of the United States to insist that Pakistan wipe out the radical Islamic terrorists attacking such targets as the Indian Parliament, Mumbai and Pune in the same way the US insists on the use of Pakistan military might against terrorist organisations fighting US troops in Afghanistan.

With information from Chicago-based terrorist David Headley, it now seems that involvement of Pakistani forces in running the attacks on Mumbai are irrefutable -- and yet to date Indian officials have not even been allowed to question Headley much less extradite him for his admitted involvement in the Mumbai attacks. One Indian commentator speculates that the US is simply 'sleeping with the enemy' to disarm him. Many just do not understand what is going on.

The United States continues to keep some of India's most prized space and defence companies on the so-called 'entities list.' If the US wants to partner with India on security issues -- to promote inter-operability on a range of defence matters -- why the continued restrictions?

One answer is simply to buy more MIGs from the Russians and drone aircraft from the Israelis -- both of which India is now doing. Unfortunately, the goodwill from the US-India civil nuclear deal is dissipating rapidly.

The present Indian government is weakened in Parliament by widespread opposition to its plan to provide quotas in Parliament for women. As a consequence, it is having trouble mustering strength for passing a bill to deal with the possible liabilities of US firms from nuclear accident. State-owned Russian civil nuclear companies can wrap themselves in sovereign immunity and need no such legislation.

India is proceeding with the Russians (and to a lesser extent the French) while the US deal is on hold. India wants to reprocess spent fuel, but the US is afraid reprocessed fuel might be useful militarily.

The US and India continue to argue about this while some Indian observers wonder if officials who previously opposed the US-India civil nuclear deal aren't holding up resolution of the issue in hopes of rolling back the Indian nuclear programme. The longer true US-India civil nuclear engagement is held up, the more the Indian Opposition uses it as a target.

Nobody ever said that moving from US-India estrangement to partnership would be easy. Constant engagement at all levels on disparate issues is necessary to build a strong friendship that is in the interests of both nations.

Large majorities in both India and the US want that kind of friendship. We best get on with it and not take our eye off the ball.

Raymond E Vickery, Jr is a Senior Director, Albright Stonebridge Group, LLC. He is also a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars 2009. He is a former US Assistant Secretary of Commerce, Trade Development. The opinions expressed are personal.

Raymond E Vickery, Jr