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India needs a relationship of equals; the US will not offer that

By Rajeev Srinivasan
June 16, 2010 19:55 IST
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India should strive to establish itself as a pole in a multi-polar world consisting of a G-3 or G-4 -- including itself and the European Union -- instead of being a satellite to a sinking America, says Rajeev Srinivasan.

The 'Strategic Dialogue' between India and the United States certainly sounds important. The question is whether there is any substance behind the rhetoric. Going by past history, it is likely that this will be yet another false dawn in Indo-US relations.

An incisive analyst, Brahma Chellaney, summed up Indian scepticism on Twitter: 'The US has realised the simple way to keep Indians happy: An occasional ego-massage. After (United States President Barack) Obama's eulogy, Indians will stay content for a while.'

It is true that the oratory emanating from the Obama administration -- both from Under Secretary for Political Affairs William Burns and from President Obama himself -- has been honeyed. But then pretty speechifying is Obama's forte. However, there isn't any steak behind the sizzle: Just two weeks ago, the US silently acquiesced to the Chinese giving Pakistan, with no strings attached, a nuclear deal as good as the 'deal' India got at great strategic cost to itself.

Further, Indians have not forgotten that India's prime minister was not in the list of twenty world leaders Obama telephoned after his accession to the presidency; there was the plan to make Richard Holbrooke a mediator on Kashmir; the appointment of Ellen Tauscher, arch-non-proliferation ayatollah and harsh critic of India, as under-secretary for arms control; and most of all, the hard-to-defend hedging on letting Indian officials interrogate (Pakistani American Lashkar-e-Tayiba operative) David Coleman Headley, one of the alleged conspirators in the 26 Mumbai attacks.

There are plenty of large reasons why the hurrahs about an alleged Indo-US rapprochement are premature. First, even the Bush-era friendship was narrowly focused -- Indian leaders, for unknown reasons, plumped for a hard-to-justify nuclear-based energy future. The Indian eagerness was exploited by the Americans to straitjacket New Delhi into non-proliferation regimes that severely constrain its strategic options.

Second, the other Bush objective, to build India up as a counterweight to a rampant China, fell by the wayside with the Obamistas' clear preference for a G2, suggesting that a China-US duopoly is inevitable, and conceding to China the role of hegemon in Asia, the Indian Ocean, and the western Pacific Ocean and, explicitly, in the Indian subcontinent.

Third, Obama has stated unequivocally that he intends to cut and run from Afghanistan. He believes he needs a Pakistani fig leaf to claim victory in the face of a humiliating defeat and a headlong retreat like Saigon in 1975. Therefore, he leans on India to give 'concessions' to Pakistan. It costs him nothing.

Fourth, there is a history of American duplicity. American promises of eternal, undying love are pure theatrics. Bitter experiences with reneging on treaty obligations for fuel for the Tarapur atomic plant, a slew of nuclear treaties such as the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty, etc -- all aimed at India in particular -- and the decades-old acceptance of Chinese nuclear proliferation to Pakistan, suggest American bad faith.

Fifth, the fundamental premise behind an Indo-US relationship is flawed. There is an underlying assumption that the world will remain unipolar and American-dominated, with at best China being a secondary, less appealing second pole, and that therefore it is incumbent on India to align with the US lest it be left out in the cold.

The facts on the ground do not support this assumption. America is waning. Yes, it will continue to be the biggest world power for a while yet, but the US in 2050 will be much less dominant than in 1950. In 1950, America bestrode the world like a colossus, intact in a World-War II-ravaged world. In 2050, China and India will be nipping at its heels.

India can never ally with imperialist China, which seeks to dominate Asia, if not the world. They leave no room for a rival, and systematically undermine all potential competitors. It appears that, after a series of reverses, it has dawned on the US that the alleged G2 -- although favored by unreconstructed cold-warriors like Zbigneiw Brezezinski and apologists for empire like Niall Ferguson -- is of greater advantage to China than to itself.

This may explain the sudden interest in India by the Obamistas. The Democrats' natural instinct is intensely anti-India. This is standard 'liberal' hypocrisy, wherein they pay lip service to democracy and freedom and other motherhood, but secretly admire fascist thugs, despots and dictators like those in China, Pakistan and Iran -- all targets of Obamista overtures.

There is also the pragmatic reason that India's economy is growing rapidly. Much like the 19th century Britons, Americans seek markets. China, the other large market, is difficult, and extracts its pound of flesh, as seen in Google's troubles. Especially as India will invest in buying armaments, aircraft and other big-ticket items where the US still has a competitive edge, it is a tempting market. That is good for the US.

But these are not reasons for India to ally itself with the US. In fact, there has been little improvement in scientific, technical or other ties. The Indian space effort remains cut off by law from most of America's technology. In other ways too, India is treated as a pariah by the US government, on par with dangerous, failing states. There is also the perennial litmus test -- when will the US unambiguously endorse India for a veto-holding permanent seat in the UN Security Council?

No relationship can survive when the benefits are one-sided. Therefore, India will be better off not tying itself to a waning power, at a time when it is itself on the rise. An America beset with financial problems, with receding self-confidence, and with the Gulf oil-spill as metaphor for its decline, is not worth allying with. At least, not unless India gets concrete, and massive, benefits in return. Time favours India.

There is no point in being a satellite to a sinking, unreliable America -- instead, India should strive to establish itself as a pole in a multi-polar world consisting of, perhaps, a G3 or G4 -- including itself and the European Union.

Better to live two days as a tiger than two hundred years as a sheep, like Tipu Sultan is supposed to have said.

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Rajeev Srinivasan