Emerging trends in US policy towards South Asia

Indian Defence Review | Jan 1, 2000

India is likely to be viewed as a potential challenge and an area of conflicting interests in the twenty-first century by US policy planners, even though it may never be formally recognized as an emerging threat. India, while welcoming enhanced US interest in South Asia, should simultaneously pursue strategic ties with Russia and, in future, with China to counterbalance likely US pressures in the nuclear and missile fields.

Recent Developments

A the end of the first year of President Clinton’s second term, it is clear from the administration’s security and economic agenda that South Asia !s acquiring greater importance in US foreign policy “thinking and the region is likely to be accorded a higher priority than has been the case since the end of the Cold War.

Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright and Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, Karl Inderfurth, visited India and Pakistan in 1997. President Clinton has announced his plans to tour the Indian subcontinent In 1998. The US State Department exhibited immense keenness to ensure that Prime Minister Inder Gujral’s meeting with President Clinton during the United Nations General Assembly session in October 1997 was a warm and friendly one. This meeting may have set the tone for the line of approach that US foreign policy in the region may take over the next few years and into the first decade of the new millennium. In his State of the Union address on 28 January 1998, President Clinton expressed a desire to make India and Pakistan “partners” in Asia in the coming decades. Clearly, a new approach is on the cards.

Much of the current thinking is based on the recent study by the Council on Foreign Relations, a reputed Washington think-tank of scholars and retired diplomats. In its report entitled “A New US Policy Toward India and Pakistan, Report of an Independent Task Force sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations, 1997”, the Council’s Task Force has called for, “engagement based on expanded links, rather than on the constricting sanctions currently in place”. The Task Force is in favour of “expanded economic, military and political ties with India and Pakistan to end American neglect of a fifth of humanity and yield significant dividends in bilateral, regional and global terms”. Some of the specific measures recommended by the Council’s Task Force are as under.

  • The various sanctions imposed on the South Asian countries should be discontinued, including the Pressler Amendment.
  • The US should stop pressing India and Pakistan to roll back their nuclear programme and, instead, concentrate on discouraging them from exporting nuclear-weapons-related material, technology or expertise to other countries.
  • The removal of sanctions should be accompanied by the resumption of assistance including limited conventional arms sales while both the countries are persuaded to curtail their missiles programmes.
  • The US should acknowledge the growing power and importance of India and help India to join APEC and, possibly, an expanded G-7.
  • The US should extend credit for trade and investment to Pakistan and help the country to reduce her debt burden, reform her tax, electoral and development mechanisms and support her modernization and social welfare programmes.
  • The US should maintain channels of communication with Pakistan’s armed forces, particularly by resuming training facilities.
  • The US should launch a low-key initiative to reduce tensions over Kashmir.

The rationale given by the Council’s Task Force in India’s case is that it has the potential to become a major power and hence should be cultivated to promote stability across Asia. The Task Force recommends a comprehensive and open-ended relationship, one that “acknowledges India’s growing power of importance” in Asia — a relationship that might evolve in time into a full or quasi alliance. Pakistan is seen to deserve attention because it has the potential to become a “failed state” which would be a threat to regional and even global peace.

Initial Reactions and Analysis

The Pakistanis are fulminating against the priority given to India for its perceived potential to emerge as a full-fledged major power. The Task Forces recommendations are being viewed in Pakistan as a prestigious private group’s call for a US strategic tilt towards India and “the post-Cold War drift of the United States that threatens Pakistan with yet further isolation”. The Indian press and intelligentsia have expressed reservations on the concept of nuclear parity with Pakistan and on Kashmir being continued to be treated as disputed. However, enhanced Us ‘interest in trade and investment has been almost universally welcomed, except by some die-hard PS who refuse to see the futility of pursuing the Path of socialism as a viable one for achieving the goals of development.

The positive aspects of these developments from India’s point of view are as under.

  • The Task Force report admits to the long-standing relative US neglect of India and Pakistan and the fifth of humanity they represent.
  • It calls for South Asia to be given a foreign policy priority and urges that ‘this policy should be given a more broadly conceived agenda than in the past.
  • It concedes that the US cannot succeed in reversing the de facto nuclear weapons status of India and Pakistan.
  • It calls for a closer strategic relationship with India based on shared values and institutions and enhanced trade and investment with the goal of “regional stability across Asia”
  • It urges the US Government to “adopt a declaratory policy that acknowledges India’s growing power and importance” and recommends the loosening of “unilateral US constraints upon the transfer of dual-use technologies”.
  • It calls for increased cooperation, military-to-military, as also on the civilian nuclear programme.
  • It calls for US support for India’s entry into APEC.

Those aspects of the projected policy changes, which are unlikely to find acceptance or support in India, are as under.

  • The document recommends Indo-Pak parity on non: and has evolved the concept of “sustainable plateau” for Indo-Pak nuclear relations. This would mean “persuading both countries to refrain from testing nuclear explosives deploying nuclear weapons and exporting nuclear, weapons or missile-related materials technology or expertise.” The Council also advocates that the US should restrain the two countries from missile deployment. Such a move would be detrimental to India’s security interests as both China and Pakistan possess surface-to-surface missiles (SSMs) as well as nuclear weapons and India must willy-nilly take all steps necessary to counter the threat posed by them.
  • The document labels Kashmir as a disputed area but concedes that the US Government does not have much leverage on the issue and that the time is not ripe for a major US initiative. It recommends a step by step approach rather than “final status” objectives. This approach has been elaborated to include promotion of autonomy in Kashmir and to work with the Europeans and others to form an international contact group to “encourage military pullbacks between India and Pakistan in this region”. This ignores four and a half decades of history and the relatively intransigent attitudes which have been developed due to electoral politics in both the countries.
  • In what is obviously a naive recommendation, the Council suggests that the US should assist the Pakistan military so that the Pakistan Army can “support the development of a more firmly rooted democratic political system”. In the view of the Indian intelligentsia, it remains a matter of concern that US policymakers and scholars consistently fail to see that the more they support the Pakistan Army, the greater is its stranglehold over the polity. With the setting up of the Committee on Defence and National Security (CDNS) in Pakistan in early 1997, this stranglehold has been considerably strengthened. Also, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s apparently sincere efforts to improve relations with India have been effectively scuttled by the Pakistan Army by raising the ante along the Line of Control (LC) in Kashmir. It is clear that in Pakistan, the Army continues to call the shots. US support can only embolden the generals still further.

While rightly, urging that the US shift from a policy of nuclear rollback to a policy of nuclear restraint in South Asia, the recommendations of the Task Force ignore an extremely vital dimension of global nuclear arms control. The Task Force has failed to recognize, or has ignored, the reluctance of the US to link its efforts to promote nuclear restraint in South Asia with parallel efforts to promote the reduction and eventual elimination of the nuclear stockpiles of the five existing nuclear powers. Without such a linkage, nuclear restraint in South Asia cannot possibly be achieved.

Within the US itself, the report of the Council’s Task Force has received mixed reactions. While most US scholars, academics and Congressmen nave welcomed the central theme of the report calling for greater American recognition of the growing importance of South Asia, there have been many dissenting views, particularly regarding the Council’s policy recommendations relating to nuclear and missile issues.

Francine R. Frankel, Selig S. Harrison, Sumit Ganguly, Stephen Solarz and Raju G. C. Thomas have asserted in a dissenting note that the Council Task Force’s proposal to allow limited government-to-government sales of arms to Pakistan “presumably on other than commercial terms… to forestall other potentially unwelcome military relationships and to diminish Pakistan’s incentives to fall back on nuclear weapons… are uncomfortably reminiscent of the 1954 military assistance agreement between Pakistan and the United States. It is also stretching credulity to assert that military sale of conventional equipment would cause Pakistan to draw back from its nuclear weapons programme, since the greatest advances by Pakistan towards nuclear capability were made during the period of the largest US arms sales, during the 1980s.”

George Perkovich is also strongly against military sales to Pakistan. He states that, “The greatest threat to Pakistani security today is internal, not external. It stems from the corruption and thoroughgoing cynicism of Pakistan’s ruling elite and its unwillingness to reform the basic institutions and policies governing the political economy. The United States … should not delude itself that advanced weaponry can contribute significantly to solving Pakistan’s problems and serving the US interests associated with them.”

While disagreeing with the Task Force’s recommendation to organize an international “contact group” focussed on easing tensions and friction and on the establishment of political normalcy in Kashmir as it is likely to be seen as a “pressure group” by both India and Pakistan, Paul H. Kreisberg states that, “The report would be on far stronger ground if it focussed on the desirability of encouraging an international effort to promote greater economic cooperation between India and Pakistan on issues such as energy infrastructure, including oil and gas, and in encouraging international private investors in both countries to urge the importance of working towards opening regional markets as a means of building common interests that might over time help to ease political tensions.”

Historically, in their second term, US Presidents are known to have played larger roles in the global arena than in their first term. In his State of the Union address in January 1997, President Clinton outlined a six-point foreign affairs agenda: to help build an undivided, democratic Europe; to look to the East no less than to the West; to expand American exports, especially to Asia and Latin America: to continue an unrelenting fight for peace (in all the world’s flash points); to continue to move strongly against threats of terrorism and to maintain a strong military capability. Clearly, the emphasis is on safeguarding American trade interests. The desire for peace and stability stems primarily from the need to promote unfettered trade and commerce.

According of a higher priority to the South Asian region also needs to be viewed in this context. However, when the US states that it wishes to be “strategically engaged with a region, it also implies a degree of manipulative control as in the” case of China where the term “constructive engagement’ is a skilfully packaged euphemism for the desire for ‘containment’. The growing economic power and nuclear and missile capability of India is possibly a serious cause for concern for the US in the long term. India is likely to be viewed as a potential challenge and an area of conflicting interests in the twenty-first century by US policy planners, even though it may never be formally recognized as an emerging threat. For strategists and policy planners in India, it would be prudent to be aware of and anticipate such US thinking.

Contours of a Possible Indian Response

Enhanced US interest in South Asia is likely to be welcomed at the diplomatic and political levels as a positive development which augurs well for the economic well-being of India as also regional security. Stability in the Indian Ocean region is a common interest. Cooperation in the civilian nuclear programme and loosening of controls on dual-use technologies are also positive developments and overtures in this regard would be beneficial for India. However, it would he prudent to assume that cutting-edge technologies, including the latest supercomputers, will continue to remain unavailable and it would be in India’s interest to maintain its strong commitment to the achievement of self-sufficiency, particularly in weapons technology, in the face of the stiff technology control regimes mandated by the nuclear weapons states.

Increased military-to-military cooperation with the US is in the interest of the Indian armed forces as India has.a lot to gain by way of training courses and seminars on emerging issues and subjects such as information warfare, C4l2 and Special Forces operations. US interest is likely to be primarily in glacier warfare, UN peacekeeping and the Indian Army experience in Low-Intensity Conflict (LIC). It should be possible to share our experience in these areas with US personnel without compromising security.

US attempts to dissuade India from following an independent, national interests-based policy line on nuclear weapons and surface-to-surface missiles will need to be firmly resisted and India’s geo-strategic compulsions emphasized. India’s willingness to accept virtual isolation in the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty negotiations underscores its national policy consensus on this issue. India is unlikely to abandon its nuclear option as long as a clear and unequivocal time-bound commitment to eliminate nuclear weapons is not made by other nuclear powers, particularly China. The non-ratification of the Chemical Weapons Treaty and the possible non-ratification of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty by the US and other major powers could be used as bargaining counters by India.

The US political leaders and policy-makers could be apprised discreetly of the numerous disadvantages of their continued support to the Pakistan Army Including the resumption of conventional weapons sales. Such support would be counterproductive in the long term, as was the case in Iran in the 1960s and early 1970s. Besides, it may contribute indirectly to fundamentalist Islamic resurgence. Also, it is quite likely that, as in the past, US military equipment will be used to help arm Kashmiri militants and will lead to the further escalation of the conflict in the region. US proclivity to play the role of a mediator in Kashmir, though denied publicly, should continue to be discouraged.

India, while welcoming enhanced US interest in South Asia, should simultaneously pursue strategic ties with Russia and, in future, with China to counterbalance likely US pressures in the nuclear and missile fields. In the Colonel Pyare Lal Memorial Lecture at the United Service Institution, New Delhi recently, Professor Stephen Cohen hinted at the likelihood of an Indo-US strategic alliance to counterbalance China’s growing influence in the Asia-Pacific region, though he did express the view that at present such a strategic partnership is only a remote theoretical possibility. With Russia, India has traditionally had strong ties and President Boris Yeltsin’s offer of a strategic partnership during former Prime Minister Deve Gowda’s visit to Moscow was enthusiastically supported by the latter, though specifics of the proposed strategic alignment were not delineated.

Clearly, with its growing economic power and influence, India holds all the cards necessary to enable it to play a dominant part in the affairs of the Asia-Pacific region in what has been dubbed as the Asian Century.