Too close for comfort

AS PRIME Minister Dr Manmohan Singh begins his visit to Washington, a key question is how far he will take the Indo-US "strategic partnership", which now comes attached with an additional attraction namely, Washington’s offer to "help India become a world power in the 21st century". Crucial here is the "new framework" for defence relations recently signed by the two governments. This has raised a controversy in India, attracted the Left’s ire, alienated liberals, and caused unease in the ruling United Progressive Alliance.

By Praful Bidwai

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Published: Sun 17 Jul 2005, 9:59 AM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 3:14 PM

Will the framework be fleshed out through specified agreements, following Singh’s visit? Or will it remain a mere statement of intentions, whether genuine or coerced, from the Indian side?

Going by the UPA’s original promise to correct foreign policy imbalances introduced by the Vajpayee government, the so-called framework should be jettisoned. Last year, the UPA reaffirmed India’s traditional commitment to a multipolar international order in place of the NDA’s obsession with an exclusive, subordinate partnership with the US.

The UPA’s Common Minimum Programme said: "Even as it pursues closer engagement with the US [and the European Union, Russia, etc.], the UPA will maintain the independence of India’s foreign policy on all regional and global issues".

The framework is a long, long departure from this. It will fetter India from taking independent action in international affairs. One needn’t be national-chauvinist or rabidly anti-American to say this.

The framework commits India to joint military operations with the US, without United Nations authorisation. These could be similar to those launched by the US-led coalition in Iraq. The London bombings are a ghastly reminder of the possible consequences.

The framework’s objectives include "defeating terrorism, preventing the spread of Weapons of Mass Destruction, and protecting the free flow of commerce". India doubtless has an interest in "defeating terrorism". But here, the US is often part of the problem, not the solution. Washington’s actions aggravate grievances which feed terrorism. Besides, Washington relies on that ultimate form of terror, WMDs, for security.

The US arrogates to itself the right to decide when and where WMDs become a threat. Yesterday, this happened in Iraq; tomorrow, equally falsely, it might be in Iran. Again, India has never advocated promotion of "free commerce" by military means, or subordinated trade to sovereign rights.

The framework’s emphasis on collaborative "multinational operations" reflects America’s unilateralism, but goes against India’s multilateralism. It asks the US and India to strengthen military capabilities "to promote security, and combat [WMD] proliferation". They will have a defence strategy dialogue and intelligence exchanges. This spells joint expeditions. But the US always demands total control over joint operations: there’s only one finger on the trigger.

A US official recently explained joint operations’ rationale in a closed-door Delhi briefing: "The worst outcome for Washington is an Asia from which we are excluded". The key challenge for the US, he said, is to prevent any other power from dominating a given region. "If I were China I’d be working on kicking the US out of Asia. Right now, we have a lot of alliances but no architecture embedding us in Asia."

India is the anchor through which Washington would embed itself, and counter China. It also wants to control the Malacca Straits through India. But India will court the hostility of Indonesia and Malaysia, which oppose external forces.

Jointly preventing the "spread of WMDs" will mean Indian participation in the Western-dominated Proliferation Security Initiative to intercept WMD-related shipments at sea illegally. This will produce conflicts with China, Iran, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Even worse is Clause 4J, under which the two states "assist in building worldwide capacity to conduct successful peacekeeping operations, [and enable] other countries to field forces for these." It takes no intelligence to understand that the likely locus of these operations is Iraq. Indian solders can become cannon fodder for America, besides training Iraqi army.

The US has long eyed India’s military manpower and wants to recruit it as pawns in its global operations — the way the British-Indian army expanded the empire into the Middle East and Afghanistan. This is no fanciful speculation. The Indo-US Military Relationship: Expectations and Perceptions, a 2002 Pentagon-commissioned report, details US leaders’ perception of military cooperation with India, based on 80 in-depth interviews.

It concludes: Washington seeks a competent military partner that can take on more responsibility for low-end operations such as peace-keeping, search and rescue, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief which will allow the US military to concentrate on high-end fighting missions. It also quotes senior US military officers as saying that India will be co-opted to counter the Chinese strategic threat.

Similar arguments have been advanced by Empire’s apologists like Niall Ferguson on the basis of parallels with the 1917-20 British invasion of Iraq. Ferguson says Britain needed 130,000 troops to subdue Iraq. Then, Iraq’s population was three million. To ‘stabilise’ today’s 24 million-strong Iraq, the US minimally needs one million troops. (It has only 138,000.)

So Ferguson exhorts: recruit more US troops, accelerate citizenship for soldier-immigrants, or send Condoleezza Rice to Delhi!

This will turn the Indian Army into a mercenary force. In recompense, the US is offering unappetising carrots: support for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council; armaments sales; and collaboration on missile defence.

It’s not clear that India will manage to enter the Security Council, even without a veto. The only concrete US arms offer is the 1970s-generation F-16 warplane. Its appropriateness for India is doubtful. It doesn’t dovetail into existing weapons platforms and will entail huge expenses. The only beneficiary will be the manufacturer. Co-production is only a promise. The US rarely transfers technology even to its closest allies.

India rightly opposes ballistic missile defence because it’ll undermine nuclear deterrence, cause greater global insecurity, and militarise space. Jaswant Singh wrongly welcomed Washington’s BMD plans in 2001 without a mandate.

The UPA must repudiate Singh and scrap the entire framework unless it wants India turned into an US client, with greatly eroded autonomy, dignity and security.

Praful Bidwai is a veteran Indian journalist and commentator

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