17 March 2005

Rice brings reality check on India-U.S. ties

Date:17/03/2005 http://www.thehindu.com/2005/03/17/stories/2005031707951100.htm

Opinion - News Analysis

Rice brings reality check on India-U.S. ties

By Siddharth Varadarajan

NEW DELHI, MARCH 16. In publicly expressing her concerns about the Iran-India gas pipeline during her press conference here on Wednesday, the visiting United States Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, made it clear that India's energy security and the Indo-U.S. "strategic partnership" will matter less to Washington than its policy of isolating and undermining the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Dr. Rice also dropped a broad hint that the Indian aspiration for a greater role in international affairs would be better served not through reform of the United Nations — and a permanent seat in the Security Council — but through ad hoc U.S.-led multilateral initiatives such as the controversial and short-lived "core group" set up by Washington in the wake of last year's tsunami.

Two key issues

For the first time since India and the U.S. inaugurated their "strategic partnership," then, it is evident that on the two key issues animating policymakers here — energy security and a greater role for India in a multipolar world — Washington is keen on defining the rules and setting the limits and that there is little congruence of interest.

While both India and the U.S. agree that today's world is no longer the world of 1945, the change that each country perceives is radically different. New Delhi sees the rise of a number of new powers, itself included, who need to be accommodated in a formal power structure. Washington, however, sees only the rise of its own strength, untrammelled by the presence of any rival power. India wants the U.N. Security Council to reflect the change that it believes has occurred. But the Bush administration believes the U.N. system has to be reformed to accommodate the reality of U.S. power and that if this does not happen, the U.N. itself will be made irrelevant.

Thus, Dr. Rice noted at her joint press conference with External Affairs Minister Natwar Singh: "So, we will continue to talk with people about Security Council reform, reform of the U.N. but clearly we also note that there have been great changes in the world and that international institutions are going to have to start to accommodate them in some way."

Asked point-blank whether the U.S. supported the Security Council's expansion and a permanent seat for India, Dr. Rice stonewalled, saying the world was still at the "beginning of the reforms process." She then said: "I was really quite interested in the fact that when we had the tsunami cooperation which was a kind of ad hoc arrangement for a while to respond to the immediate needs of the tsunami, India was able, I am told, to mobilise its ships and go to sea in about 48 hours. That is extraordinary and that shows that India's potential is very great to help resolve humanitarian and other needs of the world."

The fact is that India mobilised its ships even before being invited by the U.S. to join its "core group." And it was left to Mr. Natwar Singh to explain that India's contribution to humanitarian relief, especially peacekeeping, went back many decades.

If Iran is going to be to the second Bush administration what Iraq was to the first then it is more than likely that Dr. Rice's message on the pipeline will be repeated often, and more forcefully.

India-Iran ties

Until now, Washington has accepted India's friendship with Iran as an irritant which could be ignored. India's recent acceptance of the pipeline proposal has altered the equation dramatically. For the better part of two decades, successive administrations have attempted to isolate the Iranian hydrocarbon sector through the imposition of sanctions on companies which invest in large projects in that country. When the Central Asian oil and gas boom started in the 1990s, the U.S. effort has been to ensure the energy resources of the region transit westward through Turkey and the Mediterranean rather than southwards through Iran. The Iran-India pipeline would not only give a boost to the Iranian energy sector but also open up new possibilities for the export of oil and gas from the wider Caspian region. Neither outcome is desirable from Washington's point of view.

While it is hard to assess the contours of the proposed "energy dialogue" between India and the U.S. that Dr Rice mentioned, this is unlikely to go beyond the scope of the discussions already under way on the civilian nuclear sector within the framework of the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership (NSSP). However, with the second phase of the NSSP nearing completion, it is already apparent that the U.S. domestic laws and international commitments (such as its membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group) impose very real constraints on any significant collaboration in this field.

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